Business cards are believed to have originated in 15th century China. They were ornate and artistically detailed cards presented by royalty to the people they visited. In the 17th century, elite Europeans adopted the custom of exchanging visiting cards. Eventually these visiting cards evolved into business cards. Today business cards represent a $1.2 billion industry in the U.S.

Basic Business Cards

The standard size for a business card in the U.S. is 3.5 by 2 inches. (Sizes vary slightly around the world.) Business cards in the U.S. are generally printed on 100-pound weight paper. The paper used can be glossy or matte. A variety of colors and textures are employed, depending on the look desired. Inks also can vary in color. The raised-print effect of engraved plate printing is considered a desirable look. It is imitated by lower-cost thermographic printing.

Infinite Variety

Many business people view business cards as useful advertising tools. Certainly original, amusing, and interesting cards are more likely to be kept, looked at, and shared with others. Business card providers constantly seek to offer new options that help customers stand out. These options can include non-paper card materials--plastic, fabric, or metal.

Lenticular lens business cards show images that appear to move, morph, or have a 3-D effect. Cards can also be die cut in a shape that reflects the focus of a business--a hot dog shape for a hot dog supply company, for example, or a sneaker shape for a shoe store.

Some cards include industry tips or a referral discount on the reverse side, adding to the value the card holds for the recipient.

Some customers distinguish themselves by selecting eBusiness cards--CD-ROMs in business card format that can store 40 MB or more of data, enough to include all the information on a Website, a multimedia sales pitch, or a product catalog.

Other consumers go in the other direction--simplicity--and order cards with only a Website name imprinted. Here the strategy is simply for the card to be the conduit to the company's information on the Web.

Business Card Etiquette

Business cards are now used worldwide. In China and Japan, for example, you are expected to accept a business card with both hands, look at it, and comment positively on it. It is important, when traveling on business, to know that certain rules of etiquette apply in various countries and to check on local customs.