The humble business card has, in fact, rather an illustrious heritage. The French, being always at the forefront of everything chic, are credited with launching the calling card on polite society during in the 17th Century. Known as the 'visites biletes,' they were popularised during the reign of Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV. However, these social insignia should be regarded as a distinct category of card: although today we may conflate business and socializing, up until the late 19th Century, the pleasure classes liked to keep the two completely separate.
Thus early calling cards were literally used as a method of introducing oneself when wishing to visit an aristocratic neighbour. This meant that the design and quality of the card was all important. Just as today we seek to create a good impression with a business card, the denizens of high society also wanted to demonstrate their cultured credentials. Hence, by the 18th Century, exotic typefaces were being used as well as gold leaf to embellish the design.
The etiquette surrounding the presentation of your card was also carefully choreographed: if an individual wished to pay a social call on someone, they must first leave their calling card at the house, placing it on a conveniently located card tray in the entrance hall. If the caller presented their card in person they could signify this by folding up the corners, whilst cards delivered by a servant must never be folded. Further signs indicating the purpose of the proposed call could also be given: a card with P/F signified a congratulatory call, (from the French 'pour féliciter'); whereas P/R stood for pour remercier, ('thank you'). The caller would then wait for the lady of the house to acknowledge their card before an official visit was made. In essence, it was an effective way of filtering out the chaff from the wheat; if a lady felt their potential caller was not of sufficient social standing, they simply failed to acknowledge the card.
In contrast, trade cards, which also began to appear in the 17th Century, were perhaps more akin to business cards we use today. They were left by tradesmen either before or after completing a job, and often carried a map showing where their business could be found. Before the implementation of a comprehensive newspaper network it was the best form of direct advertising available.
Initially they would have been printed using a wooden press but with the introduction of lithography in the 1830s, tri-colour cards could be created. By the 19th Century, the newspaper business was becoming increasingly advanced and it became far cheaper for tradesmen to place adverts in the press, inevitably leading to a decrease in the use of cards.
Today our use of business cards is perhaps a mixture of the trade and the calling card. Our cards advertise our business but also create a first impression of us as a person, hence the need to take time and care over their creation. It was the Americans who first began this blurring of boundaries, much to the consternation of Europeans, they were quite happy to leave their business cards as a calling card, or vice-versa. This developed into the multiple use business cards we have today.