How Business Cards Have Helped Entrepreneurs for Nearly Four Centuries

Today, business cards are ubiquitous. Wherever you go, business cards are available and readily exchanged. That ritual has been repeated for more than four centuries. But, do you know how and where it originated?

You have certainly received dozens if not hundreds or thousands of business cards. You keep them at home and in your office. They are everywhere: systematically sorted out in your business card holders, or chaotically populating in the bottom drawers of your desk or inside a book you have not opened for years. From time to time, you find a business card that you forgot you received. Its revival may spark some interest.

Not only do you receive and collect business cards regularly, you also distribute your own business cards to every potential customer or client you meet. When you leave your home, you check to make sure you have business cards with you, and you feel lost when you run out.

Business cards are here to stay, and new social media and mobile app solutions are paradoxically having a positive impact on orders for business cards by entrepreneurs around the world.

Business cards have been around for at least four centuries ... and counting!
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You may be curious about the history of business cards. When and where were the first business cards produced? Who were those visionaries that introduced this tiny yet mighty marketing and relationship tool? What were they thinking about? What were the benefits of using early business cards? Have things evolved over time?


There is no certainty about the origin of the business card, but there is a wide consensus about a few key points. This is how the story goes:

Paper was invented in ancient China about two thousand years ago. For centuries, paper was widely used in the commercial environment; most notably but not limited to banknotes.

It has been suggested that business cards were also invented in China and by the 15th century they were commonly used . However, these cards were not used for commercial purposes, so they were not exactly what we call business cards today. A more appropriate name is “visiting card.”

Old Acquaintance Card with Handshaking

When an elite member of the Chinese society was visiting an acquaintance and it happened that the person was absent or unwilling to receive visits, it was common practice to leave a piece of paper with a note on it. The handwritten note specified the name of the visiting person and the purpose of his or her visit.

Since the printing process was not yet a diffused technique and considering that this was a proper custom of the upper class, we can imagine that these were handmade cards with beautiful designs, plenty of colors, and delicate calligraphy. It might read, “Mr. Xi would be honored to meet thou.”

Later, this custom reappeared. Perhaps imported from China or reinvented, oligarchs from 16th-century France had a similar practice. Distinguished people used to leave a small card with their name and the purpose of their visit for the person they wanted to meet.

By the same time, in the UK business owners were using cards to spread the word about their businesses. These cards were known as “trade cards.”

The Modern Business Card

History indicates that the business card as we know it today was well established in 19th-century England, the cradle of modern capitalism. With the booming entrepreneurial spirit of the time and the subsequent growing competition, shop and business owners began thinking about new ways to promote their products and services.

With the commercialization of the standard printing press, they ordered business cards and distributed them in front of their shops and to people they met. The idea was to give the business card to as many people as possible.

The evidence suggests that in America the business card was received with enthusiasm by the most advanced entrepreneurial groups. The idea spread rapidly to the rest of the society. Early business cards were very simple: black ink on white or ivory paper. Most cards were horizontal and the standard business card size was similar to the one used today. Unique fonts and simple designs were the main visual variations used to set business cards apart.

By the end of the 19th century, the printing process improved considerably and business cards started to look more like present day business cards. Colors were added and some graphic elements made business cards still more attractive.

Our Pinterest Gallery of Vintage Business Cards
Click the Pinterest widget to view a gallery of vintage business card examples.

The XXth Century

During the first part of the twentieth century, but particularly after WWII and the flourishing economy that followed in most Western countries, business cards began to permeate society as a whole. Small business owners and executives alike used their business cards on a daily basis to start business relationships with potential consumers and business partners.

With the advent of the digital age and the proliferation of smartphones, the business card is reinventing itself.

If you’re interested in learning more about the origin of the business card, Dr. Ivan Misner talks about it in the first pages of his book, It’s in the Cards!


Since its inception several centuries ago―whether in oligarchic Beijing or Paris, or in entrepreneurial London―the business card has become an integral part of the modern business scene. In many industries it is mandatory to have a business card and that you are prepared to give them to the countless prospects you will meet during the day.

In the other articles of this guide you will learn how to make the most out of your business card, from content and design to printing. We will also tell you how to create an effective marketing and distribution plan.

Zazzle Business Cards - allBcards

Discover Zazzle’s extensive selection of business cards >>

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If you found this article useful, you will certainly love our free guide! It contains 35 articles like this one, dealing with business card content, design, printing and distribution.

Business Card & Networking Tips - Infographics by allBcards

About allBcards - Business card and contact management solution

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allBcards is the only contact manager in the web centered on the traditional business card. Whether you are a small business owner or a successful entrepreneur who exchanges business cards regularly, this is the solution you need to manage your cards more efficiently.

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