Antecedents

The first ever mention of the credit card was in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888).[1] Bellamy’s description of the card was surprisingly accurate to how the card was used nearly sixty years later:

“Perhaps you would like to see what our credit cards are like,” [Doctor Leete asks of his guest, Julian West]. “You observe…that this card is used for a certain number of dollar. … The value of what I procure on this card is checked off by the clerk, who pricks out of these tiers of squares the price of what I order.” [Mr. West, from Boston, has awakened 113 years in the future, in the year 2000.]”[2]

Frank McNamara and his Diner’s Club Card were far from an original idea or concept. The invention of the credit card simply gave consumers a new way of using credit by extending its services. Though the primary means of transactions before the credit card were through cash and checks, the use of credit to make purchases became much more common by the twentieth century.  Once more people used credit there became a need to keep track of all the transactions taking place. Industry owners needed a way to keep track of who purchased what and how much credit was lent out. The need for an easier credit system eventually drove to the invention of the credit card.

“Charge Cards”

Prior to McNamara’s card, many industries such as hotels, oil companies, and department stores offered charge cards for their businesses before the start of World War I.[3] Most of the charge cards were provided to wealthier customers because of the reliability of their funds and they were able to pay off the card at the end of every month. Not only did these charge cards allow consumers to purchase items in the store, it allowed retailers to keep track of transactions and identify customers.[4] The charge cards were only the beginning in the invention of the credit card.

Charga-Plate [1]

“Charga-plate”- 1928

The development of charge cards continued after the war and in 1928 the Farrington Manufacturing Company introduced the charga-plate.[5] The charga-plate was a small metal plate that resembled a military style dog tag that contained the customer’s name and address.[6] The plates simply allowed retailers to swipe the information of a customer onto a receipt for bookkeeping. The plates made it easier for loyal customers to make purchases and also attracted new customers who were not able to pay at the time. Again the charga-plates, just like the charge cards, could only be used in specific stores and locations and were most commonly found in department stores.

Oil Companies and “Courtesy Cards”

 The invention of the automobile surprisingly was one of the main driving factors in the credit card’s own invention (pun intended). The automobile allowed Americans to travel farther, faster, and more frequently than they ever did before. By the 1920s oil companies realized it was harder to have drivers stay loyal to their gas stations while they were on the go.[7] Oil companies used the same idea as the charga-plates and developed their own system known as “courtesy cards”.  Unlike the dog tag style charga-plates, the courtesy cards were made of cardboard because it was less expensive to make.  The courtesy card was an instant success, it allowed customers to purchase gas even if they did not have cash and gave oil companies more customers to consume their gasoline.  In fact it was such a success that according to historian Lewis Mandell, “Oil companies began giving out cards free to virtually every driver they could find.”[8] Cards were easily given out simply because the customer owned a car.[9]Once again the courtesy card, just as its predecessors, were limited to where and how they were used. Cash and checks were still the most prominent way of making purchases before 1950.

Dr. Seuss

Standard Oil Ad [2]

 


1. Hilary Greenbaum and Dana Rubinstein, “Who Made That? (Credit Cards),”The New York Times, December 04, 2011. http://www.nytime s.com/2011/12/ 04/magazine/the-cardboard-beginnings-of-the-credit-card.html?r=0. Accessed February 24, 2013.

2. David S. Evans and Richard Schmalensee, Paying with Plastic: the Digital Revolution in Buying and Borrowing, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), 2005, 53.

3. Ibid.

4.  Lewis Mandell, The Credit Card Industry: A History, (Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers), 1990, 17-18.

5.  Ibid., 18.

6.  Ibid., 2.

7.  Ibid, 19.

8.  Ibid.

9.  Ibid.

Pictures

1. Lavinia Plonka . “Digibarn Small Items: Charga-Plate.” Digital image. Digibarn Small Items: Charga-Plate (early Credit Card). http://www.digibarn.com/collections/small-items/charga-plate/, Accessed March 25, 2013.

2. Theodore S. Geisel Standard Oil Company. 1930. Dr. Seuss Collection, Mandeville Special Collections Library, San Diego. http://libraries.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dsads/#ark:bb84310823, Accessed March 27, 2013.

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