The Forgotten History of the Credit Card

The Forgotten History of Credit Cards. What do stagecoaches have to do with credit cards?

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?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *