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Cards—a centuries-long tradition

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The charming and useful custom of trading business cards originated, interestingly enough, among the aristocracy in China in the 15th Century as visiting or calling cards. Delivered by servants to announce the arrival of VIPs, their use was adopted in Europe early in the 1600s for the same purpose.

By Victorian days, a tightly structured hierarchy of card sizes—as with everything else for the rules-obsessed Victorians—was used by persons of quality to denote their social standing as they called upon social acquaintances and left their calling or visiting cards behind. The largest cards, measuring 3 3/8" x 2 1/2", were reserved for married couples.

A man could choose a card of either 3 3/8" x 1.5" or 3.5" x 2" dimensions. Sizes then ranged down to that for a married woman, a single woman, an unarried daughter still living at home, and a child, who had the smallest card at 2.25" x 1 3/8".

Comparative sizes of some Victorian calling cardsComparative sizes of some Victorian calling cards. L-R, couple's card, men's large, men's small, lady's (married), and child's.

An essential piece of equipment for conforming to etiquette, calling cards came with complex rituals. Unless they had been invited or someone had previously introduced them, Lord A wouldn't expect to be received in Lord B's home unless he had first left his calling card. If that was reciprocated later by Lord B's appearance, during which he left his card signaling his receptiveness to meeting, then Lord A might feel assured he could visit Lord B without losing face. If, however, Lord B didn't reciprocate, or did send a card but enclosed it in an envelope, Lord A was politely discouraged from further overtures—a rather civilized way to get around the embarrassment of being turned away from the door. The rules were astonishingly complicated (not surprising, considering the Victorians), and I'd think it would take the better part of a day just to decode what, exactly, the appearance of any particular unfamiliar card might mean. Especially if flowers, with their own extremely complex "language," accompanied it!

As America grew, its own aristocracy (read: rich folks) adopted this custom. It's worth noting that the whole system depended on having servants—if you answered your own door, it was kind of a pointless exercise, so ordinary people didn't indulge. Unless, of course, you were middle class and aspiring to giddy heights of social status—social climbers were no different then from now.

As this custom expanded, people's visiting cards sometimes became more elaborate and ornate. They'd feature coats of arms, baroque engraved ornamental images (which today we'd probably call dingbats), and whatnot. However, one suspects this occurred more among the nouveau riche, and that those with a plain, heavy card of very expensive paper containing only their names—no addresses—considered these vulgar affectations.

This card would have been considered vulgar.This card would have been considered quite vulgar by those in the know—it's too big, it's decorated, it (gasp!) contains the miss's first name; it's just plain common. Sometimes, such cards were sold blank and people wrote their own names on them—also dreadfully tacky.

Business people quickly adopted this tradition. Initially called "trade cards," the first business cards were used exclusively by tradespeople, who adopted a multipurpose approach. In addition to announcing the business and the representative's name, the cards allowed a person to make notes about a business agreement or write out simple bills. Some cards included such things as maps to help customers find the proper shop, since formal, standardized street numbering didn't yet exist.

There doesn't appear to have been a standard size initially for trade cards, but they had to be small to be portable and handy. As more information was needed, the cards were superseded for note-taking or letter-writing by larger sheets of paper, culminating in the letterhead we still use.

Evolving from simple, useful cards, it wasn't long before business cards became works of art, at least in some circles. The development of mechanized paper-making, engraving and lithography, four-color printing, and a host of technological advances had the same relationship to complexity that it has today—people wanted to do X, so somebody developed Y process to make it possible.

Social formality went the way of the dodo during the 20th Century, though there have been periodic claims that it's returning (to no visible effect, at least in my world). Calling cards fell out of use, while business cards became ever more inventive: Foldovers, die-cuts, pop-ups, odd materials such as leather and metal, and in recent years, CD-ROM business cards that contain basic information printed on them, and a whole presentation on their little memory bits.

Customs in one country still contrast enough with Western traditions that they bear mention: The use of meishi in Japan.

Meishi, the term for Japanese business cards, carry a whole standardized presentation ritual that retains meaning and importance. Meishi are stored in a leather case, which keeps them both crisp and cool, since presenting a warm or dog-eared card would connote disrespect. When meeting a new business acquaintance, the presenter, with both hands, offers the meishi to the recipient, holding it by the top two corners, face-up and with the lettering positioned so the recipient can read it. Simultaneously, he (used here in the neuter sense) formally introduces himself (verbally).

A Japanese meishi.This is a meishi that showed up on a seat at my local coffee hangout—my apologies if it offends anyone or shouldn't be posted. While meishi were originally understated, the trend has been toward more colorful, artsy cards.

The recipient politely accepts the card by taking the bottom two corners with both hands, taking care not to cover the name or other information on the card. He then reads the card, notes the person's name and position within the company, thanks the giver, and bows. He shouldn't write on the meishi or place it carelessly in a pocket; it should be tucked away in his own leather case. And of course, there are rules and conventions covering who presents what first to whom when various ranks, such as executive and sales manager, are involved.

Typically, meishi are printed on a Japanese paper size called yongo, which is about 3 5/8" x 2 1/4"—not much different from U.S. standards. As with European aristocracy, it was formerly customary for women to have smaller cards (sango), which were about 3 3/8" x 2" —and theirs had rounded corners.

Today, the standard business card size is 3.5" x 2". If you have a business card printed or print your own with perforated computer cards, that's the size you'll get.

Two typical modern American business cards.Two typical modern American business cards—top, printed on a computer; bottom, by the thermography process that simulates engraving.

But why not choose your own size? Some people buy antique Victorian and earlier card holders and have personal cards made to fit them. Others use a playing-card size.

Make yours bigger and use them for notes. Make them bookmark size. Make them any size you like and in any conformation you want. We're certainly not bound by Victorian conventions today! An unusually sized or shaped card with a distinctive design can make you stand out from the uniform crowd (although it can pose filing problems!).


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