Most of us exchange business cards without much thought to the practice’s origins. Throughout history, businesses have always relied on advertising to bring in new customers, whether it’s oral, print, or digital. Business cards didn’t creep up magically in the 1980’s. So, when did they start to take precedence?
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The origins of the business card can be traced back to China in the 15th century, initially known as visiting cards; visiting cards were used as a calling card to announce one’s intention of paying a visit or entering an elite establishment. These cards made it possible for the owner or master of the house to decide if they wanted to grant the visitor welcome. In many ways, visiting cards were a first impression, a modern day advertisement.
By the 17th century in Europe, aristocratic men and women were using calling cards when paying visits; while most were the size of a playing cards, some were more ornate and used woodblock designs. Eventually, engraving with gold and including an array of typefaces become more common. The proper etiquette famous during reign of Louis XIV is considered to be the calling card heyday, where an individual’s success started with their personal promotion.
In the late 17th century, London merchants began to use ‘trade cards’ as street numbers were not in common use. Thus, trade cards were the primary way to keep a customer informed; usually, they would be handed out in public markets and squares. A signed card was considered a legal contract between businesses or persons. By the 19th century, calling cards were not just for the wealthy—everyone began to use them as a way to advertise personally and professionally.
Of course, it is important not to overlook the intimacy of calling cards during the 17th and 18th centuries, as it was a strict procedure for men to use calling cards to court a lady; a card was to be given each lady of the house. If a card was fold down the middle, it implied the card was meant for the entire household. While men often carried their cards loosely, it was protocol for a woman to carry a card case.
It was not until the invention of lithographic printing in the 19th century that made printing color on business cards possible. Rigid social etiquette decreased after the Industrial Revolution, which blurred the lines between social calling and business promotions, leading to the business card as the leading professional accessory we know today.