Visiting cards also known as calling cards first appeared in China in the 15th century, and in Europe in the 17th century. The footmen of aristocrats and of royalty would deliver these first European visiting cards to the servants of their prospective hosts solemnly introducing the arrival of their owners.
Visiting cards became an indispensable tool of etiquette, with sophisticated rules governing their use. The essential convention was that one person would not expect to see another person in their own home (unless invited or introduced) without first leaving their visiting card with the person at their home. Upon leaving the card, they would not expect to be admitted at first, but might receive a card at their own home in response. This would serve as a signal that a personal visit and meeting at home would not be unwelcome. On the other hand, if no card was forthcoming in return, or if a card were sent in an envelope, a personal visit was thereby discouraged. As an adoption from French and English etiquette, visiting cards became common amongst the aristocracy of Europe, and also in the United States. The whole procedure depended upon there being servants to open the door and receive the cards and it was, therefore, confined to the social classes which employed servants.
Some visiting cards included refined engraved ornaments and fantastic coats of arms. However, the standard form visiting card in the 19th century in the United Kingdom was a plain card with nothing more than the bearer's name on it. Sometimes the name of a gentlemen's club might be added, but addresses were not otherwise included.
The visiting card is no longer the universal feature of upper middle class and upper class life that it once was in Europe and North America. Much more common is the business card, in which contact details, including address and telephone number, are essential. This has led to the inclusion of such details even on modern domestic visiting cards, a practice endorsed by modern books of etiquette, such as Debrett's New Etiquette.
Among officers in the military, at least in the United States, the use of calling cards and the paying of social calls on superior officers is still customary. It is still somewhat common in the U.S. Navy and very common in the U.S. Marine Corps, which tends to be the most "traditional" of the U.S. Armed Services. The use of visiting cards is optional in the U.S. Army today and regulations state that "there should be no directives or requirements for individuals to purchase visiting cards". Current U.S. Marine Corps calling cards are 1.625 by 3.25 inches and are always plain white pasteboard; the traditional size, according to U.S. Army Regulations, is 1.5 by 3.25 inches.