It’s all ARCO’s fault. They canceled their credit program and abolished the use of credit cards. As I sat there with my trusty scissors in hand, as per their instructions for cutting up their now obsolete credit card, a little voice deep inside this obsessed collector said, “Why are you doing this?”
I believe in little voices. I couldn’t think of a logical answer. Because the credit card program was being canceled, I certainly did not have to fear the theft of my card or my overzealous use of it. What I was on the verge of doing was cutting up a piece of history, destroying a piece of Americana and eliminating a future collectible.
Developing the passion for collecting cards
Trouble is that once I decide to save something, I am not content to own just one. I feel an urge to collect more. And then I want to learn more about them. Who made them? When were they made? How were they used? How did they evolve?
Before I knew it, I had far more questions than answers. And I quickly learned trying to find old credit cards is a needle-in-the-haystack exercise. It is largely a thankless and fruitless task.
Although everyone has a credit card or two or 10 on hand to buy things for home and family, almost no one has saved old ones. And few can remember exactly when they became devotees to those ubiquitous plastic cards that give them purchasing power beyond their carrying capability.
In searching for the answers, I gained some insight into our past. Collecting is a passion. The fun is not only in the accumulating, but in saving and documenting pieces of the past.
A brief history of credit card origin
Credit is not new. Individual consumer credit began historically when a man gave his word. A gentleman’s word was sacrosanct, and there was no good reason to distrust the word of a gentleman. Shopkeepers gave out goods and expected payment later from the upper classes; they expected instant payment from those less well endowed.
Collectors have long been aware of the debit and credit ledgers of early merchants and craftsmen and the valuable information they contain.
One of the best documented sites in all America is the Moravian community of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The Moravian Archives has a wealth of ledgers of storekeepers, innkeepers, craftsmen, and community organizations that allow day-by-day reconstruction of life in the 18th and early 19th centuries. One thing is very apparent – credit was already a way of life by the 18th century.
Evolution from simpler systems of credits
As long as a community, industry or business did not get too big, handwritten accounts of credit were possible. When I attended Lehigh University in the early 1960s, many Bethlehem merchants extended credit, kept the records in a book and issued monthly bills. There were no credit tokens or cards, just the word of a Lehigh gentleman.
As America grew and people strayed farther and farther from their families’ homes, the idea of extending credit to strangers was no longer repugnant. Neighborhood identity diminished and large central downtown shopping districts became part of developing cities. Merchants simply were less familiar with their customers.
Various types of credit tokens
Shortly after World War I, some big department stores began to issue credit coins or credit tokens to well-known customers. Bill Daub, of Norristown, summed up perfectly the attitude behind these credit tokens: “Every woman of class carried them in her pocket.”
By the 1930s and 1940s, this custom had spread to medium-sized towns. However, credit sales frequently constituted only about 10 percent of total sales.
Metal credit tokens, often about the size of a quarter, were shaped into ovals, hexagons, squares, rectangles, shields and even clover-like designs. All the tokens I have seen had holes in them for insertion on key chains. However, in reality many women simply carried them in their purses and the distinct shapes were needed so the ladies didn’t confuse the tokens with coins.
The only round token I have found was issued by H. Leh & Co. of Allentown. It measured one inch in diameter (larger than a nickel but smaller than a quarter), it was made of aluminum and was light in weight. Viewed in isolation, it would not be confused with a coin. In a purse filled with change, it may have been more difficult to find.
Die-stamped tokens with variety of designs
Credit tokens were die-stamped. The front surface design varied from the simple initials of the store to elaborate designs such as a standing lion with a shield featuring the store’s initials.
Brass, brass with a copper wash, bronze, nickel and aluminum were all used to make credit tokens. Some even appear to be silver or chrome plated.
Normally, the customers’ number appeared on the back of the token. Gimbel Brothers and Lit’s of Philadelphia and Zollinger-Harned of Allentown put their numbers on the front. The Lit’s token is the only dated token I’ve found.
Stores that used tokens
Stores throughout the east used tokens. Other Philadelphia stores that had tokens included: Strawbridge & Clothier and John Wanamaker’s. Conrad & Chandler of Boston used a token, as did New York City’s Abraham and Strauss.
In Allentown, credit tokens were used in three major department stores: Hess’s, Leh’s and Zollinger’s. “Credit was no risk then,” explained Jack Leh of Leh’s, “we extended credit only to those customers who had $2,500 in the bank and owned their own home.”
