The Business Card

When was the ball point pen invented? What about paper clips, or fax machines? Vic Hollefruend, our Retail Furniture Manager, is on the case, researching and compiling everything you would want to know about who, where, why, when, and how of office supplies. We are pleased to present Vic’s History of Office Stuff.

Orient Origins

One of the products Monk Office makes available to customers is the “business card”. We have business card blanks by Avery, and the individual can design and print their own cards. Or we can print them in our imaging departments using the customer’s existing card as an original.

Business cards are so innocuous that we pay them little or no mind, but in other parts of the world they are a much bigger deal. A few years ago, when I was working with a relief and development agency, our Korean counterparts came to visit our head office in Seattle. The exchange of our business cards was a big ritual in and of itself. It seems the reason is that in other nations and areas of the world, particularly in Asia, the business card is regarded as an extension of the individual to be treated with honor and respect. This exchange of cards is attended with great ritual and a breach of protocol can give serious offense.

This little card actually has a long and interesting history. Experts tend to agree that the origins of the business card can be traced back to China in the 15th century. They were known as ‘visiting cards’ and served as a calling card to announce a person’s intention of meeting with another individual. They would also be presented at the door of an elite establishment in order that the owner of the said venue could decide if permitting a meeting was worthwhile. ‘Visiting Cards’ were not only an essential self-promotion tool of the upper classes, but a personal advertisement, and a basis of forging an introduction.

European High Society

During the 17th century visiting cards were in use in Europe. The footmen of the aristocracy or royalty would present the cards to the servants at the home of a host to announce the impending arrival of a distinguished guest. They were roughly the size of a playing card and in their earliest form were also used as all-purpose stationery on which to jot promissory notes or other messages.

By the 19th century a visiting card was essential to the life of any upper or middle class lady or gentlemen and was elegantly designed. Each home had a silver card tray on the hall table along with a pencil and a pad of paper. The cards collected in the tray served as a catalog of those who had visited the household and of the households to which a reciprocal call was due. The giving and receiving of cards, then, was tangible evidence of meeting one’s social obligations.

Card Protocol

Proper etiquette called for a card to be presented to each lady of the household on initial visits. Upon ringing the doorbell visitors were greeted by a servant offering the card tray on the outstretched palm of his or her left hand. The visitor deposited his card in the tray and waited while it was delivered to the lady of the house for examination. Only upon her approval would an actual face-to-face visit occur.

While waiting, it would have been considered the height of rudeness for a visitor to examine other cards in the hall. Protocol also dictated how the cards were presented. 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 that was folded in the middle indicated the call was meant for several or all of the members of the family. Certain lettering on the cards stood for selected unsaid messages such as “p.f.” for a congratulatory visit or “p.c.” for a condolence call. Such details of card etiquette were understood by all members of polite society and strictly adhered to.

All That is Old is New Again

Then came the “trade cards”, popular in London at the beginning of the 17th century at a time when there was no formal numbering system for streets and no well-developed newspaper industry. The trade cards served as a form of advertisement for businesses and also included maps with directions on how to reach the establishment. Increasingly however, with the rise of the middle class during the Industrial Revolution and an overall lessening of social formality, a class of private entrepreneurs emerged in both Europe and the United States that had a constant need to exchange contact information.

Today’s business cards come in an array of shapes, sizes and materials; from paper-based products to cd’s including virtual cards. Almost any surface can be printed on to create a unique and memorable card.


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