The Forgotten History of the Credit Card

I’m always amazed at the twists and turns that happen during the course of writing a novel. This particular twist came from a beta reader question: Did credit cards exist in the 60’s? I could have simply answered yes, personal history informing my answer. But, I am an insatiable curious creature and found myself researching. And, being a writer, I’m going to inflict my research on you, dear reader. I found the forgotten history of the credit card fascinating. I hope you do, too.

Forgotten History

The phrase credit card first appeared in 1887 in Edward Belamy’s utopian novel, Looking Backward. He used the term credit card but described something closer to a debit card. However the need came from events involving stagecoaches.

Stagecoaches & Credit Cards

What do stagecoaches and credit cards have to do with one another? Read on.

The California Gold Rush of 1849 led to a lot more than selling panning and mining equipment. Within a year, it became evident that there was a need for more efficient and faster shipping of materials between the east and west coasts. Companies were created by men eager to serve and profit from this situation.

On March 18, 1850, three companies consolidated their express transport services. Fargo & Company Wells & Company, and Butterfield & Wasson consolidated to for an unicorporated association of investors. The company began transporting goods, valuables, and animals between the east coast and the California mining camps in July 1852. From the beginning, they engaged in banking and in profiting from the transportation of gold dust but the American Express name and their role in credit cards didn’t come until later.


In 1865 charge coins were issued by department stores. Varying in shape and design, these small coins were made of an early plastic, copper, aluminum, steel, or a white metal.

A merger in 1868 with competitor led to the more familiar company name of American Express. With the increase in citizens who took advantage of the express travel afforded them by the stagecoach, new means of transferring money was needed. American Express introduced the Money Order in 1882. They followed that innovation with Traveler’s checks in 1891.

By 1914 department store-issued charge cards were popular.


The Forgotten History of Credit Cards. Yes, they did exist in 1961
Charg-a-plate courtesy of J.W. Holcomb

Charg-a-plates also known as Charge plates, came along in 1935. They fit in the wallet or pocket. Embossed with the customer’s name and address they were made of aluminum or white metal and carried in a sized-to-fit sleeve.

In 1946 a Brooklyn banker issued a card and allowed customers to “Charg-It” at local merchants’ stores. The bank would pay the store, then collect payment from customers.


The Forgotten History of Credit Cards. A forgotten wallet led to this one.
Diners Club Cards 1951 courtesy Diners Club

In 1950, the story goes, that Frank McNamara went to a business lunch and discovered he’d forgotten his wallet. Whether he signed a note to the restaurant guaranteeing payment or called his wife to bring him cash, he managed to get away without washing dishes. And the incident inspired him to create the first Diners Club Card. Made of cardboard, a Diners Club Card was used by businessmen for meals and travel expenses.

In 1952 Franklin’s National Bank in New York issued the first charge card. It was similar to the charg-a-plate in design and materials.


The Forgotten History of Credit Cards. Stagecoaches are part of the credit cards' past.

The first official, recorded use of the term “credit card” was in the 1955 U.S. Patent granted to the three men who invented the first gas pump that accepted—you guessed it, credit cards.

Bank Americard devised a publicity stunt that led to the ubiquitous credit card we know today. In 1958 Bank Americard mailed 60,000 credit cards to unsuspecting Californians. It was the rise of the revolving credit revolution.

American Express introduced the first plastic credit card in 1959.

So the short answer to my reader would have been, yes, the credit card existed in the alternate world of My Soul to Keep in 1961. But I think that the research into the forgotten history of the credit card was a whole lot more fun. What do you think?

Arcane History: Better Baby Contests

If you read my post Inspiration on Location you know I discovered a unique institution. I researched the State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded near Lynchburg, Virginia. Synchronicity struck again. First, I learned about Carrie Buck (more on her later). Then I learned about the history of eugenics in the United States of America. Yes, you read that right. Eugenics, here in the U.S.A. During my research, I learned about a bit of arcane history: Better Baby contests. Part of the state fair, the babies’ were judged on the state of their health.


Mary de Garmo (1865-1953) was a former school teacher and social activist in Louisiana. In 1980, she formed the Mothers Union in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Mothers Union intended to improve child welfare. Her desire to improve children’s health was the reason she created the Better Baby contests.

