The History of Business Cards

Business cards are cards bearing business information about a company or individual. They are shared during formal introductions as a convenience and a memory aid. A business card typically includes the giver’s name, company or business affiliation and contact information such as street addresses, telephone numbers , e-mail addresses and website. Before the advent of electronic communication business cards might also include telex details.

The cornerstone of business stationary is the business card. Where did it come from, and why does it matter?

Visiting Cards

Believe it or not, business cards didn’t originate in business at all!  Most historians believe that they have their roots in visiting cards originally used in 15th century China as visiting cards. These cards were used by aristocrats and royalty to announce their arrival to their hosts.

These were essentially small cards that people would carry around with them, describing how awesome/interesting/important they were. A self-promotion brochure of sorts. If a person wanted to meet with another person, they would send a visiting card as a request to meet. People also used them when visiting an “elite establishment” in order to prove credentials before they were invited in.

By the middle of the 17th Century, these cards had reached the European elite. They were the size of a modern day playing card and were engraved, embossed and frequently included gold elements. Very specific etiquette surrounded the usage of these cards and they were used for all manner of social interactions – from business dealings to dating.

Trade Cards

It wasn’t long after calling cards were introduced when cards began to be used by businesses as well. Called trade cards, these cards were similar to modern business cards. A trade card was typically printed on both sides. They included information about the craftsman, his shop, and its location. However, because for many years the streets were not named, the backs of trade cards often contained written directions or maps to the store they were promoting!

Some of these trade cards were handwritten, but, as time went on, printed designs became more and more elaborate. Like today, a high quality trade card was used both as an advertising piece and a way to highlight the quality of a merchant’s products. Elaborate flat printed images were used to set trade cards apart. After lithography was invented, printers used it to add even more flair to business cards by adding color.

Trade Cards + Visiting Cards = Business Cards

As the formality of the 17th century gave way to the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, so did the lines between social and trade related interaction. People needed a way to introduce both themselves and their businesses. This lead to the business card.

Personal business cards grew out of these trade cards. Traditionally, business cards have been printed in black ink on white paper. However, like trade cards before them, eye-catching and creative business cards have been around for some time.

While trade cards and visiting cards have continued to exist, widespread use has not. The business card has evolved to replace both.

Where are business cards now? While some people might say that business cards are becoming less important due to the rise of digital technology, they certainly aren’t dead. According to Statistic Brain, there are 10 billion business cards printed every year. These modern business cards now feature high tech details like QR codes or online networking tools like social media addresses and website URLs.

While business cards have changed quite a bit since their origins as visiting cards, they are still an essential part of the way business professionals interact with each other.