A Brief History of the Business Card

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Business people exchanging business cards in office lobby

The business card is one of the most ubiquitous items we encounter on a daily basis. From exchanging them with a person you meet for the first time to picking up a card when you chance upon a new restaurant or shop that strikes your fancy, these useful palm-sized items are everywhere.

But while these cards are essential for business purposes today, they were once used for other reasons, such as when a potential suitor wished to express his interest in a lady. Here’s a timeline of how the business card has evolved over the years.

1400s

Business cards are believed to date all the way back to China during the 15th century in the form of a visiting card that was exchanged between two individuals, especially those in trade and business. Cards signalling an intention to meet would be sent to the homes of wealthy businessmen, for instance, who could then sort through them before deciding which contact he would like to arrange a meeting with. This is very similar to what is practised now.

1600s

Two centuries later, the use of visiting cards had spread to Europe, where they took on an ornate form. These visite biletes were used by members of the aristocracy to announce their impending arrival at a residence, and were lavishly decorated with gold engravings and even coats of arms. Silver card trays became a must-have item in upper class households, where visitors would leave their cards very much in the way people sign guestbooks today.

At the same time, trade cards had begun to increase in popularity in London as a way for merchants and tradesmen to advertise their services and businesses during a time when the newspaper industry was still in its fledgling stage and there was no official numbering system on streets. Hence, many of these cards included maps and directions as well – something you still see today on business cards for establishments that are located in obscure destinations.

1700s-1800s

It was during the Victorian era that these cards became tools of romance. Potential suitors would place their calling cards on a silver tray when visiting a lady, and they would wait in the hall while the card was presented to her. If she approved of the card, a face-to-face visit would ensue. The look of the card therefore was essential in presenting a good first impression.

An intricate system of etiquette and formality also developed around these calling cards. For example, a man would fold down one corner of a card to indicate he was visiting in person, while a fold in the middle meant he was calling on the entire family. There could also be lettering on the card with ‘p.f.’ indicating a congratulatory visit, while ‘p.c.’ indicated a condolence call.

1900s

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the use of visiting cards had spread to the US. With the Industrial Revolution in full swing, business cards became more commonplace compared to their more formal calling cards, as an increasing number of people began using them to exchange contacts. This practice carries on till date, and is an extremely effective form of networking in the workplace.

Suitors in the Victorian-era United States also began the practice of secretly passing a love interest a “flirtation card” with messages such as “May I. C. U. Home?” While it is not certain how seriously these cards were treated by the senders and recipients, they were definitely a tongue-in-cheek way to break the ice and could be seen as a contrast to the formalities of exchanging calling cards.

2000s and beyond

In an increasingly globalised world, business cards are so plentiful that manually organising all the contacts you have may prove to be nearly impossible. After all, how many business cards can you keep track of?

That’s where cloud-based contact management solutions such as Sansan can help. All employees can access their contacts anytime, anywhere, while the centralised database of contacts facilitates efficient growth of the business. This also aids in reducing clutter at the workplace.

The humble calling card has come a long way, but remains relevant even today as a sales and marketing tool that can contribute to your company’s bottom line.