Business cards as we know them today are marks of distinction. Every start-up entrepreneur wants to invest in a cool business card before making a dollar’s worth of profit. It’s a fashion statement to possess business cards; even if many people completely ignore their usefulness.
However, this was not always so in the early days of the United States. Business cards did not always enjoy the high class status that they do today. If you came to a person’s house and left a business card, it meant that you had come to collect bills. For many, bill collector is not a noble profession.
The “noble” cards of those days were known as visiting cards. These were often embossed in gold letters, with ornate coats of arms and other designs, and were carried in sophisticated, expensive little boxes.
According to the rules of etiquette, a gentleman could not just barge into another gentleman’s house for a personal visit. If you wanted to visit someone, you had to send your servant to that person’s house to leave your visiting card. If they sent back a visiting card, that meant that a visit had been granted. If no visiting cards came or yours was returned in a white envelope, social etiquette said that you had been refused a visit.
Visiting cards were mostly used by the so-called nobility in the U.S. “Nobility” may be a strange concept to modern Americans, but it was an accepted social class in those times. A gentleman’s collection of visiting cards told you who had been gracing his residence with their presence; visiting cards, both yours and others, were a status symbol.
Lower classes, merchants, and working people also used a kind of card. People used them to promote their businesses. Socially, such self-advertising was seen to be in poor taste compared to the blue-blooded visiting cards.