Research and Statistics

Newspaper archive reveals earliest mentions of credit cards


Consumer credit in the U.S. has its roots in the late 19th century, and the earliest printed mentions of credit shows we confronted today’s challenges then

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Identity theft and bad credit ratings are 21st century problems, but they’re not new. Our ancestors at the turn of the 20th century fought these everyday headaches — in between Vaudeville shows, horse-drawn carriage rides and trips to the butcher shop.

The true precursors of modern-day credit cards did not appear until 1949, but by the late 1800s, credit needed to grow beyond one-to-one arrangements between butcher and shopper, banker and homebuilder. News clippings from the late 1800s and early 1900s reveal that as consumerism took root, so did the first large-scale systems for granting and tracking credit. Along with them arose many of today’s credit-related issues, from fraud and identity theft to consumer data collection.

Thanks to a new database of old news, we can take a peek at when the words “credit card” began creeping into Americans’ vocabularies. dove into the “Chronicling America” online archives of the Library of Congress — which has in recent years undertaken an ambitious project to collect and digitize thousands of local newspapers from 1836-1922 — to find the earliest reports about credit cards and consumer credit in general. What we found has provided insight as to how consumer credit took shape and ultimately evolved into the system we have today.

See related:  The history of credit cards, Prototype credit card, up for auction, drawing interest, Origin of credit cards, Life before plastic

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