Design Inspirations from the History of Business Cards

by . April 9th, 2024

History of Business Cards

Business cards have a long history, dating back to 15th century China. They were used initially as “visiting cards” to announce one’s arrival during social calls. In 17th-century Europe, they evolved into business cards, carrying business information. Today, they remain a vital networking tool.

In Renaissance Europe, the servants of aristocrats would present “visiting cards” to the servants of other aristocrats, the first step in any formal social interaction between the wealthy and powerful.


In Victorian England, the “calling card” was absolutely essential in polite society. When calling on someone, even a close friend, the visitor provided a card printed with their name. People collected these cards to keep track of friends who visited so they would know to whom they were socially required to pay a return visit. It was also a way of screening out unwanted visitors — once presented with a card, the host could simply refuse to admit the person, without having to deal with them face-to-face. (When the telephone was first introduced in England, there was an uproar because now anyone could talk to you without providing a card or following any of the other countless rules.)

Historical Business Card Designs

The British also introduced the “trade card,” a calling card containing a person’s business advertisement, often with lithographed graphics. The French carte de visite, a collectible photograph cropped to the same size as a calling card, and the trading card were both forerunners of the “trading card,” well known today to baseball fans and inedible chewing gum.

Today, when people print business cards, they synthesize the calling and trade cards. They serve three purposes: (1) to introduce yourself, (2) to provide information about your business, and (3) to act as easily-referenced contact information for any colleagues who may wish to get a hold of you.

Modern business card designs tend to be all flash and color. You can stand out by creating an unusual business card, taking inspiration from the simpler old designs.

historycards_19thcent_550x412From the 19th Century: dress goods, glue manufacturercarte de visite of John Wilkes Booth.

historycards_victorian_550x412Victorian trade card; “scrap” calling card (the embossed section lifts to reveal the name); fully decorated, ethnically insensitive calling card.


From around the turn of the 20th Century: Henriettie CarotherWillie OldsW.A. Taylor.


From the 1950s and ’60s: Don O. Thayer of Minox; Buck Lacey, Privileged Character; Parker’s Barbecue (back and front).


Three business cards of historical note. Top left: Hamad Hassab was, in fact, a survivor of the Titanic, as noted on his business card. Top right: A fake business card for Abraham Lincoln, printed in 1984 as a joke by his enemies in the Democratic Party. Bottom: The note, written on a calling card by the Marquess of Queensberry in 1895, eventually led to the conviction of playwright Oscar Wilde on charges of “gross indecency.”


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