A business card is a printed card featuring business and contact information such as the name, profession, company, telephone number and email address of the giver. They can also feature a company logo, or a design which in some way illustrates the specific area of business. They are often used during formal introductions between people, as a way of obtaining business contacts.
Due to the almost endless number of design variations, business cards are popular with some people as collectors’ items.
Many collectors will focus on a particular area such a specific profession, type of business, geographic location or era, whereas others may focus on the business cards of celebrities.
Celebrity cards are collected in a similar manner to autographs, in that many collectors contact celebrities directly to request cards for their collection. These cards can also be classed as items of memorabilia. The actor Steve Martin often hands out business cards instead of signing autographs. The specially-printed cards read: “This certifies that you've had a personal encounter with me and that you found me warm, polite and colourful.”
Older cards dating back to the 19th century can be classed as items of antique ephemera, and early trade cards (the forerunner of modern business cards) are a collectible category of their own.
Business card collectors often swap or trade cards with other collectors from across the globe, and several trading groups and mailing lists have been set up to further the hobby by its enthusiasts.
Modern business cards have their roots in 17th century visiting cards, which were presented at houses to announce the impending arrival of a distinguished guest. Such cards were intricately decorated with elegant coats of arms and engraved ornaments, and by the beginning of the 18th century they had become an important part in high-class social etiquette.
By the 19th century these ‘calling cards’ were extensively used by all members of polite society. The correct etiquette was to present a calling card upon visiting a house, where it would be placed on a silver tray. The card would then be taken to the lady of the house to be examined, before the person in question was greeted in person.
While waiting, it would have been considered the height of rudeness for a visitor to examine other cards kept in the hall. If the upper right hand corner of the card was folded it indicated that the card's owner had presented the card in person.
A card folded in the middle indicated the call was meant for several or all the members of the family. Lettering on the cards could include ‘p.f.’ for a congratulatory visit or ‘p.c.’ for a condolence visit. Such minute details of card etiquette were understood and followed by all the upper echelons of society.
At the opposite end of the spectrum were trade cards, used by businesses from the start of the 17th century. These cards would be handed out in the street or given to customers as advertisements for the business in question.
Some included maps, and in 1868 the New York sporting goods store Peck and Snyder began to produce trade cards featuring the images of baseball players on one side and adverts for their baseball equipment on the reverse.
These were the world’s first baseball trading cards, and became collected in their own right before spawning the entire industry of sports memorabilia.
During the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the middle class and an overall lessening of social formality led to the merging of calling cards with trade cards, in the form of early business cards as we know them today. More and more private entrepreneurs began to start small businesses which relied on the trade of others, and as the need for clients and contacts grew so did the use of the cards as a means of both introduction and advertisement.
Currently, there exists in many countries such as China and Japan a culture of etiquette surrounding business cards that rivals that of 19th century calling cards, and they remain a vital business tool to this day.