Dan D’Imperio, who was with Zollinger’s until it closed, recalls the Zollinger-Harned token. “It was owl-shaped and had a hole in it for a keyring. The front was embossed with the letters ‘ZH’ and ‘CO’. The customer’s number, in black, was in a center band between the two letter groups.”
One of the first collectors
Marilyn Miller, Leh’s credit manager, is one of the few people who actually saved some of the original tokens. “I’m just a saver,” she said. Marilyn acquired her first examples from a contest held by Leh’s to get people to turn in the obsolete tokens.
Additional tokens joined her collection thanks to members of Leh’s management who heard she liked these old things and from customers who just bought one along “for show” when they paid their bill. Marilyn’s collection even includes a Zollinger-Harned token.
Leh’s tokens varied in shape and metal content. Their shield token contained an ‘RA’ number, meaning it was a revolving account. The square, rectangular and round tokens were for regular customers.
Unfortunately, no one at Leh’s recalls the sequence in which the token shapes were issued. The handwritten journal recording the numbers assigned to individuals was destroyed years ago.
Hess Brothers had credit tokens, but none seemed to have survived.
As an aside, you might also want to read our Complete Guide to Credit Card Collecting.
Metal plates replaced tokens
The Allentown stores continued using credit tokens into the 1950s when they were replaced either by a metal plate, as was done at Hess’s, or by the plastic card which was used by Leh’s and Zollinger’s. For the trivia buff: Zollinger’s used credit tokens the longest and apparently abandoned them as late as 1958 or 1959.
The first credit item that I remember my mother using from Hess’s was a metal plate shaped like a military dog tag and carried in a small leather case with a thumb groove cut out at one end.
The front of the plate contained the customer’s name and address, along with the account number. The back had a place to slip in a cardboard mount that carried the name and an advertisement for the store. The plates were inserted into the stamping machine that left the impression from the plate on the bill. The modern hand-levered machines are almost exact copies of the early machines. John Wanamaker in Philadelphia used similar plates.
A Hess’s spokesperson remembered the plates. “They were similar to an Addressograph plate. We had one until a few months ago. It was misplaced when we moved our office.”
Early plastic credit cards
Early plastic credit cards are just as elusive as the credit tokens. Although almost everyone has one or more plastic credit cards, few can remember exactly when the invasion began. As early as the 1900s, oil companies issued charge cards as an aid to their individual gas station dealers.
Frank Juchnik of Juchnik’s service station on MacArthur Road remembers that at his first service station, an ARCO station at 21st and Hamilton streets, customers were using plastic credit cards as early as 1945.
“I think they had been in use for a few years before, but I know they were using them in 1945 because that is when I opened up my first station. Very few people used them then. Your credit had to be solid and good. They were mostly used by professional people — lawyers, doctors and the middle and upper classes.”
Frank recalled that the cards were red and blue and had the name and address on them plus the customer’s number. “Now they wouldn’t dare put the address on a card, just the name,” he commented.
Gas cards and T&E cards
Although gas cards were among the first, the travel and entertainment (T&E) cards of the 1950s and 1960s caught on quickly. In 1950, two men made an initial investment of $18,000 to launch a revolution. They established the Diners Club card, the first multi-outlet card. It was a novel idea and far reaching in its implications. For $3 a year in membership dues, members in good financial standing could charge at certain restaurants in New York. Soon, they could charge rented cars, hotel rooms, and flowers.
Diners Club was an accountant’s dream. It enabled his clients to keep a fully itemized, documented list of entertainment expenses for tax purposes.
Magazines such as Gourmet and Esquire issued cards for the New York area. In 1958, American Express absorbed the American Hotel Association’s Universal Travelcard and Gourmet Club and issued their first card.
American Express card
The first American Express card, used from Oct. 1, 1958 to April 30, 1959, was paper board. The company simply did not know if the idea would catch on. The card featured the Centurion in the upper left corner and had red printing on a purplish-blue ground.
Some 500,000 paper board cards were issued. But, when the American Express plastic card entered the picture in May 1959, the company discarded all surplus paper board cards. No example of the paper board cards survived inside the company. Steve Krysko, the company archivist, would love to recover an example for his files. But, please send him your second one. I want your first one for my collection.
