In the 1800s, there was a certain logic--and a cool distance--to the formal calling card. Those who were part of, or sought a place among, the social élite would deliver a card with their name engraved on it to someone's home to request a visit. But now that you can IM, e-mail or text pretty much anyone immediately, the Victorian practice seems laughably outmoded, right? Not so, according to a growing number of enthusiasts reviving the old-fashioned social-networking tool. "Is it technology fatigue? A colorful way of branding yourself? We're not sure," says Peter Hopkins of Crane & Co., where sales of the cards have doubled in the past two years. "But the demand is clear. They are our fastest-growing item."
For a flagging stationery industry, calling cards--essentially nonbusiness business cards--have brought a welcome dose of energy. Some are teenier than standard business cards, others much bigger, and many come in bright colors that seem anything but stodgy. Among the buyers: playdate-seeking parents eager for a sane way to exchange contact info, retirees who miss having business cards to hand out (Memphis stationer Baylor Stovall calls them "cruise-ship customers") and itinerant young professionals whose cell phones and e-mail addresses are their most reliable locators. Elaine Milnes, a stay-at-home mom in Grand Rapids, Mich., got fed up with searching for pens on the playground and made a card for herself (title: Caroline's mom). She now operates a thriving online cardmaking venture, MommyBiz.net Ditto for nonparent Ilene Segal, founder of Baby iDesign, a four-year-old stationer in Manhattan. She thinks her playdate cards have caught on because they're "a nicer way of connecting than plugging someone into your cell."
For young job-hoppers, a calling card offers not only a sense of permanence but also a chance for self-expression. In June, Mitch Stripling, an emergency planner who recently moved to New York City, printed cards with cell-phone, e-mail and descriptor ("neo Victorian calling card thingy") info for his 10-year college reunion in an effort to reconnect with people he knew he wouldn't have a chance to speak with at length. "I wanted to get away from the whole status thing at reunions, so a business logo didn't feel right," says Stripling, whose card was a buzz-generating hit at Williams College. "Having my own little logo frees me up. It's a way to be expressive of me outside of whatever job I happen to be doing at the time."
Perhaps the biggest reason the cards have delighted jaded 21st century types is that they work. Says Stripling: "I can't say for sure if it was the card or just the effects of a reunion, but I heard from around 30 people from school in the weeks after." Some are even planning visits.