The History of the Business Card

tradecard_1Business CardHidden behind other cards, these small cards usually sit in your wallet for weeks on end, only to appear when you have met someone you would like to share your contact details with, either a business acquaintance or a potential client. Deemed as inconsequential pieces of paper, business cards have a long established history, which most of us don’t appreciate in modern times.

Born in 17th century Europe, business cards were used to advertise and announce aristocratic people arriving in their town. Shaped similar to playing cards, they became well-used by the middle of the century by aristocrats or prosperous folk.

Techniques changed through time with cards becoming more luxurious and highly decorated with engraved gold and lavish fonts. The middle classes all had business cards; you were practically non-existent without one.

Homes had card trays specifically placed for callers to leave their cards. Ornate in construction, these trays became the norm. Any visitor would simply leave their card before departing.

In the 19th century, social cards were presented when visiting a house. The card tray was presented to the visitor and cards were placed in the tray as a matter of etiquette. The tray is then taken away to be delivered to the head lady of the house. She would examine the card to get a first impression of the visitor. The design and fold of the cards illustrated who the card was intended. Folded corners meant that the card is for a specific person of the house; folded in the centre meant that it was for all family members. There are also letterings on the card that held meaning. P/C stood for condolence call, P/F for a congratulatory visit. Cards were also used in trade meetings across the UK.

Formality changed in the industrial revolution. Visiting and trade cards merged, so cards were given out the same way in informal encounters as well as business meetings. The upper class had an aversion to informal cards. In the US, however, their use increased and became widespread.

Business card snobbery dissected in time. Etiquette had vanished, but some rules still apply today. Cards are not presented loose. There must be no writing on the card face and it must not be presented using the left hand.

Today’s business cards are expected to display the name of the card holder, title, company with which they are employed, and any relevant contact information such as mailing address, email address, and telephone numbers. A business logo is used for company cards, but some personal cards may have a personal logo as well. Traditionally, business cards are printed with black typeface onto white or ivory board. Modern business cards, depending on the professional background of the cardholder, are heavily designed, with some using a double-sided print to make use of the cards reverse for other company information.

Rob Steele is a freelance writer. He writes about the web, graphic design, and pop up exhibition stands for