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history of credit cards, borrowing, and lending

A short history of credit cards

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The evolution of borrowing and lending, from the 1800s to today.

We swipe our credit cards every day. But have you ever wondered how these cards came to be?

The concept of credit stretches back to ancient times. Back then, people used instruments like the tally stick to record debt. With this method, each party of a transaction would make notches in the stick to signify debt owed. Then the stick would be broken in half so each party could keep a record.

Fast-forward to the late 1800s, when charge coins came into fashion. Made of aluminum or steel, these coins were typically issued by department stores. During a purchase, the coin was used to imprint a customer’s information onto a sales slip.

These coins — and charge plates of the early 1900s — were precursors to the modern credit card. In short order, retailers began adopting the rectangular cards we know today.

How early charge cards were used

In the early 1920s, oil companies, airlines and department stores began giving out “courtesy cards.” Customers could use these cards only with the issuing companies.

In 1946, banker John Biggins created the first bank-issued card, calling it the Charg-It. The idea behind this card was simple: A customer used the card to buy something from a local merchant. The local merchant sent the transaction to Biggins’ bank, which paid the merchant and collected money from the customer. There was one small problem, however: The Charg-It could be used for local transactions only.

A solution arrived in 1950, when the Diners Club introduced the first universal card. Instead of being tied down to one establishment, Diners Club members could use the card for many purposes — especially travel and entertainment. Initially, members could use their cards at 27 restaurants in the New York City.

The Diners Club Card was a charge card — cardholders had to pay their bill in full each month. It came with a $5 annual fee, which is about $49 in today’s dollars. Diners Club also charged merchants 7% to 10% for every card transaction.

Not to be outdone, the American Express Company introduced its Green Card in 1958. Like the Diners Club Card, it was a travel-and-entertainment card that could be used widely. Though American Express was second to market with charge cards, it was first to introduce plastic cards. (Diners Club switched to plastic in 1961.)

The BankAmericard and revolving credit

But 1958 wasn’t just the year of the Green Card: It was also the year of the BankAmericard.

The BankAmericard was different because it was a general use card. Customers could use it anywhere as long as merchants accepted it. It was also the first card with revolving credit. With revolving credit, consumers didn’t need to pay their balances in full each month but could instead pay off their cards over time.

BankAmericard was initially released in California. It was such a success there that Bank of America started licensing it to banks nationwide in 1966. Soon, international banks started issuing the card — you could find it in Canada, Ireland, Japan and Great Britain.

Seeing the success of the BankAmericard, manufacturers Chemical Bank and Hanover Trust Co. created the Eastern States Bankcard Association. In collaboration with other regional bank groups, they started issuing cards through a network they called the Master Charge Plan.

At the turn of the decade, the BankAmericard’s issuing banks created National BankAmericard Incorporated. In 1976, BankAmericard was renamed Visa. Master Charge followed suit three years later, becoming Mastercard in 1979. And in 1985, Sears, Roebuck and Co. jumped into the credit card market with its Discover card.

Credit cards and the 2008 financial crisis

Revolving credit was an incredible innovation, but it provided consumers with more opportunities to accumulate debt.

This wasn’t a huge problem, as consumers were highly judicious about what they bought on credit. As recently as the 1980s, most Americans didn’t buy nonessential items on credit. But that’s changed over time. Now, according to a recent CreditCards.com survey, roughly 17% of credit card owners use their card on purchases of $5 or less, an uptick of 5% from the year prior and a sign of increasingly casual credit usage. It’s also normal to buy luxuries on credit, and today’s households that carry debt have an average of $16,000 in credit card balances.

In 2008, Americans held $951 billion in credit card debt. When the global financial crisis hit that year, many Americans found themselves charging more on credit cards for essentials like food and housing. With more debt, it became more difficult for consumers to make payments — and many of them defaulted.

Many card providers took advantage of these defaults with abusive business practices. They’d hike interest rates without notifying consumers, levy egregious overlimit fees and add confusing rules to card terms. Many consumers spiraled further into debt as a result.

