I have a confession to make. Last weekend I was finally relaxing on Saturday and was looking at my cable-tv guide for something to watch for a few minutes and stumbled on a very old Flintstones cartoon.

I loved the Flintstones as a kid and watched it faithfully on Friday nights in the early 1960s when I was 7 or 8 years old, even when we lived in Hawaii. I don’t think I’ve watched any part of an episode since then. So, yes, I tuned-in for a few minutes on Saturday.

In this episode, which I confirmed was from 1961, Fred and Barney are driving to an airport so Fred can take a flying lesson. They came to a highway toll where the toll-taker, a pelican with a large throat pouch, awaited their coin drop. Fred had no change and asked Barney to put his change into the pelican’s mouth. Barney only had a large “coin”, a rock about the size of a bowling ball, and tossed it into the bird’s mouth.

The pelican fell over and Fred drove away quickly as Barney said, “Next time, Fred, let’s just use your credit card!”

I laughed out loud, “credit card!” First, this showed me how clever Hanna-Barbera, the creators, were in entertaining the parents, who were often watching this prime time show with their children. But, second, I was amazed you could actually use a credit card at a toll booth in 1961, let alone in the pre-historic world.

This made me curious, of course – What is the history of credit cards and how we consumers buy things?

History of Credit Cards. This might be a surprise to younger readers today, but credit cards not too long ago were not easy to get. My first credit card was an Amoco gas card that I got as a senior in college in 1974. Later after I got my first job, I was thrilled to get a Sears card with a credit limit of $250.

The first consumer “credit” cards were issued by retailers and oil companies in the early 1900s and these cards were only good for purchases at their businesses, like my Sears card. According to an industry website called Credit Cards, the first bank-issued card was a Charg-It card created by a Brooklyn banker named John Biggins in 1946. The Charg-It card could be used only by bank business customers and bank consumers and the bank would be the intermediary.

The first widely used credit card was The Diners Club Card, which was first issued in 1950 in New York City. It was a “credit card” and its full balance had to be paid every month. By 1951 it had a circulation of 20,000. This card could only be used at participating restaurants and hotels.

Photo by Clay Banks

American Express, which had introduced the world to money orders and travelers’ checks in the late 1880s, launched its credit card in 1958 and became the first “plastic” card in 1959. This card was the first to be accepted at a wide range of participating businesses, not just retail or hospitality. It was also a credit card and for many years required cardholders to payoff charges monthly. By the time the Flintstones aired in the early 1960s, there were about million American Express cards accepted at 85,000 merchants and businesses internationally – not sure about toll booths!

Credit Card Industry Today. In the United States, today with over 625 million credit cards outstanding the top three credit card networks, VISA, MasterCard, and American Express dominate. Based on data through 2018 these three processed $3.5 trillion in transactions or over 75% of the total. VISA is the market leader and holds a market share among these top three of 55%, followed by MasterCard (23%), and American Express (22%).

Bill Paying Today. There are huge shifts happening in how we pay our bills. 40 years ago, over 80 percent of our bills were paid by cash or check. Today it is down to about 38%. However, when we add on-line bill paying from our checking accounts (11%) and debit card payments (27%), we pay 76 percent of bills through our bank accounts. Payments by credit card have risen to about 21 percent.

With the many changes in payment technology evolving today – mobile wallets, money transfer apps, contactless chips, PSP (person-to-person) services – the future of payment systems will look very different from today. And, as we all are experiencing now with EZ Pass toll systems, Fred and Barney can stop carrying their huge rock coins around, too.

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