Business Cards: A Brief History

Business cards have evolved through various cultures and forms to become the business necessity that they are today.

Early Business Cards: Trade Cards

Business cards began to be used by the London business community at the beginning of the 1600s. Businesses would circulate these “trade cards” to existing clients and potential customers. These progenitors of business cards usually featured maps or directions to a dealer’s business premises as there was no formalized address system in existence.

As the trade card grew in popularity, so too did the elegance of its design. With the advent of color printing on these early business cards, people began to collect them. Today, the word trade in trade card might refer to the trade of the business being advertised on the business card. But it can also refer to the practise of “trading cards” between collectors and enthusiasts. Trading cards, as opposed to trade cards, are any collectible type of card such as baseball cards and cigarette cards as well as trade cards themselves, which are also collectibles.

Early Business Cards: Calling Cards

A second kind of card, the visiting card or calling card, first came to prominence in the Far East in the fifteenth century and later also became integral to upper class social conventions in Europe. When traveling the messenger or servant of an arriving monarch or aristocrat would be sent ahead of a party to announce his arrival with a calling card. Visiting cards were not just used by the traveling aristocracy, however. Footmen were frequently sent from an employer’s manor to another’s residence to see if a visit would be possible or even welcome. If no visiting card was sent in return or a visiting card was replied to with the visiting card of the potential host in an envelope, then a visit was not welcome. It would have been unusual for practises such as these not to have been followed by the nobility.

How does such a stuffy convention relate to today’s business cards? Because the cards were kept as a record of the social obligations that a member of the landed gentry or the aristocracy had to fulfil. A glance at all the visiting cards in an aristocrat’s possession gave him an indication as to whom he had to call upon, who expected an invitation to his own estate, and whether he had any outstanding business to carry out among friends and acquaintances. Cards were obviously held in high esteem, particularly if the calling card sender was a person of great celebrity and fame. Receiving a visiting card from a prince could be akin to receiving a birthday card from the President.

The design of these early business cards could be very elaborate, illustrating a family coat of arms or an elegant script and ornamentation.

Early Business Cards: The Far East

There were other forms of business cards in the Far East. Aristocrats or their representatives would post cards into what we would call letterboxes today. So whatever culture you come from, you can be sure that business cards have their place in your society’s history in one form or another.

Article created on 9/8/2008

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