Few people realize that the business card has its roots all the way back to the 16th Century in Europe (and the 15th Century in China).
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 as a way of keeping 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 without following any of the other countless rules.)
The British also introduced the “trade card,” a calling card containing an advertisement for a person’s business, often with lithographed graphics. The French carte de visite, a collectible photograph cropped to the same size as a calling card, and the trade card were both forerunners of the “trading card,” well known today to fans of baseball and inedible chewing gum.
Today when people print business cards, it’s a synthesis of the calling card and the trade card. 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 designs of old.
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, that eventually led to the conviction of playwright Oscar Wilde on charges of “gross indecency.”