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We all know today’s business cards. Just the right size to fit in a wallet, a way to collect contact information, advertise your company, or sometimes win a free lunch at your favorite diner.

But where did they come from?

Calling cards (sometimes called ‘visiting cards’) were in use as early as 15th century China. These were sent ahead of time to announce the impending visit of the sender.

This tradition was echoed in Europe in the 17th century, where a new version of calling cards came into vogue. These were used by the aristocracy or wealthy and would be left with a servant at the recipient’s home to request a visit. If the recipient was open to the arrival of the sender, they would respond in kind with their card. Cards were blank on the back to write notes or greetings.

Around the same time in the late 1600s, tradesmen and retailers in London, Paris, and Lyon began creating trade cards, a business-oriented cousin to the calling card. These advertised services and helped customers locate the business. In the days before street numbering was common, sometimes these would include detailed directions.

The popularity of trade cards, in addition to the demand for retail catalogs, helped grow the industries of etching, engraving, and printing in the 1700s and beyond. Shown above is a specialized card cutting machine from 1889.

Early calling and trade cards were larger than our standard business cards today. Embossing and engraving became popular by the late 1700s, resulting in elaborate designs like the one above belonging to artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze.

Calling cards continued to be popular through the late 1800s, though by that time, a simple design with only a name was favorable. Most cards featured only the sender’s name on a clean background as shown here.

At the same time toward the end of the 19th century, the popularity of color printing resulted in ever more intricate and colorful trade cards, in contrast to the simpler calling cards of the time. Above is a trade card for Murray and Lanman Florida Water perfume from 1881.

These attractive designs resulted in a new widespread hobby—collecting trade cards. This would eventually evolve into the commercial development of baseball trading cards.

Meanwhile, the more practical side of trade cards changed over time, with the size and format becoming more standardized and ending with the business card as we know it today.

Business cards have become ubiquitous, a necessary part of business communication. It can be hard to make your card stand out in a crowd, but features like round corners, a textured finish or lamination, or printing silver ink on a premium colored card stock can help your cards shine. Contact POD Print today to discuss your business card project!

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