On a warm spring evening in 1922, M. Sturtz — a burglary insurance broker who lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — left her apartment for a few minutes to run an errand. While she was gone, a pair of thieves gained entry through a dumbwaiter, locked the doors and windows from the inside, and proceeded to make off with everything of value in the place, including the contents of a toy safe belonging to Mrs. Sturtz’ 8-year-old daughter Josephine. In their wake, the thieves left a hand-written business card on a table in the center of the apartment. “Expert crooks,” it read across the center. “Services at reasonable rates,” it advised in the upper left hand corner. “Specialties: Pocketpicking, flim-flamming, second story work, black-jacking and robbing babies’ banks a specialty,” it concluded in a lower corner.
The thieves refrained from including their names, their address, their phone number, and yet who would argue that their card should not be the model for every business card? It instantly conveyed their style, their humor, their cruelty. It established them as men of their word. (They did in fact rob babies’ banks.) It no doubt left a lasting impression on Mrs. Sturtz.
Long before Second Life avatars, long before Facebook profiles, long before AOL screen names, human beings were flattening their complex corporeality into idealized representations of identity. In 15th-century China, in 17th-century Europe, name cards, visiting cards, and trade cards — the predecessors to today’s 2” x 3.5” business cards — gave people their first chances to construct virtual selves.
At a time when there was no such thing as drivers’ licenses, Social Security cards, street addresses, telephone numbers, and various other means of cataloging humanity, the cards that private citizens created to establish and reinforce their identities played an obviously utilitarian role. But they were always metaphorical entities, too, offering clues to their bearer’s temperament and taste, certifying a person’s value through aesthetics rather than more tangible credentials. “It creates and establishes an impression of business strength, business ability, and business dignity unattainable by any other means,” boasts a 1910 advertisement for a packet of detachable business cards housed in a leather case. With the right business card, you could be anyone: In the 1920s, Al Capone carried one that listed his profession as “secondhand furniture salesman.”
As a communications form, the business card is characterized by severe physical limitations and adamantly observed conventions. Its canvas measures a mere 2 inches by 3.5 inches. There is basic information — name, job title, contact info — you’re expected to include, and if you do include it, that can be enough. In 1991, business card collector Richard Pantano sent letters to 280 of America’s most powerful CEOs in which he asked them for their cards. Nearly half of them, including Lee Iacocca and Bill Gates, complied, but Pantano told The Boston Globe that most of the cards he received were “very conservative-looking,” featuring simple typography on plain white card stock. Chalk it up to corporate egalitarianism or the ostentatious understatement of the rich and powerful if you must, but ultimately it was a black mark against free enterprise — our most successful, dynamic titans of commerce had cards better suited to a graphically challenged communist.
Others have taken a more ambitious approach to the form. Take, for example, 19th-century lawyer Charles M. Wright. In the tiny space of his business card, he tells us his name, occupation, and general location. He shows us what he looks like, he lets us know that he’s been at his trade for a while now, and he promises us a successful outcome if we engage his services. He establishes himself as both an “expert” and “the expert.” If all this sounds a little boastful, well, consider the clean, orderly feel of Wright’s card even with all he’s said about himself. Consider that the card, with its portrait and the seven different typefaces the card employs, could not have come cheaply. Clearly Wright is just as competent and prosperous as his card suggests he is.
Those of us who seek to immortalize our most essential — or aspirational — selves in similar fashion are fortunate to live in a golden age of business card creation. Currently, most print-based industries are gripped by a weird, bleakly comic paradox: Digital design and production technologies have evolved to the point where it is relatively cheap and easy to create visually stunning newspapers, magazines, and cereal boxes, and yet who wants to read any of that stuff on paper anymore? The business card industry benefits from the same advances in design and production, but provides a format more attuned to our attenuated attention spans. If you’ve got time to read a tweet, you’ve got time to read a business card.
Not surprisingly, many of today’s cards fetishsize their materiality. You can get ones made from brass, steel, copper, wood veneer, chocolate, even laser-etched beef jerky. Cards printed on a letterpress — or even better, a vintage letterpress —leave a visible indentation in the card that creates a sculptural look akin to bas relief (especially when no ink is used). Facebook profiles get revised as often as Heidi Montag’s face, such cards suggest. Tweets fade into the ether and avatars are put out to pasture, but real paper business cards, these sturdy facsimiles of ourselves on custom-duplexed cardstock with metallic ink and die-cut rounded corners, are going to last forever, tacked onto bulletin boards, tucked away in wallets, stuffed into filing cabinets, dumped into landfills and yet taking up space in the world, stunning evidence of our superior discernment and professionalism that generations yet unborn will marvel at the same way we marvel at the cardstock ghost of Charles M. Wright. • 25 May 2010