Better Baby Contests Begin

De Garmo organized the first Better Baby contest. It was held at the Louisiana State Fair in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1908. She introduced the idea to Mary Watts who held the first contest in Iowa. The antagonist in my story mentions both of these women.


If you read my post Inspiration on Location you know I discovered a unique institution. I researched the State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded near Lynchburg, Virginia. Synchronicity struck again. First, I learned about Carrie Buck (more on her later). Then I learned about the history of eugenics in the United States of America. Yes, you read that right. Eugenics, here. During my research, I learned about Better Baby contests. The competitions were part of a movement ’scientific motherhood’ to reduce infant mortality. 

Initially, contestants were ages 6 to 36 months. After 1914 boys and girls up to age five could compete. The competitions were aimed at improving the health of future generations. They were held at county and state fairs and in settlement houses across the country.
Based on judging livestock in state fairs, these contests aimed for a scientific way to raise healthy babies. This science also determined who should and should not reproduce. According to the contest, the genetically inferior included the poor and non-white groups.

The Contest

De Garmo and pediatrician, Jacob Bodenheimer, developed an evaluation and scorecard. They used Luther Emmett Holt’s average body properties. (Holt was a founder of the American Pediatrics Society.)
Physicians and nurses examined the children. Judges awarded up to 1000 points based on the child’s measurements and interactions. Evaluations included height, weight, symmetry, quality of skin, fat and bones, length of head, shape, and size of ears, lips, forehead, and nose. Psychological attributes were important as well. They rated disposition, energy, facial and ocular expression and attention. They had “typical measurements” for boys, girls, urban, and rural children. Bad behavior, nervousness, or fussiness earned negative points.
Education was an important part of the contest. Parents learned about best sanitation practices. Also taught were infection control, principles of good parenting, and good nutrition.


In 1913, Women’s Home Companion magazine co-sponsored contests across the country. They further developed and standardized the Better Babies Score Card. They distributed pamphlets with instructions on how to hold contests. The magazine also provided awards. Cash prizes ranged from $25 to $100. There were also gold, silver, and bronze medals and certificates of award.
By the 1930s, Better Baby contests evolved into Fitter Family contests. But the Better Baby contests had achieved their goal. People took babies to doctors for regular checkups. Babies were healthier.


My research into Better Baby contests inspired me. I included this bit of history in my alternate world novel, My Soul to Keep. My antagonist recruits losers of Better Baby contests to create an army that will do as she wishes. More about how she planned to do that in another post.
I hope you enjoyed this bit of history about Better Baby contests. Had you heard about these contests before? What do you think? Would you have taken your baby to a Better Baby contest?

Inspiration on Location

I’m working on the finishing touches for my alternate world, science fiction novel, My Soul To Keep. Recently, I looked back to see what had been my inspiration for this story. There are many inspirations that fed my imagination as I wrote, this particular one was an inspiration on location.

I had a number of ideas that weren’t quite coming together into a story. Book research was endless and unhelpful. I was fortunate enough to be able to extend a business trip and travel through the area where much of the story takes place. There, I came across the marker entirely by happenstance. Well, sort of.

The story I had in mind took place in an America that never was, but could have been—with a little help from the imagination. For the story, I needed to find a place with a history strongly influenced by conservative to fundamentalist Christians. I chose Lynchburg, Virginia because of its history and its notable citizen, Jerry Falwell. Now, this is not to say I disapprove of, or approve of, Mr. Falwell (who is a whole ‘nuter subject) but I approved of Lynchburg.

Lynchburg, Virginia

Lynchburg sits on the western edge of Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and along the banks of the James River. It’s both a quaint and a modern town with a rich history. Known as the “City of Seven Hills,” the town offered picturesque sites for interactions between my characters. I walked all over town. I dictated tons of notes and took pictures but this was in the day before digital and alas, those are gone.

I’ve used a fictionalized version of the city’s beautiful and moving Monument Terrace in the novel. I did not have the time, nor many opportunities, to meet more than a handful of the citizens of Lynchburg. None of my characters are fashioned after any of that city’s living or dead residents. But I digress.

The historical marker is not in Lynchburg, but a neighboring town called Madison Heights. I was leaving Lynchburg on my way to my business obligation when I spotted the marker. Its header reads “Central Virginia Training Center.”

