A Brief History
Business cards evolved from a fusion of traditional trade cards and visiting cards.
Visiting cards (also known as calling cards) first appeared in China in the 15th century, and in Europe in the 17th century. The footmen of aristocrats and of royalty would deliver these first European visiting cards to the servants of their prospective hosts solemnly introducing their arrival.
Visiting cards became an indispensable tool of etiquette, with sophisticated rules governing their use. The aristocracies of North America and the rest of Europe adopted the practice from French and English etiquette.
Visiting cards included refined engraved ornaments and fantastic coats of arms. The visiting cards served as tangible evidence of the meeting of social obligations. The stack of cards in the card tray in the hall was a handy catalog of exactly who had called and whose calls one should reciprocate. They also provided a streamlined letter of introduction.
With the passage of time, visiting cards became an essential accessory to any 19th-century upper or middle class lady or gentleman. Visiting cards were not generally used among country folk or the working classes.
Trade cards first became popular at the beginning of the 17th century in London. These functioned as advertising and also as maps, directing the public to merchants' stores, as no formal street address numbering system existed at the time.
Businesses used their cards as marks of distinction and thus introduced the first modifications in their design. Later, as the growing demand for the cards boosted the development of color printing, more sophisticated card designs appeared, making the cards works of art.
The trend toward fanciful trade cards was balanced by the pragmatic need of a growing group of private entrepreneurs who had a constant need to exchange contact information. These users often started to print out their own cheaper business cards.