Exploring the History and Significance of Business Cards: From Royalty to Modern Marketing

Let's discuss the history and importance of the business card as an advertising tool. For being such a small printed piece, business cards represent a large portion of who you are or the people and company you represent. This exceptionally small advertising media, when skillfully implemented, can easily and effectively convey a simple and professional statement to your contacts.

The earliest known form of the business card originated in China during the 15th century. Elaborately decorated formal announcements signifying the presence or visitation of royalty were distributed to the local populous, but the specifics of this period of the medium's history were not recorded and have since been lost. The trend was popular enough to arrive in France during the 17th century. These small announcements were known as "visiting cards".

It wasn't until the reign of Louis XIV that "trade cards", the first specialized printed cards and the forefather to the modern-day business card, became widely used. The practice of leaving behind these trade cards quickly spread throughout the upper-class fashionable world of Europe. The advertising effectiveness of these small cards was comparable to modern-day newspaper ads. The evolutionary development from single-color letterpress or woodcut designs morphed into copperplate engravings pressed with mono-color tints and dual-color patterns.

Before the mid-1800s, cards came in a wide assortment of shapes, sizes, and designs. Not until later did a uniform size become established, and traditionally ladies had a slightly larger sized card than gentlemen. It was considered inappropriate to print the address of the card owner since such information could possibly attract beggars, swindlers, and other undesirables.

The 19th century brought with it a huge increase in card popularity and it was during this time that the phenomenon became the established norm. The card was often presented to a servant to notify the lady or master of the house of one's presence.

Calling cards carried on into the 20th century but nearly died out in the fifties when servants were scarce and left little reason to hand over a calling card directly to the owner. Modern business cards are the result of the transition from a simple announcement of visitation to the medium we now use to allow others to remember who we are and contact us again in the future. Business cards are now ( as they have always been ) used as expressions of who we are or more precisely, how we would like to be represented. They still come in a variety of sizes and shapes ranging from the very uncommon yet professional letter-pressing to the inexpensive and modern digital printing. They are most commonly seen in the standard three-inch by two-and-a-half-inch form, but some professionals like to surprise their contacts with an unusual size or specialty die-cut card in order to catch the interest of prospective clients.

The use of business cards is a staple asset for the promotion and marketing of a business, but common mistakes can result from the overuse of limited space and poor layout skills culminating in a card that is ineffective if not flat-out atrocious. Other mistakes include the use of dark color images overprinted with dark color text or poor paper quality. Some printed materials can cause sweat or other moisture to run the ink rendering the card unreadable.

The use of a two-sided business card can often help reduce cramped copy and branding features. The use of negative space is often feared by industry professionals. This is especially true for professionals working in the realm of the newspaper, but white space can help to focus the reader's eye on important information and reduce the confusion from information overload.

Professional and experienced design practice is especially important in small layout spaces. Should you use a head shot? Should you include your personal cell phone number? Is the abbreviation "STE" universally understandable enough to convey the word "Suite"? Does your card appeal to the right demographic? All of these questions are important considerations when designing an effective business card. It should be noted that hiring a professional designer is a best practice, but in stretched budgets, books like "The Best of Business Card Design" can often help in the struggle to make a noteworthy and memorable business card.

Looking for our top picks when it comes to business cards? We default to the poignant beauty and skilled craftsmanship required to produce anything in letterpress. We currently use The Mandate Press, located in Salt Lake City, for all of our letterpress needs, including business cards. These guys have incredible skills and are fully capable of producing the exact product you're looking for.

If you're wanting something more in the median price range take a look at Taste of Ink. We've been using their services for over ten years and they are very reliable with a wide variety of materials to print on from silk and soft-touch to cotton and plastic, it's a good price with great quality.

Other honorable mentions include Moo and VistaPrint. While Moo is stepping up in quality, and occasionally cost, they do provide a reasonable price option with cards that can really stand out. 

If you're in the market for a professional, one-of-a-kind business card design give us a call and we will be happy to walk you through the process and costs.

Dale Crum
Dale Crum
Owner / Creative Director at Doc4 Design

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