The first plastic American Express card had a purplish hue. The famous American Express “money” card did not appear until 1969. Tragically, American Express did not begin its company archives until 1972 and the files associated with the development of the “money” card, a classic, were discarded shortly after its appearance.
First local bank card
The first local bank card was introduced by the Franklin National Bank in New York in 1951. In 1958, Chase Manhattan Bank in New York developed the Unicard. About the same time, California’s Bank of America developed the BankAmericard. In 1966 a group of banks got together and created Master Charge as a response to BankAmericard’s success.
Changes in the original store cards
The original Zollinger’s plastic cards were green and white, corresponding to the color of the store’s shopping bags. When the shopping bags became red and white, about 1974, the credit card colors changed as well. The card read “Zollinger Harned”. Hess’s originally operated as Hess Brothers and Leh’s was H. Leh & Co. But, people shopped at Hess’s or Leh’s and Hess’s led the movement toward shorter names. Leh’s followed, as did Zollinger Harned, which simply became Zollinger’s. This resulted in the final Zollinger credit card that had a white ground and dark blue lettering.
Hess’s credit cards started out with a white background and blue lettering, similar to the final Zollinger design. But in the early 1970s, Hess’s accounts went on the computer and the move required replating and redesigning of credit applications and bills. The new dark blue card was designed by Hess’s own advertising staff. This is the first authentication that I found concerning the design of a major credit card.
Be conscious about the changes in cards
Credit cards are a part of our history and, like our other historic memorabilia, souvenirs of another age. So, how do you start a collection?
Keep your eyes open and think of all the changes that you have seen over the years. First, there are credit cards from department stores that are no longer in business like Zollinger’s in Allentown, and The Blum Store and Lit’s in Philadelphia as well as large chain stores, such as Grants, that have vanished. There are lots of types of credit cards that have since gone that way, too.
Be sure to get all the variations from a single store. H.Leh and Co. had at least four varieties of credit tokens and two plastic credit cards. Zollinger Harned had three varieties of plastic credit cards.
Fascination about credit card evolution
Once you get started, there is no end to the fascination with credit cards. Do you have an Exxon card in your wallet? Remember when the company was called “Esso”? Unfortunately, I was still cutting up credit cards when this transition occurred. However, I was able to secure an early 1960s card with Esso on it for my collection. One card I definitely want to add to my collection is Sinclair gasoline. The card featured Dino the dinosaur.
The disappearance of local banks also comes into play. Each merger produces a new name and often, new account numbers. My current MasterCard reads Meridian Bank. But my previous one said First National Bank of Allentown. This is a piece of local history.
Did you save your MasterCard, Visa and other credit cards from the pre-hologram era? I certainly did. They are examples of evolution in credit card history.
Playboy Club credit key
Once the credit card bug hit, I did some digging and found my original Playboy Club key. Yes, Playboy’s first credit card was in the shape of a metal key. Later they adopted the traditional plastic card, but then replaced it with a metal one. I have examples of all these forms in my collection.
One of the prizes in my collection is a Playmate key card with its original envelope, box, necklace and instruction booklet. Actually, the card did not extend credit. It simply allowed a woman to visit a Playboy Club without a male escort and pay cash for her purchases. Its true place is probably with my women’s liberation collectibles rather than the credit cards. It is a wonderful social document of the early 1970s.
Collecting cards based on the evolving designs
Finally, what about collecting credit cards for their design? Recently collectors realized the tremendous impact of the industrial designers of the late 1940s and 1950s. There are classic credit card designs. The American Express card is certainly one of them. Who are the credit card designers? We need to do our homework or the tragic loss of the American Express data will become the rule rather than the exception.
Market value of creditable collectibles
The going market rate for credit tokens is in the $10 to $20 range, depending on the quality of decoration and the wear from handling. A few are worth more than $100. The metal dog tag cards bring around $5, depending on the clarity of the advertising insert on the back.
Plastic cards have been priced anywhere from $2 to $1,000s. As in all other collectible fields, the more information and documentation that supports the authenticity and age of the item, the higher the price it will bring.
Because there is little written about the history of credit tokens or cards, researching and finding old tokens and obsolete credit cards is difficult – but you can help document this fascinating collecting field before the information is lost.
Copyright 1986 by Greg Tunks & Harry Rinker