Business Cards - How It All Started

Swapping business cards is such a second nature thing to do when you meet someone you want to keep in touch with it has achieved the status of being a social convention, but where did it all start? What got us in to the habit of swapping a small printed card to make sure colleagues and other business contacts could keep in touch with each other?

Early Days

It all started in Europe in the 16th Century, probably in France, when gentlemen used playing cards to write notes on to each other, and such was the acceptance of playing card games as a gentlemanly pursuit that they were accepted as legally binding documents. The note could be an IOU for a debt, a promissory note for money or a business agreement, and were known as Bearer Cards in recognition of the fact that once the card was signed the bearer had a contract in his hand.

In 17th Century France the cards then evolved into visiting cards, where they were used to pass general notes and act as general calling cards when gentlemen were out visiting friends and businesses. This evolved quickly in to a form of social etiquette for the gentry and well to do where, rather than just dropping in unannounced, a card was first presented by a servant to check when it would be convenient to actually call in person. The convention spread quickly throughout Europe and calling cards became firmly established as the way to introduce yourself and arrange meetings.

Trade Cards

Businessmen soon adopted the social convention for their professional needs, and recognised the potential for advertising their wares and services as well as letting people know where they were. At the time newspapers were limited in their circulation and printing techniques, so no other form of mass advertising was available. By printing a basic map of how to find the shop or business on the cards, they also became the earliest from of business directory. As printing techniques improved through the 18th and 19th centuries, so did the sophistication of trade cards, with ever improving colour and graphic designs, and Trade card production became a major printing industry in its own right.

The improvements in printing, however, in turn led to the demise of the trade card. As newspapers and magazines with colours and pictures became cheaper and viable as mass media, they became a much more attractive place for advertising products and services, and by the end of the 19th century trade cards had virtually disappeared. The development of the telephone and changing social attitudes had much the same effect on calling cards with their use also falling out of fashion.

Business Cards Emerge

In the late 19th Century the business card as we see it today began to emerge in the United States, where there was a clear distinction between the visiting card and the business card. Visiting cards were a social nicety, used by the elite and well to do. Business cards also had the name and details of the person handing them out, but were used by shops and businesses much more widely to promote themselves. Using a business card for social purposes was considered to be very bad manners, the implication being they were touting for work. So for the first time the distinctive business card made its appearance.

As calling cards fell out of favour, the business card became the main means of passing your details to someone else. As business card printing has developed, so has the range of designs that can be included, but the basic principle is the same. It serves as a reminder of who you are, what you do, and how someone can get in touch with you, and in that respect seems very much here to stay.

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