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When credit cards were cool: The golden days of plastic

Long ago, being approved for credit meant you had made the big time

By Emma Johnson

Today, having the uber-exclusive American Express Black Card is a status symbol. A half-century ago, just being approved for a credit card meant you were part of the American elite.

When credit was relatively new back in the 1950s, receiving a credit card application was akin to being invited to join a posh country club -- the thought of tossing the invitation away was unthinkable as even established professionals had a hard time getting approved.

6 The golden days of having credit

In a word, credit cards were cool. "Very, very cool," remembers Matty Simmons, one of the founders of Diner's Club Card, the original charge card associated with sophisticated, high-rolling businessmen who used the exclusive card as an entree to some of the top New York City restaurants and clubs when it was first introduced in 1950.

"The cool thing was that you were a person who had credit everywhere," says Simmons, author of the 1995 book, "The Credit Card Catastrophe: The 20th Century Phenomenon That Changed the World," who went on to a career in Hollywood, including as producer of the landmark "Animal House." "People who had a Diner's Club Card had lot more disposable income than the average credit card holder today. It was definitely a status symbol."                                        

Plastic meant you made it
Donald Mazzella remembers how proud his father Silverio was to get awarded a Diner's Club Card in 1959 -- after being rejected five times despite being a homeowner and successful businessman with two Laundromats and a dry cleaning business. "He could get thousands of dollars of credit to buy machinery, but he couldn't get a credit card," says Mazzella.

When Silverio Mazzella, who had immigrated to the United States more than 20 years earlier, took his new card to his home country of Italy, he was pleased to find that the card afforded him upgraded treatment at a hotel in Capri, and that the locals on the tiny island of Ponza were so impressed by it they passed around the card for closer inspection. "My father wasn't the type to swank it up, trust me," Mazzella says. "But the card proved he wasn't an immigrant anymore -- he was a man of substance. He was so proud."

Donald Mazzella wanted to make his father proud of him, too. But when he was turned down three times for an American Express card, despite holding several degrees and having traveled around the world as a producer for NBC, he was "angry and determined," he says. "I even had the New York News [where he was editor] call on my behalf, and I still couldn't get one!" When he bought a house in 1968, his credit was deemed worthy, and Mazzella took his new bride on a honeymoon to San Francisco where their newly minted AmEx granted them preferential hotel treatment -- and Mazzella a mark of pride.

My father wasn't the type to swank it up, trust me, but the card proved he wasn't an immigrant anymore -- he was a man of substance. He was so proud.

-- Donald Mazzella

"That card meant that I'd made it," he says. "Every generation aspires to be better than the one before it. Even now talking about it I'm welling up with all the pride I felt at the time."

A step above cash
Ralph Dahm, 59, from Wheaton, Ill., felt honored when as a recent high school graduate in 1968, he got a card with a $600 limit. The card not only allowed him to pay for college tuition -- which was $35 per credit at the time -- but facilitated easy entrée into the Chicago clubs he frequented. Not to mention that it impressed the ladies. "I'd whip out the card, and they'd say, 'Oh, how do you get one of those?' and I'd say, 'You have to have connections.' Oh, the naivete of youth! It was a fun time."

For Ann Middleman, 64, a marketing research consultant in Westbury, N.Y., her card at the New York City department store Abraham & Strauss was a mark of maturity when the recently married 19-year-old and her school teacher husband qualified for one in 1966. Instead of a plastic card, charges for new clothes at the start of the season were made via a dog-tag size metal key embossed with a serial number. "It was a sign of financial stability, and that I was a real, live adult," she says. Plus, it showed that she, too, had done better than her forebears.

"In the old days, my great aunts put money in their bras and took it out when they wanted to buy something because they were so nervous about carrying cash in their purse," Middleman remembers with a laugh. "To me, the card was a step above that -- a little bit more elegant."

Charge-it culture
As a 3-year-old in 1964, Leslie Jacobs learned to spell her last name thanks to her mother's credit card habit. Little Jacobs would watch television in the family's Hartford, Conn., den and in the nearby kitchen her mother would order clothes by telephone at the local department store G. Fox using a store credit card -- spelling out the family name with each purchase. "I didn't know we were upper-middle class until later when I learned that credit cards were a big deal back then," says Jacobs. "My mother had 30 of them. They offered her freedom because she didn't drive. She could shop from home."

Once, at age 4, Jacobs was at a store with her mother. Jacobs found a toy she wanted and told the saleswoman, "Charge it," mimicking her mother and walked out. "I had learned that you didn't need money to walk away with stuff," she says.

Jacobs, now 51 and still living in Connecticut, learned the darker side of plastic 20 years later. While in college she accumulated a $1,000 balance on her G. Fox card -- debt acquired by stress shopping on bad days. "Every time I had a fight with my boyfriend I'd do retail therapy," she says. Reality finally hit when a bill collector called and she found herself sobbing on the phone. "I learned my lesson and haven't been in debt since then," she says.

Even one of credit cards' grandfathers has soured on his creation, as his book focuses on the negative impact easy access to consumer credit has had on individuals and the economy at large. "What's become of credit cards is disgraceful," Matty Simmons says. "Diner's Club wasn't like that."

See related: The history of credit cards, Origins of credit cards, 8 top reasons why you overspend

Published: March 24, 2011


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Updated: 07-28-2014

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