Originally known as a visiting card or calling card, the forerunner of the modern day business card first appeared in China in the 15th century. Only in the 17th century did the card make its appearance in Europe, where it was passed from the footmen of aristocrats and royalty to the servants of those they were about to visit – an announcement of their presence, so to speak.
There were strict rules of etiquette concerning the use of visiting cards, the basic ground rule being that one first left one’s card at the home of the person one wished to visit and then waited for (hopefully!) a response. This was usually in the form of that person’s card being similarly delivered to your home, indicating that a meeting might not be out of the question. A lack of response, or one’s card being returned in an envelope, implied that further personal contact was not a possibility.
Even when the use of the visiting card spread to the United States, it remained a social tool of the upper classes, as its distribution was made possible only by there being servants to deliver them or to pass them on to their masters.
The type of card and the details thereon differed slightly between the various regions and periods, but in the main they contained only the bearer’s name and no address. Stored in expensive ornamental card cases, some were engraved or embossed or included coats of arms.
The pure visiting card is still used nowadays, mainly by women in a social context. They feature the person’s name, mobile number and email address. According to Debrett’s New Ettiquete, it is still rare to include one’s residential address. For more details on the traditional visiting card, visit Debrett’s.