A Brief History of Business Card Use

Business Card
Image (c) Jose Luis Pelaez / Getty Images

Business cards are traditionally the primary way that business people present their contact information to other business people and potential customers or clients. Even in the digital age business cards are thriving and in countries such as China and Japan, the exchange of business cards is almost a ritual. Business cards provide a more tangible way to impart information about who you are and what you do, making them one of the most effective direct marketing tools. Having your business card ready to present to others when needed demonstrates a higher level of professionalism.

Standard Business Card Format

Business Card
Business Card Layout. Image (c) Dave Mcleod / Susan Ward

Standard business cards are 2 by 3-inch rectangles of card stock, although creative custom card designs have been done using a variety of materials such as wood, plastic, metal, and cloth.

As per the above example, the front of a business card normally has:

  • The business logo (can be anywhere on the card) and the name of the business
  • The slogan or an indication of the services or products supplied by the business
  • The business person's name in the center of the card, followed by any degrees, diplomas or professional business designations in an abbreviated format. Below the name is the title, e.g. director, manager, etc.
  • The business address, phone number(s), fax number(if applicable), and email address(es) normally reside on the lower left or right
  • The website URL (should be prominent if the business is primarily web-based, otherwise can be included in the address block)

The back of business cards is usually (but not always) blank. For instance, if you're traveling abroad for business, it is good practice to have one side of your business cards translated into the language appropriate to the country you are visiting. (When you present such business cards, you should present the card to the recipient so that the recipient's language is face up.)

How to Present or Exchange Business Cards

Business cards are usually presented to one person by another in a face-to-face exchange, although they may also be attached to invoices and thank you cards, or even attached to a vehicle in a business card holder so passersby can help themselves to one if they're interested in the service or product advertised on the vehicle.

Cards can also be left in various places such as malls, seating areas, public bulletin boards, ATMs, and other places where people gather. You can also ask local businesses if you can leave a stack of cards on a counter.

When business cards are exchanged in person, they may be exchanged at the beginning or end of a conversation. When you receive a card, you should always look at the card and comment upon it before putting it away - preferably into a business card holder. It's bad manners to stuff business cards into your pockets.


Business cards originated as trade cards in 17th century England. They were used both as advertising and as maps as there was no formal street numbering system in London at the time.

By the 1870s the trade card’s popularity had made it one of the most widespread advertising formats—promoting everything from baby milk to pianos to patent medicines. They were displayed in offices, general stores, hotels, railroad stations, and restaurants, and salesmen assisted store owners in arranging advertisements for store counters and window displays using trade cards as well as larger formatted show cards. The advances in chromo-lithography at that time made such colorful creations possible that people even used them as home decoration (The Art of American Advertising: Trade Cards, Harvard Business School, Baker Library Historical Collections).

As you'll see in these examples of trade cards, the front of the trade card consisted of the business's name or sometimes the name of one of the business's products with a visually compelling illustration or design to attract the customer, while the back of the card was packed with details about the business - statistics, product benefits, ordering details, the company's location and contact information - anything that might interest the customer and enable him to buy the product.

Today business cards are still used as advertising as well as a convenient way to present a business's contact information. Business cards can even double as brochures, for instance.

Also Known As: No aliases.

Common Misspellings: Buisness cards, bisness cards, busyness cards.

Examples: In Japan business cards are treated as an extension of the person and should always be treated with honor and respect.