The History of Business Cards

The History of Business Cards

Business Card History

Usually business cards are an afterthought – something you pick up in your day to day life in business. What if someone was to ask you how they started. Would you be able to answer them? Well take a look below and have a look at the history of how business cards started out.

I. Visiting Cards, 17th century (France)

Visiting cards, the “Visite Biletes”, used to be playing card size, just a little smaller than the size of a man’s hand. The earliest forms of visiting cards were indeed playing cards. Visitors wrote on the cards their signatures, promissory notes and other messages.

As time went by, these visiting cards further developed into greeting and other cards.

These first visiting cards appeared in France during the reign of Louis XIV – “Le Roi Soleil”. They were solemnly introducing their owners in all their glory.

Louis XIV, the King of France, was born in 1638 at St. Germain-en-Laye France. He ruled from 1643 to 1715 (72 years the longest reign in modern European history). He was styled the Grand Monarch, and his brilliant court at Versailles became a model and perhaps also the despair of other, less rich and less powerful princes who nevertheless accepted his theory of absolute monarch.

A great supporter of the arts, Louis patronized the foremost writers and artists of his time, including Moliere, Jean Racine, Jean de La Fontaine, and Charles Le Brun. The architect Jules Mansart supervised the building of the lavish palace of Versailles. Because of the brilliance of his court, Louis was called “Le Roi Soleil” and “Le Grand Monarque.”

the history of business cards
The History of Business Cards

II. Tradecards, 17th century (England)

Tradecards, considered to precede business cards, were used in all parts of England.

The earliest forms of tradecards were to be found at the beginning of the 17th century in London. These were used as advertising and also as maps, directing the public to merchant’s stores, as there was no formal street numbering system at the time.

The popularity of tradecards soared as they were most effective advertising as newspapers of the time were not well developed and tradecards by directing the reader to a merchant played the similar role to today’s online media. The earliest forms of tradecards were printed by the woodcut or letterpress method. By the 18th century, copperplate engraving became the most popular method. Up to the 19th century, tradecards were still done in monotones, or with simple tints. As businesses grew, so did the production and distribution of tradecards. Around 1830, lithography using several colors became an established method in Europe.

During the 19th century new technology and improved speed of communication made the distribution of newspapers and periodicals more practical. Advertising in these media became more affordable and more widespread.

The advent of the machinery that was so lavishly displayed and advertised, was in itself responsible for the downfall of the tradecard industry.

III. Business Cards, 19th century (Europe)

As an adoption from French court etiquette, visiting cards came to America and Europe. They included refined engraved ornaments and fantastic coat of arms. Visiting cards, or calling cards, were an essential accessory to any 19th century middle class lady or gentleman.

Business Cards, 19th century (USA)

In the United States there was a rigid distinction between business and visiting cards.

The visiting cards served as tangible evidence of meeting social obligations, as well as a streamlined letter of introduction. The stack of cards in the card tray in the hall was a handy catalog of exactly who had called and whose calls might need to be returned. They did smack of affectation however, and were not generally used among country folk or working class Americans.

Business cards on the other hand, were widespread among men and women, of all classes with a business to promote. It was considered to be in very poor taste to use a business card when making a social call. A business card, left with the servants, could imply that you had called to collect a bill.

IV. Calling Card Etiquette, 18-19th centuries

“Calling” was a somewhat ritualized version of the fine old custom of “visiting”. There were certain fixed rules laid down by society which might apply to a resident in a small town with the same force as in a large city.

• On making a first call you must have a card for each lady of the household.
• On making a call leave your card to the servant. You will be allowed to see the hostess only after she examines your card.
• On the hall table in every house, there should be a small silver, or other card tray, a pad and a pencil.
• When the door-bell rings, the servant on duty should have the card tray ready to present, on the palm of the left hand.
• A gentleman should carry them loose in a convenient pocket; but a lady may use a card case.
• If your card receives no acknowledgment, you must conclude that for some reasons they do not wish to extend their acquaintance.
• Do not examine the cards in the card-basket. You have no right to investigate as to who calls on a lady.
• A young lady can have a card of her own after having been in society a year.
• American gentleman should never fold the corner of his card, despite of the temporary fashion. Some European gentlemen, on the contrary, fold the upper right corner to indicate that they’ve delivered it themselves (the servant should never hand his master’s card folded).
• Fold the card in the middle if you wish to indicate that the call is on several, or all of the members of the family.

Signs on a visiting card

The initial letters you can meet on personal cards stand for the French words:

• p. f. – congratulations (pour féliciter)
• p. r. – expressing one’s thanks (pour remercier) – even if one is presented with flowers
• p. c. – mourning expression (pour condoléance)
• p. f. N. A. – Happy New Year (pour feliciter Nouvel An)
• p. p. c. – meaning to take leave (pour prendre congé)
• p. p. – if you want to be introduced to anybody, send your visiting card (pour présenter)


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