A Short History of Business Cards
I remember the first box of business cards I ever got. It was a few weeks into my first job out of college, and seeing my name in print made me feel official, like I was carving out my own little place in the professional world. It turns out that by using business cards, I was also joining the ranks of humanity who had followed the same social custom throughout history. For centuries, people from across the globe have been using essentially the same paper business cards that we use today.
The first recorded use of “visiting cards” was in 15th century China. Traders and wealthy businessmen used these early business cards to announce their intention to meet with another individual. Often, servants would collect the cards from prospective visitors, and businessmen would review the cards of the day to determine with whom they would meet.
In 17th century Europe, during the reign of the French King Louis XIV (r. 1643 to 1715), there was an explosion of “visiting card” use. What began as a method to announce royalty grew in popularity with the social elite throughout the century. The often ornate and highly decorative cards displayed just the name of the person. They were primarily used in social settings, complete with a sophisticated system of rules and etiquette to govern their use.
Meanwhile, “trade cards” were becoming a popular form of advertising in London, where the newspaper industry was just getting started. With no standard numbering system for streets, trade cards filled a gap by providing maps and directions to places of business.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the use of both visiting cards and trade cards grew, though they served distinct purposes and were accompanied by different social rituals.
The Industrial Era
With the rise of the middle class, a decrease in social formality, and more efficient modern printing techniques, visiting cards and trade cards eventually merged into the precursor to our modern business card. The “business card” became a must have item across both Europe and the United States. This shift, however, was not always smooth. Many in the upper class resisted this merger, creating awkward cultural and social divides.
The Modern Era
Throughout the 20th Century, business cards became the established norm for small businesses and corporate executives alike, their titles and designs often synonymous with power and prestige. This famous scene from American Psycho set in the late 1980’s highlights the attitude and culture surrounding business cards at the time. The rolodex or little black book became an irreplaceable resource that professionals carried from job to job.
As work continues to evolve, people are still using business cards, but more often than not, they are emailing, texting or connecting on social media as well. Also, in a return to 17th century practices, people are expressing a need for different cards for different purposes. A business person has a card for their core job but also wants a card for a side project or a volunteer role. At the same time, despite the explosion of social media, nothing is filling the role of the “calling cards” of earlier times to facilitate social introductions. Meeting someone informally either means writing their information on a scrap of paper or sending a quick text with the hope that they remember who the number belongs to. (Admit it, we all have those orphaned nameless numbers in our phones…)
As the centuries have turned and transportation has evolved from the horse-drawn carriage to the planes, trains and (self-driving) automobiles of today, the business card has remained relatively unchanged. However, in an increasingly digital world, the tradition of exchanging business cards will need to evolve. I will wager that when my three-year-old daughter graduates from college and gets her first “real” job, she will not be given business cards. She will probably already have her own unique digital calling card of some sort.