Central Virginia Training Center

“Established in 1910 as the Virginia State Epileptic Colony, the center admitted its first patients in May 1911.” You can see the marker here. The historical marker on Central Virginia Training Center grounds that inspired parts of My Soul to Keep by Lynette M Burrows.

The buildings and grounds were very close to an image that had been floating in my imagination. I was distraught that I hadn’t discovered the location earlier in my stay. But I was in luck. The Central Virginia Training Center has worked hard to overcome its dark history but it doesn’t deny its history. I admire the administrators for making that decision.


I wasn’t able to do much more research on the remainder of that trip, but since then I’ve delved deeply into how America once treated its “misfits.” I learned of heartbreaking institutionalization of persons who were different, of forced sterilizations, of Better Baby Contests, and an American program of eugenics.

I am grateful that our society, our country, recognized the wrongness of those programs. Changes were made, some programs continue but in a better way. Some programs, thankfully, died.

These were things my high school history books had barely touched on and glossed over. These were stories that struck a chord with me. These are stories that I believe need to be remembered by every American. Not to shame us, but to inspire us to be better. Not like Better Babies Contests aspired for humans to be better, but to be better human beings, to make better decisions for the future.

Have I tickled your curious bone? Stay tuned! Over the next few more, I’ll discuss the American program of eugenics, the Better Baby Contests, and more inspiration on location—sort of.

When is a Clone Not a Clone

Bees do it. Lizards and snakes do it. Turkeys and Komodo Dragons can do it. Have babies without daddies, that is. It’s called Parthenogenesis. And it’s sort of when a clone isn’t a clone.

Bees do it. Lizards and snakes do it. Turkeys and Komodo Dragons can do it. Have babies without daddies, that is. It's called Parthenogenesis. And it's sort of when a clone isn't a clone.
Twin #2 by Jim Moran, Flickr Creative Commons

Parthenogenesis a form of asexual reproduction in which growth of the embryo occurs without fertilization. The growth of the embryo begins due to a change in temperature, a mechanical action, or a chemical action. The term applies only to animals. (Botanical asexual reproduction is called something else.) And since the offspring are clones of the mother, they are usually female.

This phenomenon was first observed in aphids and recorded by Charles Bonnet in the 18th century.

In 1899, Jacques Loeb reported artificial parthenogenesis in sea urchins. Gregory Pincus used temperature and chemicals to induce embryonic development in rabbit eggs in 1936. Today, some sources say about 70 vertebrates can reproduce this way and if you include all organisms that number will top 2000 species.

Some species are obligatory parthenogenic, in other words, they cannot reproduce sexually at all. Other species are facultatively parthenogenic, meaning they have the ability to switch between sexual and parthenogenic reproduction.

There have been no known natural parthenogenic offspring in mammals. There are a number of different theories as to why that is, but it was reported in 2004 that one laboratory created parthenogenic mice. It was a lengthy, complicated, and inefficient process.

Not a Clone?

Cloning is different from parthenogenesis. According to The American Heritage Medical Dictionary cloning is “the transplantation of a nucleus from a somatic cell (a body cell, not a gamete) into an ovum, which then develops into an embryo.” Mosby’s Medical Dictionary goes a little farther in its definition, “a procedure for producing multiple copies of genetically identical organisms or of cells or of individual genes. . . .”

The offspring in cloning can be not identical to the parent organism if either somatic cell or the ovum is not from the parent organism.

In parthenogenesis, the process of fertilization does not happen. Thus the offspring is identical since no new DNA is required.

Then there are the different types of cloning: recombinant DNA, Reproductive Cloning, and Therapeutic Cloning. Each could be topics of their own, so I won’t get into the details here. If you’re curious, I’ve listed my online resources below.

Do You Know a Clone?

Since there has been no confirmed, recorded human clones born, many of you will answer this question in the negative. Or perhaps you will remember Dolly the Sheep (1996-2003), the first cloned mammal. Yet, I’ll bet you know at least one set of identical twins. Identical twins have identical DNA, they come from a single cell. And it appears that nearly every species on Earth can bear twins.

Bees do it. Lizards and snakes do it. Turkeys and Komodo Dragons can do it. Have babies without daddies, that is. It's called Parthenogenesis. And it's sort of when a clone isn't a clone.
Twin Parade @Just for laughs festival, 2008, Montreal Flickr creative commons

Will the True Clone Please Stand?

