Every time I go to a conference, networking event, or tech launch I find myself returning home with a stack of strangers’ business cards that I promptly set on the corner my desk and, for the most part, never look at again.
Business cards are bulky, inconvenient, and hard to keep track of––and with an abundance of online landing pages like Twitter, LinkedIn, and personal websites, it is a wonder this paper vestige of the past yet to be unseated by something more efficient.
That isn’t to say that hasn’t been tried: the business card has been evolving since its predecessor, calling cards, was first introduced in the 17th century. Also called visiting cards, they were first used by traveling aristocrats and royalty in Europe to alert prospective hosts of their arrival. A system of etiquette emerged surrounding the cards, with social conventions communicated entirely by card determining whether a visit would take place.
The calling card of German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Into the 1800s, the cards were also used for courting. If a man wanted to see a lady of the house, he would leave his calling card with the servant on a silver tray at the entrance. Women would then survey cards left by potential suitors and decide whom to approve for a face-to-face visit. If a lady did not want to see a specific suitor the servant would tell him the lady was “not at home,” a hard left swipe in 18th century dating speak.
In the meantime trade cards rose throughout the 17th century, popular with tradesmen traveling throughout European Villages. The cards included the names of businesses with a map of how to reach them. The calling card and trade card essentially merged throughout the 19th century, and business cards as we know them took off at the beginning of the 20th century as the American work structure became larger and more multilayered, according to JoAnne Yates, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management.
"They're a real tangible way to make the human connection."
“In the first couple decades of the 20th century, a lot of firms really grew,” she said. “There was only a small number of firms that were really large in the way we think about them, with managerial hierarchies, before that point, so it wasn’t until those first couple of decades when there was a lot of growth in a lot of firms that it might have become desirable for people who were managers to have business cards.”
Business cards became a major staple of networking events in the 1960s, according to Brian Spindel, president and co-founder of PostNet, which prints business cards and other documents for companies and individuals across the US.
“They grew in popularity as business networking grew, I think that’s what really took off,” he said. “I think with networking today is why business cards are so popular and so utilized by people, they’re one of those things technology hasn’t replaced.”
Of course, many innovators have tried to improve upon the business card. Articles abound on the death of the business card, citing apps that would supposedly overtake the act of swapping paper. Bump was perhaps the most promising app of them all, allowing users to swap digital info with people nearby. It shut down a year ago, saying it would be spending more time working on projects with Google, which it previously joined. Cardmunch, another app allowing you to scan business cards and upload them was shut down in 2014, and similar app Cardcloud has disappeared without a trace. As replacement attempts come and go, Spindel said the cards themselves are becoming more high tech.
“While technology hasn’t replaced the business card, there is more variation in terms of thickness and material; business cards now support digital information, like your website or Twitter, or QR codes––which are now kind of passé” he said. “We are trying to always think forward with what changes are coming.”
Those changes could come in a variety forms, whether it’s an app that actually works, or NFC chips that will be able to be read by phones to instantly share information.
However, no matter what comes to take the place of business cards, Spindel said he thinks some form of the old standby will always be around.
“One reason I think business cards have maintained their use and popularity is that they're a real tangible way to make the human connection, even with all the email and chat and social making a connection with another human being and passing your business card to them at a networking function has become part of business culture," he said. "It’s a really tangible connection, and almost an extension of their person and their business.”