Credit CARD Act of 2009

In response to shadowy card-provider practices, the US Congress introduced the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act in 2009. The bill created many important protections for consumers that included:

  • Notifications for rate increases. Card providers must let you know 45 days in advance if they’re increasing your interest rates.
  • An end to retroactive rate increases. Prior to the Credit CARD Act, card issuers could retroactively raise interest rates after customers defaulted.
  • A legal ban on double-cycle billing. This now illegal practice allowed providers to charge interest on your current and previous month’s balance. It was widely considered unfair, because consumers were charged even when they’d already paid off purchases.

With its many consumer protections, the Credit CARD Act passed Congress with bipartisan support. It was signed into law by President Barack Obama on May 22, 2009.

The future of credit cards

EMV (“Chip”) Technology

Credit cards have come a long way, and they’ll inevitably evolve as financial payments change.

We’re used to the magnetic stripes on our cards, but this technology is highly susceptible to fraud. In recent years, Americans have been introduced to EMV or “chip” cards — technology that the rest of the world has been using for a long time.

EMV cards are difficult to clone and use more advanced encryption, offering a higher level of protection to consumers. Very soon, we’ll do away with swiping our credit cards altogether. Instead, we’ll “dip” our cards instead, inserting them into chip readers.

Beyond Plastic

This all might be moot, however, in light of big technological advancements in the payments industry. As time goes by, we may not need credit cards at all and instead use our digital wallets.

Many payment-industry experts believe that mobile devices and wearables are on their way to replacing credit cards. In a decade or two, we may use our smartphones for all of our payments. And by midcentury, we may be paying for items with microchips on (or in) our wrists.

A future without credit cards isn’t so far-fetched. We can already make mobile payments through services like Apple Pay and Android Pay. These platforms can be more secure than credit cards, because they don’t transmit card numbers when consumers make purchases. In time, they may become a universal standard — just like credit cards are today.

