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Pre-plastic credit: Charge plates, coins, celluloids

By Emily Starbuck Gerson

The modern credit cards we all know grew in popularity in the 1950s when banks started issuing them, but the concept of creating a physical object whose holder should be extended credit goes back well into the 19th century. The most common pre-plastic credit instruments were charge plates, celluloid "coins" and charge coins.

Here are definitions and examples of each.

Charge plates
A 1946 'charge plate' from Bloomingdale's New YorkCharge plates, often called Charga-Plates, are the predecessors to credit cards. Used until the early '60s, charge plates are made of aluminum or white metal plates. They are about the size of a dog tag and are embossed with the customer's name and address. The back side has a paperboard insert with the issuer's name and the cardholder's signature. Charga-plates were issued mostly by department stores, but also by a few oil companies and store associations. They were sometimes kept in the stores and retrieved by the clerk when an authorized user made a purchase. A charge plate is more valuable with its case. Between 300 and 500 different ones are estimated to exist.

Celluloids, charge coins
An early charge coin, whose bearer could stay at Chicago's Hotel La SalleCharge coins are believed to have been first issued around 1865. At first they were made of celluloid, which is an early form of plastic. Later ones were made of copper, aluminum, steel or white metal, which is when they became known as charge coins. They came in various shapes, in sizes from a quarter to half-dollar. Not all were round; some were triangular and others had unique shapes. These credit pieces  were mainly issued by department stores, and usually displayed the customer's identification number and an image connected with the merchant.

Source: American Credit Card Collectors Society.

See related story on vintage plastic: "Interest in collectible credit cards won't expire."

Published: November 7, 2007


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