An Informal History of Business Cards
Network Science before Adwords & Spam
Prior to the proliferation of Bed Bath & Beyond mailers & Call Girl cards, trade & calling cards served a legitimate purpose in the world beyond fireplace kindling. Here’s a look at the humble origins of the business cards and how they came to litter our desks, back pockets & mailboxes today.
I’d heard mumblings in designer circles of the elite origins of business cards. My curiosity overlapped with my research into card stock, colored siding, embossing, gold foil, letterpress and other embellishments of trade superiority which led to this segue.
15th Century Meishi
There is wide consensus that visiting cards originated in China. When elite would visit a town or other elite, it was necessary to inform the populace of their arrival. Details such as paper weight, brushmanship & age of consorts offered clues into how lord, said lord really was.
Many folks really credit this period as the birth of business cards because Europeans were practicing it and this version falls in line with revisionism. So lets assume that this is really where the modern business card originated, during the reign of Louis XIV. An individual’s success or failure in society was highly correlated to his self promotion sensibilities & ability to gain an audience. Mind you, this was before adwords, mailers & social networks, when networks were fragile. Social ranking was dependent on interpersonal connections IRL and being of some importance. These days though, you can get by with the expenditure of ad dollars & cheap clickbait copy.
17th-18th Century Courting
When a lord wished to speak with a fair lady & when only the palest would do, he was required to leave his card with the keeper of the manor. The calling cards were collected & circulated with the hostess & the lady before she would either reciprocate interest or show no acknowledgement. The lords would continue to deposit their calling cards in the estate hallway trays everywhere, a behavior that proceeded Tinder cards by over two centuries.
Only later did merchants begin to use cards for promoting their occupations to both, their service & their location. As networks were still quite weak, this forged links and credits with merchants & customers alike. They were equally used as contracts & signatures were legally binding instruments in an age that lacked spam, phishing & digital signatures.
The industrial revolution led to an informality of distinction between calling cards & trade cards leading to our present day business cards. The Kayne of that era would have likely spoketh:
“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.”
This practice most resembles our current social atmosphere where a person introduces themselves, not by their hobbies or beliefs but by their alma mater & workplace, “So, what do you do?” or “What startup do you work at?” Our societal value is now defined by our card stock.
“New card. Whaddaya think?”
We live in a glorious age where every charlatan & trickster can have their trade calling cards printed for pennies, the class of which is associated greasy salesmen, new founders & club promoters. To distinguish the elites from sloven we’ve employed a system of paper weights (16pt minimum), letterpress (embossing or raised ink may suffice) & gold foil. Accoutrements aside, a well designed business card is the hallmark of trade royalty.
Ultimately the choice is yours but I recommend you lavish money on business cards in near inexhaustible quantities, for those few seconds of tactile & visual impact before they are cast away into some drawer or rear jean pocket.
If it’s not a PPT (Pay-Per Touch) of $0.50, you’re not doing it right.
The essay was written in January 2015 while Vikram was branding the energy startup he works at. Unfortunately the business cards were never letterpressed & no one at his workplace caught the Pay-Per Touch wordplay…
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