Where did business cards come from?

2007-11-08 — Good Characters (Leave a message)

Would you ever fold your business card in half before handing it to a prospective customer? Would you turn down a corner to indicate that you presented the card in person? Strange as these may sound, they were part of the etiquette of the first uses of business cards.

Actually, the first uses were social, not business. Although they probably originated in China in the 15th century, the first forerunners to the business card in the West appeared 200 years later. They were visiting cards, or calling cards. A gentleman would introduce his arrival at the home of another person of social status by have his footman present the card to a servant of the gentleman or lady he wished to visit. The cards were elaborately decorated, a sign of the bearer’s position, and treated with great ceremony and strict rules.

At about the same time, merchants in London began using another type of card—a trade card. It was basically an advertisement—a picture and company name on one side and directions to the merchant on the other. Without city maps, street addresses, or much in the way of newspaper promotion, the trade card was essential in bringing customers to the merchant’s location.

Gradually the functions of the two types of cards—introduction and soliciting business—merged into the modern business card. They became a little smaller, less elaborate, more colorful, and more varied. Still, like the cards that have been around for at least 400, probably 600 years, they are an important reflection of the person who presents them.