The history of credit cards
By Ben Woolsey and Emily Starbuck Gerson
As far back as the late 1800s, consumers and merchants exchanged goods through the concept of credit, using credit coins and charge plates as currency. It wasn't until about half a century ago that plastic payments as we know them today became a way of life.
In the early 1900s, oil companies and department stories issued their own proprietary cards, according to Stan Sienkiewicz, in a paper for the Philadelphia Federal Reserve entitled "Credit Cards and Payment Efficiency." Such cards were accepted only at the business that issued the card and in limited locations. While modern credit cards are mainly used for convenience, these predecessor cards were developed as a means of creating customer loyalty and improving customer service, Sienkiewicz says.
The first bank card, named "Charg-It," was introduced in 1946 by John Biggins, a banker in Brooklyn, according to MasterCard. When a customer used it for a purchase, the bill was forwarded to Biggins' bank. The bank reimbursed the merchant and obtained payment from the customer. The catches: Purchases could only be made locally, and Charg-It cardholders had to have an account at Biggins' bank. In 1951, the first bank credit card appeared in New York's Franklin National Bank for loan customers. It also could be used only by the bank's account holders.
The Diners Club Card was the next step in credit cards. According to a representative from Diners Club, the story began in 1949 when a man named Frank McNamara had a business dinner in New York's Major's Cabin Grill. When the bill arrived, Frank realized he'd forgotten his wallet. He managed to find his way out of the pickle, but he decided there should be an alternative to cash. McNamara and his partner, Ralph Schneider, returned to Major's Cabin Grill in February of 1950 and paid the bill with a small, cardboard card. Coined the Diners Club Card and used mainly for travel and entertainment purposes, it claims the title of the first credit card in widespread use.
By 1951, there were 20,000 Diners Club cardholders. A decade later, the card was replaced with plastic. Diners Club Card purchases were made on credit, but it was technically a charge card, meaning the bill had to be paid in full at the end of each month.
According to its archivist, American Express formed in 1850. It specialized in deliveries as a competitor to the U.S. Postal Service, money orders (1882) and traveler's checks, which the company invented in 1891. The company discussed creating a travel charge card as early as 1946, but it was the launch of the rival Diners Club card that put things in motion.
In 1958 the company emerged into the credit card industry with its own pruduct, a purple charge card for travel and entertainment expenses. In 1959, American Express introduced the first card made of plastic (previous cards were made of cardboard or celluloid).
American Express soon introduced local currency credit cards in other countries. About 1 million cards were being used at about 85,000 establishements within the first five years, both in and out of the U.S. In the 1990s, the company expanded into an all-purpose card. American Express, or Amex as it often is called, is about to celebrate its 50th credit card anniversary.
The Diners Club and American Express cards "functioned in what is known as a 'closed-loop' system, made up of the consumer, the merchant and the issuer of the card," Sienkiewicz writes. "In this structure, the issuer both authorizes and handles all aspects of the transaction and settles directly with both the consumer and the merchant."
In 1959, the option of maintaining a revolving balance was introduced, according to MasterCard. This meant cardholders no longer had to pay off their full bills at the end of each cycle. While this carried the risk of accumulating finance charges, it gave customers greater flexibility in managing their money.
Bank card associations
"The general-purpose credit card was born in 1966, when the Bank of America established the BankAmerica Service Corporation that franchised the BankAmericard brand (later to be known as Visa) to banks nationwide," Sienkiewicz writes.
In 1966, a national credit card system was formed when a group of credit-issuing banks joined together and created the InterBank Card Association, according to MasterCard. The ICA is now known as MasterCard Worldwide, though it was temporarily known as MasterCharge. This organization competes directly with a similar Visa program.
"The new bank card associations were different from their predecessors in that an 'open-loop' system was now created, requiring interbank cooperation and funds transfers," Sienkiewicz says. Visa and MasterCard still maintain "open-loop" systems, whereas American Express, Diners Club and Discover Card remain "closed-loop."
Visa and MasterCard's organizations both issue credit cards through member banks and set and maintain the rules for processing. They are both run by board members who are mostly high-level executives from their member banking organizations.
As the bank card industry grew, banks interested in issuing cards became members of either the Visa association or MasterCard association. Their members shared card program costs, making the bank card program available to even small financial institutions. Later, changes to the association bylaws allowed banks to belong to both associations and issue both types of cards to their customers.
Credit card processing evolves
As credit card processing became more complicated, outside service companies began to sell processing services to Visa and MasterCard association members. This reduced the cost of programs for banks to issue cards, pay merchants and settle accounts with cardholders, thus allowing greater expansion of the payments industry.
Visa and MasterCard developed rules and standardized procedures for handling the bank card paper flow in order to reduce fraud and misuse of cards. The two associations also created international processing systems to handle the exchange of money and information and established an arbitration procedure to settle disputes between members.
Other issuers join the party
Although American Express was among the first companies to issue a charge card, it wasn't until 1987 that it issued a credit card allowing customers to pay over time rather than at the end of every month. Its original business model focused on the travel and entertainment charges made by business people, which involved significant revenue from merchants and annual membership fees from customers. While these products are still in its tool chest, the company has developed numerous no-annual fee credit cards offering low introductory rates and reward programs, similar to as traditional bank cards.
Another relatively recent entry into the card business is Discover Card, originally part of the Sears Corporation. According to Discover, its first card was unveiled at the 1986 Super Bowl. Discover Card Services sought to create a new brand with its own merchant network, and the company has been successful at developing merchant acceptance. A 2004 antitrust court ruling against Visa and MasterCard -- initiated by the U.S. governement and the Department of Justice -- changed the exclusive relationship that Visa and MasterCard enjoyed with banks. It allows banks and other card issuers to provide customers with American Express or Discover cards, in addition to a Visa or MasterCard.
While the plastic card has been the standard for a half century, recent developments show alternative forms of payment rising to prominence, from online services such as PayPal to credit card keyfobs to chips that can be implanted into cell phones or other devices.
But with the sheer volume of devices in use around America whose sole purpose is to read a flat piece of plastic with a magnetic stripe, the "card" in "credit card" is unlikely to pass from the scene any time soon.
See related: 50 years later, credit cards in the fabric of American life
Updated: May 11, 2009