Posted by Sophie



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A Brief History Of The Business Card

16 JAN
b5 cards

I'm not sure if you saw, but a few months back we (finally) designed some ace new brightfive business cards. 

After putting a picture of my shiny new cards on Twitter and fondly arranging my new card holder on my desk, I got to thinking about business cards. Why do we have them? Where did they come from? Were people in the 80's really creepy about them like in American Psycho? Are they useful now? After a bit of poking round, I have come up with this brief history of the business card for anyone, like myself, who's ever asked themselves such questions. 

Just for fun, I've also mocked up my card in the style of each period. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty fond of my 19th Century card - might go for that next time. 

The Calling Card

17th Century Business Card mock up

Before business cards there were calling cards. As early as the 15th century, calling cards (called Meishi) were in common use in China. Meishi were sent to communicate your intention to meet with someone. They also doubled up as a form of personal identification to gain access to private homes or exclusive events. 

In 17th century, under the reign of Louis XIV, ‘Viste Bielets’ gained popularity amongst French aristocracy. A calling card was sent, servant to servant, to announce the impending arrival of a particularly big wig. As the tradition spread throughout Europe, calling cards became a must-have for anyone worth knowing and strict, complex etiquette quickly developed governing their use.

Calling cards were presented to the footman of the house, who would collect them on a special silver plate, using his left hand. The cards would be then presented to the lady of the house.  She would decide whether to permit the caller a visit (by keeping the card) or to reject them (by returning it in an envelope). 

Their design was generally simple and elegant. The card, roughly the size of a playing card, would either be handwritten (why waste an opportunity to show off your lovely 17th century penmanship?) or printed using woodcut or letterpress techniques. For added decoration, splashes of colour could be added using watercolour or even gold ink (whit woo!).

The Trade Card

18 Century Business Card mock up

Meanwhile, savvy London merchants were also taking advantage of the evolving print technologies of the age. ‘Trade Cards’ were handed out to customers at market or used to establish trade links between businesses.

Trade Cards were a crucial promotional tool, informing customers not only of the name of the business and services provided, but most importantly, of its exact location. Very useful during a time when street numbers were not in popular use.

Evolving design

19th Century Business Card Mock Up

As the capabilities of printing technology and the availability of more ‘exotic’ inks improved, card design became increasingly colourful and decorative.

During the 18th century woodcut and letterpress printing was replaced by copperplate engraving. As the 19th century dawned, lithographic printing made it possible to use not one but, a collection of individually coloured stones, up to 15 stones on a single card.

Die-cut cards became popular in the 1890’s and wealthy businesses used high quality, unusually shaped cards. Gimmicks such as folding cards, cards with moving parts, or even cards that revealed a secret message when held up to the light, were also employed to help stand out from the crowd.

A unified card

As Industrial Revolution brought about rapid social change, the strict social codes of the upper classes became increasingly redundant. With the rise of the middle classes and ‘the self made man’, the spheres of Business and Society collided. In time, trade and calling cards began to merge and it became common to hand one card to both social and business acquaintances. This practise was still seen as terribly vulgar by some. But, with the increasing need for aristocrats to marry their progeny off to the sons and daughters of wealthy merchants, this was one of many things that simply had to be borne.

The 20th century to today

1980s Business Card Mock Up

The popularity of the business cards continued throughout the 20th century and they remained a status symbol for businesspeople around the world.  By the middle of the century, it became fashionable for business cards to be minimal in design. A ‘professional’ card contained only crucial contact information, with a simple design. Good card stock and carefully selected typography conveyed high quality and good taste (yes, like in American Psycho. I knew we’d get there eventually!).

As we move into the 21st century and the present day, card design has once again undergone a shift. In the digital age, the need to use a business card as a means of exchanging contact information is less important. People can connect easily - and for free- on LinkedIn;  all the information you’d ever want about a business is much more handily accessed via their website; and you can now exchange contact information by simply bumping phones (I’ve never actually heard of a real person doing this, but, you know, it’s a thing).

Cards, however, are not redundant - 10 billion business cards were printed in 2012. Go to any conference or networking event and (provided you don’t just lurk around the buffet table avoiding eye contact) you’ll return with a walletful.

So, why do we still use them?

Real world vs digital world

Modern Business Card

Despite all the promises and threats that by now we’d be living in an entirely virtual world - where children are taught via webcam, meals are digitally inserted into our systems by some kind of barcode scanner and romantic love is rendered unnecessary by a combination of test tube babies and Tamagotchi life partners - real human interaction in the physical world is and always will be important.

Business cards are exchanged with a handshake during a real face-to-face interaction. Their physical nature is what makes them attractive in a digital world. As Richard Moross, CEO of MOO, put it:

"The more connected to the web we are, the more precious the real world is, so it is important to make a connection.”

Business cards are no longer necessary to exchange information. Instead they’re about making a lasting, memorable impression. As such, their design has become increasingly ‘quirky’.  We can use limitless colours, custom shapes, cards printed on plastic, wood or metal, cards that double as a ‘useful’ items such as keyrings and even edible cards.

In that sense, the business card hasn't changed a whole lot. It is used, primarily, to make a particular impression. We can communicate our wealth (using the most advanced printing technologies of the day), our professionalism (shelling out for that beautiful 300gsm matt stock with the broad linear finish) or how creative and fun we are (edible, octopus-shaped card, anyone?). The card is still a useful social tool. It helps us to stand out from our competitors and it reinforces our ‘brand’ identity. Most significantly, it has been helping to smooth the wheels of social interaction for four centuries.


Further reading