The ancestry of modern day business cards is a fascinating one and dates all the way back to 18th century Europe. As a social tool, before the widespread advent of electronic media, the so called Visiting Card was originally and exclusively used by the aristocracy. It therefore comes as no surprise that those early specimens were required to be impressive and beautiful, the better to reflect the sender’s importance.
The earliest Visiting Cards were dispatched by aristocrats to warn of their imminent arrival. Servants would carry these Visiting Cards ahead of their masters and deliver them (invariably to other servants) at the intended destination. In this way, aristocrats informed their friends and hosts to prepare for their arrival. It was the time where aristocratic families could maintain more than one household, each with a compliment of resident servants to keep the place running while the owners were away. So a Travelling Card could also be sent to one’s own servants to warn them to get the summerhouse ready for habitation.
The Visiting Card would also later become synonymous with the Calling Card (neither of which should be confused with the French Carte de Visite – which is less a forefather to the business card and more a forerunner to the Pokemon trading cards). A Calling Card was a simpler affair in construction (sometimes little more than the owner’s name in black on a white background) but a more complicated one in practice.
The etiquette of the 18th century did not lightly allow one to call at someone’s home unannounced. To be polite one had to “call ahead” as it were. (See how much has changed?) A Calling Card would be delivered to the home, where it would be received by a servant and deposited in a beautiful silver tray made exclusively for that purpose. These would then later be perused by the master of the house, who would then decide who among the card owners could return for a visit.
A lot of extra etiquette went into this practice. For example, if a card had an upturned (dog-eared) corner, this meant that the card owner had delivered it in person. The recipient could then respond by sending his or her own card to the caller’s home to indicate that a personal visit was welcome. Or the recipient could respond by sending no card, or sending a card in an envelope to show that a personal visit was not welcome.
As the years progressed, captains of industry rose to rival the aristocracy in importance and singular individuals, such as famous composers or politicians, became important in their own right. The practice of the Calling Card became more widely used by the upper middle-class until businesses and even lone businessmen and -women began making use of them, which is just a short hop, skip and a jump to today.
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