In my experience, business cards are one of the most important and ubiquitous tools in the international business world. Custom business cards are used by men and women to market themselves and their companies, make contacts and practice formal corporate etiquette. And because they’re so often used in our current world, it can be hard to imagine a time when they weren’t. However, the first modern business cards actually weren’t around until the late 1800s and became widespread in the early 1900s – really not that long ago. Here’s how those business cards originated:
The beginning: Visiting cards
Most historians agree that the first practice of using cards as personal introductions began in the 15th century in China. These were called visiting cards, and they were used by men in the topmost aristocratic classes to announce their arrival in a town or specific establishment. Visiting cards were similar in size and shape to playing cards, and as they became more prevalent, people began to customize their designs with crests and flourishes. Visiting cards made their way to Europe and became widespread by the 1700s, when both men and women in the upper class began using them.
The etiquette of calling cards
Throughout the 18th and 19th century in Europe, visiting cards, which were more commonly called calling cards at the time, began to take on specific etiquette rules. Every upper-class household had a card tray in their foyer or hall. Visitors would be greeted by a servant who held the tray in his or her left hand, and they’d place their personal card in the tray. Then, the lady of the household would look at the card and decide whether to meet with the visitor.
Visitors could fold their card in certain ways to send messages to the lady or leave small notes – commonly in Latin. The cards were generally kept in the card tray, but it also became commonplace to keep certain ones – like those with notes for Christmas or congratulations – in scrapbooks. In fact, this is how the practice of giving holiday cards and other greeting cards emerged.
Calling cards weren’t the only thing that came from visiting cards. In the 17th century in England, trade cards became an important part of society as well. Trade cards were used by businesses as advertisements and often had intricate designs along with directions to the store or business. These cards grew in popularity alongside calling cards – one was used for business and the other used for socializing. Then, in the 19th century, the two functions were merged into one card: the business card.
The first modern business cards
Industrialization in England followed by the Industrial Revolution in America prompted the creation of the first business cards. Now that the working class was growing and becoming a much larger part of society, businessmen and women needed a way to introduce themselves to each other. Business cards typically had much simpler designs than trade cards and were printed on thick stock. The industrialization that was occurring in Europe and America blurred the lines between formality and informality, and business cards were often handed out during social functions as well as business meetings.
Personal business cards
Though there are some etiquette rules associated with the cards (like only handing them out with your left hand and refraining from writing anything on them), the business tool is becoming much less formal. In fact, these days, personal business cards are just as widespread as company business cards. Personal custom business cards can be any size, shape or color, and some industries even prefer creative business cards over formal ones.