Design Inspirations from the History of Business Cards

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.

historycards_theexpert_350x205In 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.)

Historical Business Card Designs

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.

historycards_19thcent_550x412From the 19th Century: dress goodsglue 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, that eventually led to the conviction of playwright Oscar Wilde on charges of “gross indecency.”

16 comments on “Design Inspirations from the History of Business Cards”

  1. designvore Reply

    Interesting round up when we see that a trend in business cards is to use letterpress and recycled paper, which make them look retro. Great pictures!

  2. Anna Green, Web Design Reply

    These are interesting designs, its crazy to think that business cards have been in use for so long. I do think that they should keep to tradition and stay paper based. Im not a fan of digital business cards. I think that because a traditional business card is tangible it can form a bond between you and the person to pass it on to. It can remind a person of the first impression you layed down when first meeting them. Electronic business cards are fictional but impersonal. Each have there uses I guess. But i say keep it really where ever possible.

  3. Mike Reply

    Thanks for the post.
    Well, I think business cards are still used to weed out the rest! A great card with a great design can open doors!

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