Adelaide Magnolia Letter 12 – Bath and Social Calls


Roman Baths and Abbey, IV, Bath, England. Photochrome print reproduction. ca 1890 and ca 1900. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Bath, England is a city located in the southwest of the country and is famous for its Roman baths and stunning Georgian architecture. The city has a rich history that dates back to Roman times. The Romans built the first elaborate buildings for public bathing around 60 AD for wealthy Romans seeking to indulge in the naturally occurring hot springs that could be found there. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the city fell into disrepair, but it was revived in the 17th century when it became fashionable for the wealthy to visit Bath to 'take the waters.' In other words, they believed the water from the hot springs could cure whatever was ailing them.

The Royal Crescent in Bath. Thomas Malton 1780. Public Domain.

During the Georgian era, Bath underwent a significant transformation. Princess Anne visited Bath frequently, and continued to do so even after becoming queen. She was attempting to ease her discomfort as she suffered from gout. Her visits brought other royal and illustrious guests to the city. This, along with the rise of the middle class, led to a building boom in Bath, with many elegant Georgian townhouses, public buildings, and landmarks being constructed. The city's most famous architect, John Wood the Elder, was responsible for much of this development, including the iconic Royal Crescent, a row of 30 terraced homes laid out in a wide curve, rather than along a traditional straight avenue.

As the city grew, it became a center for socializing and entertainment, attracting the wealthiest and most influential people in society. For much of the 18th and early 19th centuries it was the center of society, second only to London. Bath's Assembly Rooms, which opened in 1771, became a hub for high society, hosting concerts, balls, and other events. Visitors to Bath could also enjoy the theater, which was frequented by many famous actors of the time.

Today, Bath remains a popular tourist destination, attracting millions of visitors annually. In fact, that number is over six million each year! Though visitors can still visit the roman baths, they cannot swim in them because the water is unsafe to enter, but there are other places to partake of the mineral hot springs. Both the remains of the Roman architecture and the Georgian era re-development have been well preserved. In 1987 Bath became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, solidifying its cultural and historical significance.

Etiquette of Social Calls

Illustration in Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, 1896. Illustrated by Hugh Thomson. Image courtesy of National Library of Poland

By the beginning of the 19th century in England, the etiquette surrounding social calls were deeply engrained in society. But as someone reading about the rules surrounding this social custom it can be confusing to understand. Here are some of the basic rules and etiquette of making a social visit:

  • Social connections were made and strengthened through making “morning calls”
  • Visit were typically made between those in the same social class
  • Until a formal visit was made, families could not socialize with one another
  • More established members of a neighborhood would take it upon themselves to visit newer members, and once the man of the house performed introductions for the women they could then socialize
  • When social visits were made, it was popular and common to use calling cards, a small card with one’s name, place of residence, and sometimes the “at-home” days when they could be visited
  • Calling cards would be taken to the mistress of the house, who would then determine whether to admit the caller or not. Cards could also be left, without requesting a visit, to let the master and mistress know the person was open to a social relationship.
  • If the mistress informed the caller, via a servant, that she was “not at home,” this was a rejection. However, if the caller received a reciprocal card from the mistress this was an indication to the caller that they were open to a visit at another time or furthering their acquaintance.
  • In London, women paid morning calls to her equals in social status, or her inferiors. She would wait to call upon her superiors until they had called on her or they left a card.
  • Morning calls lasted no more than 20 minutes and were actually made in the afternoon from about 1-4 pm.
  • Social calls were made to the woman of the house in the drawing or morning room, where business calls were made to the man of the house in their library or study
  • Ladies were not to call upon a gentleman in their lodgings
  • Common curtesy was to return morning calls the next day or as soon as possible
  • Sunday social calls were reserved for very close friends and family

Outside of the rules surrounding the actual social call, there were also social norms concerning one’s behavior, dress, and what the conversation should be during the visits. If one was not careful or was not familiar with the etiquette involved it would be very easy to make a hapless faux pas!

Learn the Vernacular:

Setting her cap at: to pursue someone romantically, usually with an eye towards marriage

“Not at home”: a phrase used when the household was not receiving visitors

Pump rooms: a building adjacent to the Roman Baths, which water is pumped from for visitors to drink

Take the waters: drinking the warm mineral spring water, thought to make one healthy