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name card / name-card

A piece of pasteboard bearing a person’s name, left in lieu of or accompanying a formal, social, or business visit. — Webster, 1882

To Ladies. This office is in receipt of an elegant line of calling cards, plain or fancy, and samples can be seen by calling. These cards are the very latest. Styles and prices to suit all tastes– 30 to 80 cents for 25 printed cards, according to quality. [1883]

What Laura Ingalls called name cards were also known as calling cards or visiting cards. A practice older than America, the presentation of a small, shaped piece of pasteboard on which was printed, engraved, or written a person’s name, served as a request for an in-person meeting between two individuals who may – or may not – already be acquainted. You left a card at the home of a person you wanted to meet or visit with. If they were at home and wished to visit with you, you were admitted. If they weren’t at home, you might write on your own card when you would be at home to receive them, or leave a card specially printed with that information. Cards were left to express sympathy or congratulations or holiday greetings. Cards left by callers were displayed in a special place near the door, often on a small silver tray. The card of a prominent person might be left in plain sight on the top of cards in the tray so that other visitors could see it. They were the text message of the day; you could answer if you wanted further communication or ignore if you didn’t. They were the Facebook equivalent of having your friend request accepted. The type of lettering and quality or kind of printing, the weight and color of the cardstock, and the detail or lack of ornamentation were symbols of status in much the way having the latest cellphone is conveyed today.

How calling cards were used historically in high society followed strict rules of etiquette which were outlined in books on proper manners and deportment (such as THIS ONE, from 1883). They were a “back east” practice that brought a level of sophistication to the pioneer towns, but Laura and her friends seem to have relaxed the rules about using them only when visiting a person’s home; they merely exchanged them as one swaps their yearbook photo with friends today.

Name cards on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home & Museum in Mansfield include ones belonging to Ida B. Wright (hand-written), Nellie Owens, and Alma Ingalls (Laura’s cousin). Other cards noticed on display include those of Lansford N. Ingalls, Mrs. E. A. Ingalls (Laura’s aunt Eliza), and Peter F. Ingalls. It’s interesting to note that Cousin Lansford and Cousin Peter both had name cards that were not the narrower, wider cards usually suggested for men, and their cards are both flowered, not plain – as Almanzo’s was said to be. Although period etiquette books state that the use of “Miss” should always preface the name of an unmarried woman on her calling card, Laura and her friends don’t seem to have followed that rule. Laura’s card described in Little Town on the Prairie is printed “Laura Elizabeth Ingalls” and Mary Power’s card reads simply “Mary Power.”

The name card engraved with “Laura E. Wilder” shown above is one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s own calling cards. It was left during a call on Neta Seal in Mansfield. The rose card peeping out beneath it isn’t Laura’s but is the same design as her card on display in Mansfield, which has also been reproduced in Laura’s Album (1998), see page 22. A entire chapter in Little Town on the Prairie is devoted to name cards, yet only a few lines in the manuscript, where Laura’s friends are exchanging name cards one morning, but Laura says she has forgotten hers and will bring them after lunch. The manuscript doesn’t describe any of the girls’ cards in detail, but in the published version, Laura’s name card is said to be “delicate pink, with a spray of pinker roses and blue cornflowers.” The card on display in Mansfield does have roses, but no blue flowers, and it reads “Laura E. Ingalls,” not her full name. It also pictures a scroll of paper (one rose stem pierced the scroll) on which appears a boat in the water at the foot of a tree, blue sky overhead. Could the card on display have belonged to Laura’s cousin by the same name?

Although Laura is introduced to name cards by Nellie Oleson in Little Town on the Prairie, Mary Power seems to have been the reason most of the girls ended up getting them. Mary’s sister, Susie, was engaged to Jake Hopp; it was he who printed the name cards at the Kingsbury County News office, probably on a small press specifically designed for that purpose. He must have known that all the girls would want whatever was “all the rage” back east. Although items printed in red, yellow, and blue ink in the early 1880s by the News have survived, plain or fancy calling card blanks were most likely ordered from a larger printing house capable of doing detailed color work. Each color used in a design was printed separately on large sheets of white or colored cardstock, run through the press multiple times as each color was added to the design – a process called chromolithography – and then the sheets were cut into individual cards. Salesmen sold or showed local printers small books or accordion-fold strips with sample cards pasted on them, printed not with a person’s name, but with the name of the design or the cost to purchase a certain number printed in that style (the printer would purchase the blanks at a discount). Either the printer kept a small supply of different cards in stock or allowed customers to look through his sample book and select the design they wanted. The salesman’s sample book shown here is in my collection. Mr. Hopp lined up lead type to spell the desired name and secured it in the press, inked the type, placed a blank card in the facing holder, and closed the press to print the name on the card.

Jake Hopp may have been the first, but other newspapers published in De Smet were quick to take on their share of the business in name cards. The Kingsbury County Independent (December 29, 1892) advertised: “Call at our office and we will show you the finest sample book of visiting cards and wedding stationary you ever saw.” The De Smet News advertised in December 1910 that “We print calling cards,” and the following year: “Calling cards neatly printed at News office. Special price on all orders received today and tomorrow.”



JUST FOR FUN. Little House enthusiasts have come up with some interesting calling cards or business cards to exchange with other Laura fans over the years. I’ve seen name cards with photos of Little House sites on them, one in which the name was done in counted cross stitch, cards in the shape of a bonnet or covered wagon, beaded cards, and a card in Braille.

In the classroom, one way for students to be able to exchange name cards is to have them make them as an art project. Provide blank cardstock (cut into 2.5 x 3 inch rectangles, if desired) which can be decorated using rubber stamps, stickers, decals, pictures cut from magazines, pen and ink. They can be plain or fancy; remember that Ida Wright’s card was simply her name written on a blank card, and it was just as treasured by Laura as Mary Power’s printed card. You can also create a sheet of calling card blanks with names in various fonts. Create a table with name card sized cells sized cells outlined in black cutting lines, then add names in some of them. Click HERE for a sample printable.


name card / name-card (LTP 16; THGY 10), see also Old English
     bobolink on Mary Power’s name card (LTP 16), see also bobolink
     love as a namecard motto (LTP 16)
     rose as a calling card design (LTP 16; THGY 10)