March 4, 2020
We’re all familiar with credit cards.
You probably have a few in your wallet! But did you know that they’re actually fairly modern inventions with an interesting, and surprisingly controversial, backstory. This is a brief history of credit cards!
Credit before cards
The concept of credit is actually thousands of years old. It dates back to the time of the first recorded laws, if not further. But the practice of credit fell on hard times following the fall of the Roman Empire; the Church opposed lending someone money and then adding on interest when they pay it back. But the Renaissance, coupled with the discovery of a huge resource filled continent, saw a revolution in Western banking and investing. Businesses started collaborating to find out which borrowers were reliable and which ones couldn’t pay their debts.
The birth of charge cards
It wasn’t uncommon for businesses to loan money to customers. General Motors, for instance, started offering credit in 1919 to car buyers who couldn’t pay up front with cash (1). Merchants with more regular customers, like department stores, started handing out credit tokens that would allow purchases to be made on credit.
But things changed in 1949 when New York businessman Frank McNamara realized he didn’t have his wallet at a restaurant when it came time to pay the check. Luckily his wife was there to rescue him. He and his business partner, Ralph Schneider, then came up with the idea of a card that would allow users to dine around New York on credit. It wasn’t a full-blown credit card; it had to be paid off in full at the end of each month, making it a “charge” card. But it was a hit. By 1951, the Diners Club Card was being used by 10,000 people (2)!
“Giving sugar to diabetics”
Big banks were quick to realize that they could make a pretty penny if they started offering easily accessible credit to the masses. In 1958, Bank of America released its own credit cards. Debt from one month was carried over to the next month, meaning consumers could carry revolving credit card debt for as long as they pleased. Magnetic strips—invented in the early 60s—were added to the plastic cards and used to store transaction information at special payment terminals.
But banks had a problem; they had to make sure that the cards were actually accepted by stores. Otherwise, why bother using your brand new credit card? But stores would only accept the cards if enough people actually had them. A mass mailing campaign began, with banks sending out millions of cards to families across the nation. It worked, and soon credit cards became increasingly normalized.
Not everyone was pleased. There were huge issues with cards being stolen out of mailboxes and used to rack up debt. Furthermore, some were uncomfortable with popular access to massive amounts of credit. The President’s assistant at the time described it as “giving sugar to diabetics (3).” Regulations were introduced throughout the 70s to reduce some of the excesses of credit card distribution and protect consumers.
But despite the backlash, credit cards had arrived on the scene for good. Banks united to strengthen their network in 1970, forming the group that would eventually become Visa. Interbank Card Association (i.e., MasterCard) formed in 1966 and then introduced a vast computer network in 1973, connecting consumers with merchants in unprecedented ways.
Today, credit cards are everywhere. In 2017, 40.8 billion credit transactions were made, totalling 3.6 trillion dollars (4). The technology of consumer credit has continued to evolve too. The magnetic strips of the 60s and 70s have given way to chips, and now cards are slowly being replaced by phones and digital watches. What started as a way of paying for dinner if you forgot your wallet has become an international and digital phenomenon that’s changed the lives of millions of consumers.