While business cards form an integral part of modern day self-promotion, they are also the product of a rich and fascinating history which spans centuries, once again proving the timeless nature of this simple yet effective form of building professional relationships.
15th Century Visiting Cards
The earliest form of business cards first surfaced in China during the 15th century as "Fǎngwèn kǎ" or "visiting card". Merchants and aristocrats used them as a screening technique for meetings. If you wanted to schedule a visit with someone influential, you would send them a visiting card which usually contained a graphic, along with a brief biography/sales pitch. This way the other party could review a list of cards and determine which people they would agree to meet with.
17th Century Visiting Cards
After centuries of trading with the East, the practice of visiting cards would expand to europe. From 1643 to 1715 they became the defacto method of announcing royalty. Upper class socialites would soon adopt the practice, creating highly personalized and ornate cards to be used at social functions and gatherings. A design race ensued, with individuals trying to out do each other and employing the use of gold engraving and elaborate typography to represent themselves.
18th-19th Century Trade Cards
Eventually this practice would evolve as a form of advertising to promote local businesses. In cities that were rapidly expanding, one of the biggest challenges was directing potential clients to a specific address. Many of these cards would include detailed maps and instructions to guide potential clients and sometimes market one's services. Even with this novelty, visiting cards for the elite would still prove to be a dominant practice well into the 19th Century. Upon visiting a nobleman's house cards would be left on silver trays and serve as a formal registry of guests.
The Industrial Revolution
As the working class grew, visiting cards and trade cards began to merge into an early prototype of the cards we know today. Thanks to the upward mobility afforded by mass production and capital growth, you didn't have to be a business owner or socialite in order to carry one. ALl you needed was ambition and a desire to network. This change in demographic was met with some resistance from the upper classed which had created, and still observed the tradition, but it would seem no matter how powerful or wealthy one may be - the march of progress can't be bought or bargained with.
Modern Day Business Cards
Today, whether they are designed as simple black ink on white card stock for a humble tradesman, or with elaborate colors and specialties for CEOs, business cards continue to prove a popular solution for personal promotion. One might have expected their use to wane in this hyperconnected age of information, emails and social media. But the truth is, thanks to innovations in printing, they are more affordable and popular than ever - proving that there's still a place for a tangible calling card that caters to people from all walks of life.