The Evolution of the Business Card

A History


The Evolution of the Business Card

All hail the great and powerful business card. What’s now considered to be a crucial part of any business’ branding actually has a surprising history that spans across the centuries and we’d like to take this time to indulge you in it. So sit back, relax, and get ready to be educated on the evolution of the trusty ole business card we all know and love today.

The origin of the business card takes us way back in time and across to world to 15th century China. Cards in this time were considered more for visiting purposes and were technically known as “meishi”. They had the original purpose of informing the public of an upcoming royal visit, however they soon found usage within the upper class of individuals to schedule meetings with each other. At the time, these visiting cards were simply printed on handmade paper with the only details being the name and title of the sender. Upon delivery, the recipient would then decide whether or not it would be worthy to permit a visit.

Fast-forward two centuries and it’s now the 1600’s and the idea of business cards began to hit its stride in European culture. This time, they were referred to as trade cards and though they were essentially used for self-promotion with maps and contact details included, they also served a variety of social purposes. These cards were handed out by any means necessary from the obvious use of self-promotion to expressing congratulations and condolences. By the 1700’s cards of this type became a must have for anybody who was anybody. Evolving from wood cut and letterpress methods, copperplate engraving became the new standard production and much like meishi, was delivered upon the tray of aristocratic servants for anyone who desired audience with their master.

In the 1800’s lithographic printing was born and so saw the first full potential of the business card, meaning it could now be printed not only with full color design but including pictures as well. Printing companies expanded their roster and offered up a new variety of papers and designs and the popularity of the cards increased with the European craze catching hold over in America as well. Similar to the needs of the folk in the 1600’s these cards also offered up more than just the expressed desire for a meeting. Folds in the card itself could indicate the motive of the sender, for instance, a fold in the bottom right corner indicates condolence whereas a fold in the top right corner expresses congratulations and on the left side, a folded top corner meant the sender had come in person whereas a folded bottom corner signified a farewell. Much like its earlier versions, calling cards were reserved for the “well-to-do”.

Finally we enter the 1900’s and now everything will start to make more sense. Much of the same techniques in manufacturing we know today were developed in this time and began with the birth of letterpress printing. Finally, technology was able to offer us more in the way of design and creativity and as a result we were able to print on more materials than ever before, from rubber to plastic to wood. Die-cutting was also developed and so cards could also be cut into custom shapes. By this time, the process of exchanging business cards had become relatively informal, at least in this part of the world; there are still many countries that even to this day rely on certain etiquette when giving and receiving business cards.

Now it in the 21st century, business cards have evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry with an estimated 10 billion cards printed in the US alone each year, and yet 88% of those cards will be discarded after only 1 week of being handed out (that’s when effective graphic design comes in handy). For the first time in history, business cards are more than just a means of contact; they’re a vessel for creativity and design; and being memorable is the first step in keeping you out of the trash bin. In which case, you have our number 😉

Image of Urbane Culinary’s business cards logo created by talonX