By Ben Woolsey and Emily Starbuck Gerson
As far back as the late 1800s, consumers and merchants exchanged goods through the concept of credit, using credit coins and charge plates as currency. It wasn’t until about half a century ago that plastic payments as we know them today became a way of life.
In the early 1900s, oil companies and department stories issued their own proprietary cards, according to Stan Sienkiewicz, in a paper for the Philadelphia Federal Reserve entitled “Credit Cards and Payment Efficiency.” Such cards were accepted only at the business that issued the card and in limited locations. While modern credit cards are mainly used for convenience, these predecessor cards were developed as a means of creating customer loyalty and improving customer service, Sienkiewicz says.
The first bank card, named “Charg-It,” was introduced in 1946 by John Biggins, a banker in Brooklyn, according to MasterCard. When a customer used it for a purchase, the bill was forwarded to Biggins’ bank. The bank reimbursed the merchant and obtained payment from the customer. The catches: Purchases could only be made locally, and Charg-It cardholders had to have an account at Biggins’ bank. In 1951, the first bank credit card appeared in New York’s Franklin National Bank for loan customers. It also could be used only by the bank’s account holders.
The Diners Club Card was the next step in credit cards. According to a representative from Diners Club, the story began in 1949 when a man named Frank McNamara had a business dinner in New York’s Major’s Cabin Grill. When the bill arrived, Frank realized he’d forgotten his wallet. He managed to find his way out of the pickle, but he decided there should be an alternative to cash. McNamara and his partner, Ralph Schneider, returned to Major’s Cabin Grill in February of 1950 and paid the bill with a small, cardboard card. Coined the Diners Club Card and used mainly for travel and entertainment purposes, it claims the title of the first credit card in widespread use.
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