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From 17th Century to Now: How Business Cards Have Evolved

businessman looking at a business card to convert to a digital business card

Historians originally saw some version of what would eventually evolve into modern-day businesses cards as early as the fifteenth century. Those elites traded and gave out these “business cards” as a way to establish themselves as important, accredited members of society. As a result, they would then do business with others of similar social standing. Business cards began as an indicator of social class, but now, everyone has physical business cards and digital business cards. Sharing business cards are a standard networking practice.

But then how did we get here? Time for a history lesson! 

17th Century and Visiting Cards

In their earliest iterations, business cards appeared in China in the 15th Century as “Visiting Cards.” 

Visiting cards were small, square cards made to communicate high status, importance, and skills. Elite members of society sent their cards out to people of equal standing to request official meetings.

High society members would present their cards as proof of credentials at certain functions. If you didn’t have a business card, you were nobody. 

By the middle of the 17th Century, these cards were standard fare for members of the European elite. These beautifully decorated cards were often engraved and embossed with gold elements. Instead of just networking, people used their visiting cards for everything from business dealings to social etiquette and dating. The design and look of a card was crucial; a poorly designed or made card could sink a business deal.

People also used 17th Century business cards as a means of communicating important social graces in an official capacity. The way some cards were folded indicated whether the card was meant for one member of the household or several. Cards expressed congratulations or condolences depending on the lettering on the card.

18th-19th Century and Trade Cards

Until well after the 17th Century, businessmen didn’t really advertise their personal and business addresses. Unless the visitors were frequent customers of the establishment, it was often difficult for customers to find the business. As a result, trade cards began circulating to make people aware of the business’s location. 

Originally, trade cards were typically printed on both sides of a playing-card-sized piece of paper. One side contained promotional information while the other had a detailed map guiding the customer to the business site.

The Modern Day and Going to Digital Business Cards

As the industrial revolution changed the way we did business, it  changed the business card. Consequently, the visiting and trade cards combined into what now more closely resembles modern business cards.

Nowadays, we hand out business cards as a way of networking and expanding brand awareness. Nowadays, business cards stray from that required rectangular shape and users experiment with colors, shapes, and forma. Some are even digital business cards.

Now, more than ever, business card alternatives are popping up. Social media accounts and QR codes are linking up businesses with potential customers. There are now digital programs and apps like StayTouch with the express purpose of organizing and updating your contacts. 

Interested in a smart networking platform that can provide digital business cards, contact management, relationship building, calendars, messaging, and more? Check out the StayTouch app here!