A business card is a simple way for people to introduce themselves, state who they work for and provide contact details. They are some of the quickest, easiest ways to get contact information from one person to another. They have not always been so straightforward and convenient, however.
Calling cards, the forebears of modern business cards, had been in use in China from the 15th century, but in the late 16th and early 17th century, Louis XIV, the Sun King, introduced the cards to European royalty. Like most things at that time, they were governed by strict social etiquette.
Personal calling cards had to be presented when you visited someone at their home. These cards were essential because, if the person be called upon didn’t wish to see anyone, they could have their servants politely decline to let the person in (and in that way, calling cards could be considered the forebears of caller i.d. as well). If they did wish to see the person, the card would remind them of their obligation to visit the person in return.
Because of their regal beginnings, calling cards had to look as impressive as the guest was. Scrolling fonts and intricate illustrations become de rigueur for any blue blood worth their salt. Every tiny thing on the card had a specific purpose, too. The initials at the bottom would indicate the nature of the visit. If a card had “p.f.”, it indicated congratulations, whilst “p.c.” expressed condolences. The bends in the card also had different meanings. A bend in the middle meant the visit was intended for the whole house. A bend in the upper right corner meant the person had hand-delivered the card – as opposed to sending one via a servant.
Around the same time, businesses began to advertise themselves using what was known as trade cards. They informed people of the existence of the business, with maps and directions so customers could find the business. These forms of advertising usually included some impressive graphics and also led to the development of trading cards – the type that mostly feature sports stars or bubble gum.
The Industrial Revolution:
During the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, lithography was booming, and because of the cheap printing process, people were able to print multiple types of personal cards. This was also the time when the middle class was becoming more affluent. They wanted to emulate the upper classes, but the sheer number of cards required by the newly wealthy for use in both personal and business settings meant that a division between the two kinds of cards was needed.
So business cards and calling cards became very separate, with very distinct sets of etiquette. The business card became a straightforward affair, with plain lettering on a white background, whilst the personal business card became more flowery. The etiquette for each also became stricter. Leaving a business card during a social engagement, for example, suggested you needed to collect payment for a bill, which would be the height of rudeness.
As American captains of industry got in on the act of exchanging business cards (and became exceedingly wealthy and influential), the fashion for having both sets of cards diminished. The business card is now widely considered the only kind of card most people need, though the very highest echelons of the upper classes still use both in the same strict tradition.
It should be noted, however, that the traditions and formalities surrounding business cards and calling cards is different in many parts of the world, most notably Japan. There, exchanging business cards is often a delicate dance of politeness, where the status, title or name of the card giver and card accepter can drastically alter one’s actions upon giving or taking a card. Even the placement of a card in a card holder has specific rules.
Printing today has moved beyond just using paper, and so too have business cards. Business cards can now come in a variety of shapes, in every colour under the sun. They can be made of metal, have a magnetic backing or be almost completely clear. Some people have even found ways to make their cards interactive – they fold up into origami-like toys or models, or they feature tear-out or scratch-off elements – which is perfect for the easily distracted internet generation. Business cards now allow people, especially designers, art directors and other creatives, to demonstrate their originality and aesthetic styles, as well as their contact details.
As digital media become cheaper and cheaper, more people put their contact details on vCards (digital business cards) or on small CDs or flash drives. Still, there will always be space for creative printed business cards that make someone stand out from the crowd.