Living with credit, Research, regulation, industry reports, Shopping

50 years later, credit cards in the fabric of American life

Connie Prater

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, credit-card-anniversary.jpgwith 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 “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.

What  next?
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

Join the Discussion

We encourage an active and insightful conversation among our users. Please help us keep our community civil and respectful. For your safety, we ask that you do not disclose confidential or personal information such as your bank account numbers, social security numbers, etc. Keep in mind that anything you post may be disclosed, published, transmitted or reused.

The editorial content on is not sponsored by any bank or credit card issuer. The journalists in the editorial department are separate from the company's business operations. The comments posted below are not provided, reviewed or approved by any company mentioned in our editorial content. Additionally, any companies mentioned in the content do not assume responsibility to ensure that all posts and/or questions are answered.

  • anne

    Well, any way you put it, it may be both a blessing and a curse. I’d rather have not carry huge amount of cash around lest I am a victim of homeless intrusion or panhandler aggressively begging for cash and feeling like a personal atm. The reason why I feel safer carrying a credit or debit card around safely, I don’t want to be at the mercy of panhandlers who are always at your face and thinking that I am more like a cash carrying magnet for trouble. As long I figure to hide cash efficiently without having them know how much I am carrying, then I am committed to being safe and not being aggressively approached by panhandlers or even thieves who are desperate for cash. Too many people are being robbed of their wealth by desperate and ruthless criminals.

  • edward

    You should filter this so that people like anne can’t post.

  • I respecfully disagree, Edward. We like to encourage a robust exchange of ideas from people with a variety of viewpoints. We do filter, but only for obscenity and extreme rudeness.

  • Sharon Porter

    Ms. Prater,
    I am doing an argumentative essay for college, do you believe that the consumer is at fault for being in debt? Why?

  • ic money

    hahahahahahaha i have no idea what you guys are talking about cash is the greatest it les everyone know that you work hard for your money but just dont try and flash it or show it off

  • Mileaway

    The advent of the credit card was the end of personal responsibility as so clearly represented today through Americans greedy and acquisitive lifestyles. As Deer in the headlights,Sheep being led to slaughter, little did the average American realize the heavily advertised/promoted credit card would be the beginning of the financial mess we are in today. A true means for the Banking Industry to bilk and essentially, through every facet,control the American economy.

  • Anonymous

    i’am more interested in a fect i heard that a invevtor created a computer chip and then a computer and went on to creating the first atm machines but the sad thing is he never made one thin dime off his works and he died a broke man is this?.