Compare credit cards

Name Product Filter values Annual Fee APR for Purchases (Purchase Rate) Intro APR for Balance Transfer
$0
16.99% to 25.74% variable
0% for the first 15 months (then 16.99% to 25.74% variable)
0% intro APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases and balance transfers.
$0
14.99% to 25.99% variable
0% for the first 15 months (then 14.99% to 25.99% variable)
Earn a $150 bonus statement credit after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Rates & Fees
$0
16.99% to 25.74% variable
0% for the first 15 months (then 16.99% to 25.74% variable)
0% intro APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases and balance transfers.
$0 annual fee for the first year ($95 thereafter)
17.99% to 24.99% variable
Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
$95
14.99% to 25.99% variable
0% for the first 12 months (then 14.99% to 25.99% variable)
Earn $200 bonus cash back after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Rates & Fees
$0
14.99% to 25.99% variable
0% for the first 15 months (then 14.99% to 25.99% variable)
Earn up to $250 back. Earn $150 back after you spend $1,000 or more in purchases with your new card within the first 3 months of card membership. Plus, earn an additional $100 back after you spend an additional $6,500 in purchases within your first 12 months. Rates & Fees
$450
17.99% to 24.99% variable
Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
$550
None (Charge Card)
Get 5x Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel and 5x points on eligible hotels booked on amextravel.com. Rates & Fees
$0
13.99% variable
0% for the first 15 billing cycles (then 13.99% variable)
A low, variable APR on purchases, balance transfers and cash advances.
$0 annual fee for the first year ($89 thereafter)
17.99%, 21.99% or 24.99% variable
0% for the first 12 months (then 17.99%, 21.99% or 24.99% variable)
Enjoy 70,000 bonus miles after spending $5,000 on purchases in the first 90 days.
$0
14.99%, 18.99% or 24.99% variable
0% for the first 15 months (then 14.99%, 18.99% or 24.99% variable)
Earn unlimited 1.5% cash rewards on purchases. See Rates and Fees.
$0
12.99%, 16.99% or 20.99% variable
0% for the first 18 months (then 12.99%, 16.99% or 20.99% variable)
An 18 months 0%% Intro APR period on both purchases and balance transfers, plus zero foreign transaction fees, makes this is a strong well-rounded card. See Rates and Fees
$0
16.24% to 22.24% variable
1.99% for the first 6 monthly billing cycles (then 16.24% to 22.24% variable)
1% cash back to the nonprofits, K-12 schools, colleges and religious organizations of your choice.
$0
17.74% to 26.74% variable
Earn 10,000 bonus miles after spending $500 in purchases on your new card in your first 3 months of card membership. Rates & Fees
$0 annual fee for the first year ($95 thereafter)
17.74% to 26.74% variable
30,000 bonus miles after you use your new card to make $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months. Rates & Fees
$0 annual fee for the first year ($95 thereafter)
17.74% to 26.74% variable
Enjoy a $0 annual fee on the first year and earn up to 2 Starpoints® for every dollar of eligible purchases. Rates & Fees
$95
17.74% to 26.74% variable
Earn 125,000 Hilton Honors™ Bonus Points after you spend $2,000 or more in purchases with your new card within the first 3 months of card membership. Rates & Fees
$0
17.74% to 26.74% variable
Earn 75,000 Hilton Honors™ Bonus Points after you spend $1,000 in purchases on the card within your first 3 months of card membership. Rates & Fees
$495
16.99% variable
0% for the first 15 billing cycles (then 16.99% variable)
Receive an annual $100 air travel credit toward flight-related purchases including airline tickets, baggage fees, upgrades and more.
$195
16.99% variable
0% for the first 15 billing cycles (then 16.99% variable)
Enjoy unique excursions, privileged access to exclusive events and insider opportunities.
$995
16.99% variable
0% for the first 15 billing cycles (then 16.99% variable)
Earn points every time you spend. Luxury Card enhances your purchasing power by providing you with one (1) point for every one dollar ($1) you spend. Every purchase gets you closer to the rewards you want.
$75 annual fee for the first year ($99 thereafter)
23.9% variable
The Indigo® Platinum Mastercard® Credit Card is specifically designed for those with less than perfect credit.
$75 annual fee for the first year ($48 thereafter)
29.99% fixed
The First Access Card is a true VISA® credit card that does not require perfect credit for approval.
Up to
19.99% to 25.99% variable
Get 1% cash back rewards on eligible purchases including gas, groceries, and services such as mobile phone, internet, cable and satellite TV, terms apply.
$35
19.39% variable
A secured Visa® credit card that helps you build your credit quickly.

Compare up to 4 providers

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US Credit Card Offers

Important Information*
Deserve® Classic Card
Deserve® Classic Card

APR

24.49
variable

Annual fee

0 For the first year
More info
Luxury Card Mastercard® Gold Card™
Luxury Card Mastercard® Gold Card™

APR

16.74
variable

Annual fee

995 For the first year
More info
First Access Visa Card®
First Access Visa Card®

APR

29.99
variable

Annual fee

75 For the first year
More info
Indigo® Platinum Mastercard® Credit Card
Indigo® Platinum Mastercard® Credit Card

APR

23.9
variable

Annual fee

75 For the first year
More info

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US Credit Card Offers

Important Information*
Deserve® Classic Card
Deserve® Classic Card

APR

24.49
variable

Annual fee

0 For the first year
More info
Luxury Card Mastercard® Gold Card™
Luxury Card Mastercard® Gold Card™

APR

16.74
variable

Annual fee

995 For the first year
More info
First Access Visa Card®
First Access Visa Card®

APR

29.99
variable

Annual fee

75 For the first year
More info
Indigo® Platinum Mastercard® Credit Card
Indigo® Platinum Mastercard® Credit Card

APR

23.9
variable

Annual fee

75 For the first year
More info
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