Are Business Cards Still Business as Usual?

Business cards don’t carry the same weight today as they did in the past, unless you’re referring to how they weigh down the fishbowl at your local bistro from folks fishing for free lunches. At least that hasn’t changed.

But it amazes me that, in this digital age, business cards are still as prevalent as sweeteners in the office pantry. I, for one, am much more likely to connect via email or social media than someone’s business card.

As recently as 2007, one analyst estimated the U.S. business card printing industry was worth about $1.2 billion a year. I struggled to find more recent data on that, so I contacted the analyst, Gail Nickel-Kailing, managing director at Business Strategies Etc. in Seattle, to check. She told me in an email that she doesn’t follow the printing industry any longer, but she believes “the dollar value is probably lower,” partially because of the number of companies today offering business cards at a “deep discount.”

So why the sudden interest in business cards? I recently stumbled upon an auction of Eliot Ness items that caught my attention. Ness was the chief investigator of the Prohibition Bureau for Chicago in the 1920s, and he later moved to Ohio. While I’ve never seen the old Untouchables TV show, I really enjoyed watching the 1987 film starring Kevin Costner as Ness, the man who helped send Al Capone to Alcatraz. One of the items up for bid is a business card. It doesn’t look like much, really, but what struck me about it is that there’s absolutely no contact information on it, outside of “City of Cleveland.” But there’s an eerie power in the message: “Don’t call on me. I’ll call on you.”

The history of business cards is actually quite interesting. Their origins can be traced back to 15th century China when people dished out “visiting cards” in hopes of gaining access to someone beyond the door. Incidentally, when I worked at a startup website called ChinaOnline.com, I was taught that it is customary in China to accept a business card with both hands and read every word on it—front and back—and then place it in a card case or in your breast pocket—never in the back pocket of your pants. Japan has a similar custom for business card exchanges.

Regardless of how they’re distributed, today’s business cards just don’t have the character that they did in the olden days. Check out this one that recently went up for auction on eBay. If you wanted to find “Stevenson ‘the Masseur’ ” in Mineral, Texas, “late of New York City” you’d just dial him up at phone number 533. Now I know how people remembered phone numbers before smartphones! Three numbers? Piece ‘o cake. And tell me you wouldn’t want to contact “Yukon Cornelius,” a prospector with experience in dog-sled driving and “bumble” tracking. (OK, I later realized that one’s a phony card for the prospector in the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special, but just look at the character in that character’s fake business card. Really draws you in, eh?)

This business card for T.B. Seekins, an eye specialist, is really unique (you’ll have to scroll down about 25 photos to see it). Eyes Without a Face? Um, creepy. Also, I love the wording: “Special attention given to astigmatism and all diseases of the eye.” Since when was astigmatism a disease? Just wondering.

Today, I’m not so excited about the innovations in business cards. For example, I have a real beef with this one: business cards made out of “100% beef jerky,” known as MeatCards? Seriously? Apparently, I’m not the only one who can’t digest the concept of having someone digest my information—literally. The meatcards.com domain name is no longer in existence, but if you want to get a taste of what the website looked like, you can click here. You can, however, still follow MeatCards on Twitter at @meatcards. And that’s no bull.

Nickel-Kailing also turned me on to a company called MOO Inc. that prints business cards based on your Facebook timeline. Again, not doing it for me. I don’t make it a habit of “friending” strangers or even potential business contacts on Facebook. Maybe “LinkedIn cards” would make more sense, but wait, why give someone all that info on a card when you can send them to LinkedIn?

More interesting to me is what companies like iZigg are doing with text-message business cards, but, for my needs, $14.95 a month is too much to pay. However, if you’re in a position where daily meet-and-greets are important, then something like this might be appealing. Of course, you can get an email address and send them your contact info for free.

So let’s connect; you know how to reach me.

James Tehrani is Workforce Management’s copy desk chief. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.