The Origins of the Business Card

Copyright 2006 The first business cards were actually playing cards and the practice of exchanging such cards originated in the Court of King Louis XIV of France. The "Sun King", who incidentally was the longest serving Monarch in history, held court in his opulent Palace of Versailles situated in today's terms, just a short train ride from Paris. The gentlemen of the Court were dedicated followers of fashion and were many in number. King Louis, an astute politician, realized that trouble could come from only one quarter and that was from a disaffected aristocracy. To safeguard himself, he brought all the nobility to Versailles where he gave them jobs, a comfortable lifestyle and of course, money. For the most part the nobles had not a lot to do as they sat under the ever-watchful eye of the absolute Monarch. Playing cards were one of the important "affairs" of state. The gentlemen would use these playing cards to write promissory notes to one another as a means of covering their gambling debts until next pay day. From this practice arose a whole system of writing notes, arranging meetings and dare I say, scheming assignations with the ladies of the court. Louis came to the throne as a mere child of 5 in 1643. Of course the affairs of state were governed by the Prince Regent, so it was after the establishment and the building of Versailles, in the third quarter of the seventeenth century, that the practice that gave rise to the business card came into being. About the same time, across the Channel in England, and notably the capital, London, a much more mundane albeit intensely practical form of business card was on the rise. This was the "Trade Card". The purpose of this type of card was to direct members of the public to a merchant's place of commerce. The cards invariably showed a map, clearly directing the potential customer to the business premises. This was really important at a time before properly designated street addresses had come into being. The cards were printed using woodcut or letterpress and were the traditional black on white. Colored varieties were to come much later. These early business cards were incredibly important, serving as very powerful advertising tools in an era before the advent of mass communications. The clarity of the map and associated information could well decide the fate of a fledgling commercial venture. Today, when somebody gives you a card you glance at it and file it for future reference. You can use the information printed there to telephone, write or e-mail the donor, but this was not so in earlier times of course. The card's original purpose was to give you clear directions on how to reach the business man in question.