The History of the Business Card: How Cards Have Adapted and Changed Over the Years

Business cards are a centuries-old tradition. From their first use to today, discover the journey of business cards.

Table of Contents
Table of Contents

Business cards are an essential part of business operations today. Nearly everyone in the business world has business cards, but recently, people have started questioning whether business cards are still necessary. 

The way we use business cards is evolving, and as we transition from traditional paper business cards to the more modern digital business cards, let’s take a look at where this tradition began and why business cards will never die.

When were business cards invented?

For centuries, people have used business cards for many different purposes. Business cards have been popular for years, from announcing visitors to networking and promoting businesses. According to many historians, the first business cards were used by aristocrats and royalty in 15th century China. 

Who invented business cards?

Due to confusion over the origin of business cards, and a lack of evidence, historians have been unable to trace the original inventor of business cards. While the inventor of business cards may forever be unknown, Johannes Gutenberg, and his invention of the printing press, may be credited with the rise of business cards. 

Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash

When did business cards become popular?

While business cards have been used since the 15th century, they were primarily used by aristocrats. It wasn’t until 17th century England that business cards started to become popular among the middle and lower classes. The popularity of business cards, or “trade cards” as they were known at the time, was caused by a change in technology and new uses. With the printing press becoming more common, trade cards became much easier and cheaper to produce, fueling a rise in popularity.

With the cost of business cards plummeting, they became available to more than just the upper class. Businesses could now afford to create trade cards to promote their work. Companies would use trade cards to promote their businesses with information, like their name, the services they offer, and sometimes a map displaying where the shop was located. 

The history of the name

While we commonly use the term business card, these pieces of paper have seen many different uses and other names. Over the years, you’ve likely heard people refer to business cards in several ways, including name cards, presentation cards, visiting cards, smart business cards, virtual business cards, and digital business cards. However, since business cards date back to the 15th century, they have a long history of some rather unique names:

Meishi

The first iteration of the business card was the Meishi. These cards were used in 15th-century China by the aristocracy. 

Visite Biletes

Jumping forward to 17th century France, we see the visite biletes or the visiting card. Aristocrats used these to announce the arrival of guests. 

Trade Cards

Over in London in the 17th century, trade cards were rising in popularity. These cards were used by businesses to promote their company. 

Carte de Visite

Similar to a visite bilete, a carte de visit was used to introduce yourself. These cards would feature a small picture and the contact information of the card owner. 

Calling Card

In 18th century France, calling cards became a social accessory. Calling cards served as a way to show one's presence amongst the wealthy. These cards were left in the homes of friends after a visit or to share short messages of thanks, condolences, or to say hello. 

Business Cards

Today, we call them business cards. However, they are used for more than just businesses. These cards are used to promote companies, but they are also used for personal networking and sharing contact information. 

Name Cards

Another term we often hear today is name cards. A name card usually holds the same information as a business card and is used for the same purpose.

Digital Name Card

Also known as digital business cards and vCards, digital name cards are the modern way to share contact information. Digital name cards include the same information as their traditional counterparts, in addition to photos, videos, links, PDFs, and more. 

HiHello Digital Name Cards

What is the history of business card design?

Business cards have seen many design changes and uses throughout the centuries. Let’s look at how business cards have changed over the years.

The first business cards

The original 15th-century Chinese visiting cards were simple paper cards that featured calligraphy writing. The most ornate cards of this time often featured gold engraving. 

These cards were known as visiting cards and were used by aristocrats to announce visitors. These cards were left in the homes of aristocrats to announce a visitor. The aristocrats could then decide if they wanted to meet this person or not and arrange a meeting.

Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

The printing press arrives

Mass-producing visiting, or calling cards, became even easier with the printing press. During this time, the drop in the cost of calling cards meant most upper-class homes had calling cards. Guests often left these after entering someone’s home. In many homes, a silver tray would be set in the entryway for guests to leave their calling cards. These cards would then be saved and served as a log of the guests visiting the home.  

17th-century changes

In England, the trade card is adopted by businesses. The rise of trade cards in England fueled the exponential growth that trade cards would see in the coming years. These cards were square pieces of paper with a business name and services printed on the front and often a map of the business location on the back. 

Industrial era business cards

During the industrial era, the printing press starts taking off, and printing becomes available to the masses. As the middle class grows and society becomes less formal, visiting cards become available to even more people. The industrial era also sees more businesses using business cards, particularly in the United States. 

Photo by Hannes Wolf on Unsplash

20th-century business cards

As printing techniques changed, business cards changed with them. Near the end of the 1900s, modern business cards saw the addition of bright colors, specialty materials, and unlimited design options. By the end of the 20th century, business cards were more popular than ever, with nearly everyone and every business having a business card. 

The 21st-century update.

After six centuries of development, business cards hadn't seen many significant design changes. Then, in early 2018, HiHello launched digital business cards. These new business cards brought business cards that had remained virtually unchanged since the 15th century into the digital world. 

The new digital business cards offered features never before seen, such as integrating a smart address book to organize contacts, adding photos and videos, and including an unlimited amount of information, to name a few. 

To learn more about digital business cards and how they have changed the way we exchange information, read our guide to digital business cards

The future of business cards

As the way we interact and technology continues to change, the future of business cards is unknown. While we can’t predict how business cards will continue to adapt, we know that HiHello will continue to grow and adapt to the future of networking. Stay updated on the current networking and business card trends with HiHello. 

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