Design Inspirations from the History of Business Cards

Articles September 10, 2009

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_350x205 In 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_550x412 From the 19th Century: dress goodsglue manufacturercarte de visite of John Wilkes Booth.

historycards_victorian_550x412 Victorian 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.”

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Cadence is You The Designer's senior blogger, and the most jack-of-all-trades of the staff. She's always trying out something different every day, some of which fuels her posts here on the blog. Let her know if you want us to post more about your favorite topic - she might know more than a thing or two about it!

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  • designvore

    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!

  • Henry

    This is a very unique and interesting post! Congrats. Well-done. :)

  • KDN

    I launched my hCard (a digital standard for business cards) the other day with a very minimalistic design.

  • Elisa

    I love these, I love the Abe Lincoln card, even though it’s fake.

  • Anna Green, Web Design

    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.

  • Zafar

    Fabulous post. I need such post. Thanks for sharing this grate post.

  • steff

    waw.. this is so good! thanks for sharing! i never see them before.
    it’s very inspiring.

  • Cranvas

    Very unique……….! Thanks for sharing…………….!

  • Clayton

    Very cool collection…interesting to see how styles have changed, but basic design ABC’s haven’t.

  • Chris Hartwell

    It’s amazing how different they were!

  • Webdesign@Posh-Creation

    Nice collection..Thanks

  • Mike

    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!