Business Card History & Etiquette: How It All Started

A man in a black suit and white long-sleeved button shirt holds up a white business card

Business cards may seem like a recent innovation, dating back to only a few decades. As it turns out, they’ve been around for much longer. While some of the purposes of a business card have remained relatively unchanged, they have evolved in many other ways. From paper to electronic business cards, here’s how it all started.

Where Did Business Cards Begin?

It’s hard to say where or how business cards first started or when they evolved. One of the earliest known examples originates from China and dates back to the 15th century. Other early examples come from England, dating back to the 17th century.

What Were They Used For?

Much like today, business cards back then were used to introduce yourself or your “business” to people. Some, however, were used a little differently. In 15th century China, for instance, elite members of society would request to visit a person by sending what is known as a calling card or visiting card. Calling cards were a means for elites to prove their status or identity to others. Once a visit request had been made, the receiver decided if they would accept it.

During the 17th century, France and England used business cards nearly the same way as China. Royalties, such as kings and queens, would use business cards to announce their upcoming arrival to a city or town within their domain. These announcements enabled elites to plan and prepare accordingly.

Traders and merchants quickly caught on to this practice and started using business cards as a means of promoting their business. As a result, trade cards were born. Traders and merchants handed out trading-sized cards that included details about their profession or products and a map showing how to find their business.

What Were Business Cards Made From?

Unsurprisingly, business cards were made of paper and ink, going as far back as the 15th century. As time passed, those who wanted to impress someone else or show their high status would embroider their cards with gold and other precious metals if they could afford it.

How Were They Made?

A row of metal letter blocks in a printing press

While the use of paper and ink has remained nearly the same, the manufacturing process has evolved.

Before the invention of the printing press, calling cards were inked by professional engravers and signed by the owner. By the end of the 1700s, lithographers printed cards using quarried slabs of stone, metal plates, or woodblocks. These were used to press drawings and letters onto paper, much like a printing press. This enabled cards to be produced with more ornate decorations and illustrations at a much faster rate.

As technology improved, so did the designs. Chromolithography, for example, made it possible to add multiple colors to paper cards. However, business cards took on a more simplistic look by the early 1800s, even though lavish and artistic designs persisted toward the end of the Victorian era.

The Evolution of Business Card Etiquette

Just as the design and materials used in business cards have evolved, so has etiquette.

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, when wealthy individuals (often upper-class women) requested an audience with someone they had never met, a servant would approach them with a silver tray or dish to place a visiting card. The servant would then take the card and present it to the lady of the house. A returned card was a respectful way of declining or rejecting their request.

During the 1870s and 1900s, designing and handing out trading cards became less formal. Businesses started to cater to their audience’s inclinations or sentiments using humor or stylish illustrations. They also inserted cards as part of their product packaging. The purpose of this was to reward card collectors and promote their business. However, this practice quickly died since it was cheaper to advertise in a newspaper than through a card. It was also easier to reach a broader audience.

In our current century, business card etiquette doesn’t focus as much on how they’re handed out or presented, depending on the country. You either pick up cards from a stack on a desk or hand them out to potential clients at networking events.

Now, however, individuals are starting to use electronic business cards as a networking strategy. Entrepreneurs are using electronic business cards almost the same way paper cards are currently being presented and distributed. The difference is that electronic business cards can offer more information than the other (at a cheaper cost, too).

Business Cards Will Continue to Evolve

As technology has improved, so has the way people use business cards. Business cards are here to stay, but how they are used will change with time as technology gets better. Electronic business cards are merely one sign of the transition from traditional paper cards. To learn how to make a digital business card, download our Linq app for free to get started.