This month marks the 50th anniversary of the first mass mailing of credit cards. As Patrick May at the San Jose Mecury News notes in his article, it all started in Fresno, Calif., when Bank of America sent a mass mailing of a small plastic card called the BankAmericard.
Credit cards actually have their roots much earlier in history, with the 1946 “Charg-It” card issued by a Brooklyn bank. As we know, the concept — giving Americans the ability to spend money they did not have based on a revolving signature loan — caught on big time. Today, the credit card industry is a nearly one trillion-dollar money machine.
A blessing or a curse?
Some call it a blessing that people can borrow money so easily and help fuel the purchase of consumer goods and services no matter what their income. Others may call it a curse and the basis of what’s wrong in America — millions of people living beyond their means, drowning in debt and bankruptcy and foregoing the discipline of saving for instant gratification.
Mass mailings like the ones sent to Fresno in 1958 are now commonplace. Even dogs and children get credit card offers in the mail. Filed for bankruptcy recently? No problem, here’s a credit card offer.
No matter where you fall in the spectrum of sentiments about credit cards, there’s no doubt the plastic cards have had a major impact on American society. The 2008 CreditCards.com “Taking Charge” survey found that 82 percent of Americans feel credit cards are essential today, with the same percentage saying credit cards provide a valuable service.
Try traveling or facing any kind of emergency (stranded on the highway, a quick relocation because of disaster) without a credit card as a backup and you’ll quickly see the truth of the matter. Online purchases and many of the convenient payment options (utilities, bail or school lunches) we now enjoy would not be possible without credit cards.
Consumer advocates argue that the popularity and widespread use of credit cards makes it all the more important for government to step in to protect consumers from potential abuses and unfair practices.
As we increasingly approach a cashless society, paying with credit cards, mobile phones or chips embedded on our bodies may be the next leg of the experiment Bank of America started back in 1958. Our challenge with the new technology will be in building safeguards to protect privacy and security of the personal data we’re beaming into the airwaves. Are we ready for that next wave?
See related: The history of credit cards, Interest in collectible credit cards won’t expire, Pre-plastic credit: Charge plates, coins, celluloids, The short, unhappy life of a credit card, Anatomy of a credit card