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The History of Business Cards: Four Centuries of Introductions

Today business cards are so ubiquitous that in some countries they are traded with no formality or consequence, serving as nothing more than an internationally recognized way to exchange contact information or a handy bit of paper on which to jot a note. In other nations, however, particularly in Asia, the cards are regarded as an extension of the individual to be treated with honor and respect. The exchange of cards is attended with great ritual and a breech of protocol can give serious offense. How did a simple card, 3.370 x 2.125 inches come to play such a central role in the business cultural of the world? Depending on the sources consulted, the cards may actually have originated in China in the 15th century.

17th Century Visiting Cards

Certainly by the 17th century visiting cards or visite biletes were in use in Europe where the footmen of the aristocracy or royalty would present the cards to the servants at the home of a host to announce the impending arrival of a distinguished guest. These first cards were roughly the size of a playing card and in their earliest form were also used as all-purpose stationery on which to jot promissory notes or other messages. By the reign of the French King Louis XIV (r. 1643 to 1715), however, visiting cards had become a staple of upper echelon etiquette with a sophisticated system of rules attached to their use.

These cards, as a means of introducing their owners, had a glory all their own, decorated with engraved ornaments and elegant coats of arms. By the 19th century a visiting (or by this time "calling") card was essential to the life of any upper or middle class lady or gentlemen. Each home had a silver card tray, which resided on the hall table along with a pencil and a pad of paper. The cards collected in the tray served as a catalog of those who had visited the household and of the households to which a reciprocal call was due. The giving and receiving of cards, then, was tangible evidence of meeting one's social obligations.

Social Card Etiquette in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Etiquette called for a card to be presented to each lady of the household on initial visits. Upon ringing the doorbell visitors were greeted by a servant offering the card tray on the outstretched palm of his or her left hand. The visitor deposited his card in the tray and waited while it was delivered to the lady of the house for examination. Only upon her approval would an actual face-to-face visit occur.

While waiting it would have been considered the height of rudeness for a visitor to examine other cards in the hall. If the upper right hand corner of the card was folded it indicated that the card's owner had presented the card in person. A card folded in the middled indicated the call was meant for several or all the members of the family. Lettering on the cards (abbreviated from the French for the phrases in question) could include "p.f." for a congratulatory visit or "p.c." for a condolence call. Such details of card etiquette were understood by all members of polite society.

Trade Cards: Utilitarian Cousin of the Visiting Card

Trade cards, on the other hand, became popular in London at the beginning of the 17th century at a time when there was no formal numbering system for streets and no well-developed newspaper industry. The trade cards served as a form of advertisement for businesses and also included maps with directions on how to reach the establishment. The earliest monotone trade cards were printed with the woodcut or letterpress method but by 1830 lithography had developed to the point that cards with several shades were used and were, in their own right, small works of art.

Effects of Rising Industrialism

Increasingly however, with the rise of the middle class during the Industrial Revolution and an overall lessening of social formality, a class of private entrepreneurs emerged in both Europe and the United States that had a constant need to exchange contact information. This class merged the idea of the visiting card and trade card to produce, on plain, heavy paper with clear, utilitarian lettering, the first variation of the modern business card. These were handed out widely at presentations and exhibitions but were looked upon with disdain by members of the upper class. Rigid distinctions were drawn between the use of business and visiting cards so that to present a business card at the door of a home could be taken as an indication that you were there to collect a bill.

In the United States, however, business card use became widespread in the 1890s (the so-called age of the Captains of Industry or "robber barons") and the cards achieved their current level of ubiquity by the early 20th century. Only the very highest social circles continue to draw a distinction between a visiting card and a business card although the former are still in limited use. Unfortunately the very common nature of such cards in America and in the United Kingdom can lead to disastrous faux pas when businessmen from those nations travel abroad.

Modern Business Card Etiquette and Format

Not only are elaborate rituals of presentation and reception followed in Asian nations but in many parts of the world it is rude to present your card with your left hand or to immediately put a card away upon receiving it. Internationally a card should never be used to take notes and all cards should be translated on the reverse side in the language of the nation in question. Cards should not be carried loose but in appropriate card cases and should be maintained in pristine condition. The general rule of thumb is that the card should be presented in the condition in which the owner himself would appear for a high level business meeting -- immaculate and behaving according to the manners of the host nation.

Modern business cards are expected to convey the name of the card holder, his title, the company with which he is affiliated, and the relevant contact information (address, telephone and fax numbers, and email address.) Company logos are often used as well as a single statement about the business. (In some nations academic degrees, honors, and the date when the business was founded are also incorporated.) Traditionally cards are printed with black ink in clear, legible type on white cards of quality paper stock. (This may vary internationally. In China, for instance, gold ink is often used because the color is considered auspicious.)

After at least four centuries of use, cards for purposes of introduction and for the exchange of contact information have evolved from the early visite biletes to the business cards now central to the exchange of basic professional data in the international business community. While elaborate ritual attached to the presentation of a piece of paper roughly 3 x 2 inches may seem out of proportion to the object itself, one thing has not changed about the use of such cards. They are a means of introduction and first impressions really do matter.

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