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                                                                                                                 March 2014 / Issue #15

Business Cards: 600 yrs. old
and still the Best Value for your Marketing Dollar!

From 15th century China, to Europe, America   and to Our Digital World – A Mini History

Written by Mike Hamers, Lightspeed 
Edited by Kate Hamers, Lightspeed and Kris Green, Turn Words 2 Money

Business cards offer a legacy that lasts. Why? Because they work now and they’ve worked for centuries. When you hand someone your business card, you start a chain of connections that can result in new business. That's why you want your card to be attention-getting, pleasing, informative, and memorable; to “stand out from the pack.”  You want people to notice your card, comment on it, pass it around, and keep it readily available. Then the next time someone needs your products or services, they'll think of you. How do we know business cards work? Because they have a long history even as they continue to evolve.

China, 15th century

The earliest known form of the modern “business card” originated in China during the 15th century. Elaborately decorated formal announcements signifying the presence or visitation of royalty were distributed to the local populous, but the specifics of this period of the medium's history were not well recorded and have since been lost.


France, 17th century
Making their way from China, the first visiting cards appeared in France during the reign of Louis XIV. Visiting cards used to be playing-card size, just a little smaller than the size of a man's hand. The highly-mannered reign of Louis XIV is considered to be the calling card heyday, where an individual’s success or failure in society often depended on the strength of their personal promotion.


England and the United States, 17th century

Tradecards were used in all parts of England in the 17th Century. These were used as advertising and especially as maps, directing the public to merchant's stores, as there was no formal street numbering system at the time. Adopted from French court etiquette, visiting cards came to America and Europe. They included refined engraved ornaments and fantastic coats of arms. Visiting cards, or calling cards, were an essential accessory to any 19th century middle class lady or gentleman.


The popularity of Tradecards soared as they were the most effective means of advertising when newspapers were still not well developed. Many Tradecards directed the holder right to a merchant’s shop – much like today's handheld smartphones. The earliest forms of Tradecards were printed by woodcut or letterpress. By the 18th century, copper engravings became the most popular method. Around 1830, the process of stone lithography was able to apply several colors and soon became the established method in Europe. However, multicolor cards did not become popular in the U.S. until after the Civil War. The 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition* was a springboard for the nearly overnight popularity of multicolor trade cards in the U.S.. Over the next ten years, they appeared in stores everywhere, advertising nearly every type of product imaginable.

* SIDE NOTE: The Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, the first official World’s Fair in the United States, was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from May to Nov. 1876, to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia.

Officially named the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufacturers and Products of the Soil and Mine, it was attended by about 10 million visitors, including repeat guests (equivalent to about 20% of the population of the U.S. at the time.) who wandered through the 249 temporary buildings and stayed in the temporary hotels constructed in and around Fairmount Park. These visitors were treated to more than 30,000 exhibits from all over the world, with each participating country determined to showcase its inventive clout. A sampling of the inventions demonstrated were: the telephone, typewriter, Hires Root Beer, bananas, non-capsizable iron lifeboats, plus the Statue of Liberty’s torch and top arm were on display.



United States – 19th century
In the United States there was a rigid distinction between Business and Visiting cards.
Visiting cards were personal and served as tangible evidence of meeting social obligations, as well as providing a streamlined letter of introduction. The stack of cards in the card tray in the hall was a handy catalog of exactly who had called and whose calls might need to be returned. These were used primarily by those of some prominence or social stature. Business cards, being true to their name, were widespread among all classes with a business to promote. It was considered very poor taste to use a business card when making a social call. A business card, left with the servants, could imply that you had called to collect on an outstanding bill.

Calling Card Etiquette – 18th & 19th century

By the beginning of the 19th century, the etiquette of calling was a firmly established ritual in society, and the calling card an essential part of introductions, invitations and visits. Calling cards evolved in England as a way for people to get into the elite social circle, and for those already there to keep out the unwanted. Calling cards could keep social aspirants at a distance until they could be properly screened – especially with men calling on women. Houses even had card trays, ornate in construction, made so those visiting your house could leave their card easily.


Visiting cards were used socially while Tradecards had developed into vehicles for mass advertising. Sales reps, bill collectors, and other entrepreneurs still needed a way to introduce their products and services, exchange contact information, and leave messages when they called in person. The effects of the Industrial Revolution created a lessening of formality in the world. Exchanging contact information became even more essential – the Visiting card and Tradecard were merged and handed out more liberally.

Business Cards in a Digital Age
The Digital Revolution is once again changing the way business cards are produced, used and distributed, and technological changes will continue to drive their evolution in 2014. Despite being a small marketing tool in an entrepreneur's or business professional's arsenal, business cards can have a huge impact on the success of your business or career – even in the Digital Age. The impression your business cards make, however, depends on how much effort you put into the design and where you do business.

Statistics Show Increase in Business Card Use
While going paperless may be the reigning trend in the digital world, smart business people continue to put their trust in business cards:

   • 78% of small business owners surveyed by data specialists,
     Ipsos Observer,
agreed that business cards are a critical
    component of successful networking,

   • 48% reported giving out more cards now than they did 5 years ago,

   • 44% expect that handing out 100 or more cards will translate
     into $5,000 or more additional revenue.

Modern printing techniques like direct-to-plate printing, laser and ink-jet digital output, and automated on-demand online printing services (like or make full-color printing very inexpensive and easily available to everyone.


Business cards are getting smarter including using QR codes to integrate with mobile technology. There are creative ways to embed QR codes in cards ranging from blending the code into another image to using the code itself as a design. QR codes can also link your card to your website(s) and social media profiles, which increasingly also serve as virtual business cards.

Linked-In profiles, web pages and social sites enable you
to flesh out your physical card by providing additional information such as service descriptions, video demonstrations, client testimonials and detailed contact information. Moreover, linking your business card to a website enables you to invite your card’s recipient to contact you or opt-in to your mailing list, so that you are collecting their contact information in the process of giving out yours.

Thanks for reading. We hope you find it of value. I’d love to hear your feedback!  – MH

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To Your Success – Mike Hamers

Copyright, Good Design IS Good Business, Mike Hamers, Boulder, CO

Mike Hamers is an award-winning graphic designer, illustrator and author who lives and works in Niwot (Boulder), CO. He has been the owner of Lightspeed Design for 23 years. During that time he has won over 20 national and international awards for this logo design, stationery, packaging and font designs.

Mike has had his illustrations in Wired magazine and brochure design work in "The Little Book of Layouts: Good Design and Why It Works".  Mike enjoys working with all size companies – from solopreneur's startups to large national companies. His broad experience crosses most industries including bio- and nano-science, biomedical devices, technology and manufacturing, software, foodservice, and more. Mike's comprehensive design and illustration portfolio is viewable at

Mike Hamers, Owner of Lightspeed Commercial Arts, Designer and Illustrator

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Editing and Proofing by
Kris Green,
  Turn Words 2 Money

Link to C3 Writing, a quality writing and editing service company




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