So which process creates a true clone? Is it okay to take the parthenogenic or cloning process just so far as to make stem cells and not allow the cells to develop into an organism? Why do we need this research, you ask?

Stem cell research has already shown us that it has terrific potential to cure deadly diseases such as cancer and diabetes. It’s just a tantalizing glimpse of what may be possible. Think of the many millions of people who may be helped by this process.

And what about invitro fertilization? Most of us accept that this is one way for couples unable to conceive naturally to be able to have children. Is this cloning? What if, only one partner was able to contribute the cells to create the offspring due to genetic or other diseases?

If we could repopulate endangered species through cloning, would that be an acceptable use of the process?

If we outlaw cloning, do we outlaw the cloning and the parthenogenesis that nature affords us? Would you get rid of those cute identical twins everyone likes to ooh and ahh at?

What’s in a Word?

Does the difference in semantics affect the ethics of this situation? For many people, the answer is no. And I respect their concerns. There are reasons to be concerned. As with most scientific discoveries, there is the potential for both an immense amount of good and terrible wrongs.

Not to make light of anyone’s particular beliefs, there is no easy answer.

As a science fiction author and a nurse, I find this topic is a gold mine of information and emotional reactions. I’m having fun using parthenogenesis as a springboard to explore a little of the controversies involved.

 Do you read fiction that takes on controversial issues? Has a book or article about such a controversial issue ever changed your mind?

Your responses to this topic are important to me. In fact, some of your answers may fuel development in my novel. I only ask that you respect others who may reply with differing opinions. Thank you so much.


If you’d like to learn more, here are some of my online resources:

Remembering: Veterans History Project

Veterans Tribute picture by DVIDSHUB
by DVIDSHUB, Flickr Creative Commons,

It’s Veteran’s Day in the United States. Other countries also honor their veterans. Whether it’s called Veteran’s Day, Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day, we dedicate this day to thanks and remembrances for those who have served in an armed service. Now we also have the Veterans History Project.

In the U.S., we have national and regional observances for Veterans Day. There are banquets, parades, free meal offers, special discounts, and hundreds of charities through which we try to say thank you to our veterans. As a country, we have become more aware and more grateful to the soldiers who have served in the military since September 11, 2001. But we have other veterans, some of them feel forgotten and underappreciated. We can thank them and make certain they are not forgotten. We need to remember all of our veterans.

The Veterans History Project

In October 2000, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to create the Veterans History Project (VHP). It is part of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center. The program collects and preserves the first-hand stories of America’s wartime veterans, primarily oral histories. VHP collects personal narratives, letters, and visual materials from veterans of World War I (1914-1920); World War II (1939-1946); the Korean War (1950-1955); the Vietnam War (1961-1975); the Persian Gulf War (1990-1995), and the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts (2001-present). The Project also accepts the first-hand stories of citizens who actively supported the war (USO workers, flight instructors, medical volunteers, etc.). (Please be aware that there are other websites that use the name Veterans History Project, but are not part of the Library of Congress.)

The VHP collection is available to the public at the Library of Congress. There is no charge. Of the 60,000 collections in the Library of Congress, more than 5,000 are fully digitized. You may access those through the website. If you need a specific collection or specific subject researched, there is an Ask the Librarian feature you can use.


Do Your Part

About now you’re asking yourself, how does this help me thank veterans? You can help collect veterans stories for the Project. Record an interview an American veteran one you know, or one you get to know for the purpose of participating in this project. Their experiences are an important part of American history. Recording their stories assures that they won’t be forgotten, that they are honored, remembered, and respected. Go, print off the VHP Field Kit to get the specifics on how to record the interview and submit it to VHP.

Other Nations

Not an American? I was able to find oral history collections available for my Canadian friends, at the Military Oral History collections of the University of Victoria Libraries and for my Australian friends, there is the Through My Eyes collection at the Australians At War website.

US Army soldier on duty
by Mateus_27:24&25
creative commons license

Have you thanked a veteran today? Have you asked to hear his or her story? If you have his or her permission, I’d love for you to share with us in the comments below.

Have you heard of the Veterans History Project? Are you a veteran? Thank you so much for your service. Your service and your story are important, to me and to my readers. Will you share a bit of your story here?