Monday, May 24, 2010

How Business Cards Began in Britain

Business cards have a strange origin, so far as the British Isles are concerned. Unlike in other places, people began to use business cards in Britain because the officials in London forgot to mark the city's maze-like streets with adequate numbers, making it difficult for people to find places they wanted to go.

This caused considerable problems for local businesses. How would a business advertise itself if it could not properly tell a prospective customer where it was located? If a merchant opened a store on some long street in London in the 17th century, he would find it hard to direct customers to his store. There was no handy numbering system for him to use with his prospective customers. In our world, we often take for granted the presence of street numbers and don't recognize the great efficiency of this system. That might change if you go to a country where there isn't a street numbering system. The merchants of 17th century London devised an efficient method to resolve this problem.

They created small, palm-sized cards that they called trading cards. These were printed and kept in little boxes that a merchant could carry. He could hand over one of these cards to a potential customer. The trading cards contained detailed descriptions, even hand drawings of rough maps that showed where the merchant's store was located. The location was often referenced against a well-known landmark like Westminster Abbey. These cards and the directions made it easy for customers to find a store.

The cards were originally made out of woodcut; the letterpress was also used. Then in the next century, fine copperplate engraving replaced these older printing methods. The cards were still in monotone, which too changed in the 19th century with the introduction of lithography.

Modern business cards were just a step away.

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