Collecting Credit Cards Has Extraordinary Interest

Mickey Mantle’s signed American Express card sold for almost $5000 in 2004.

A credit card is money you wish you had. Now, it’s possible your old credit cards might pay you back with interest – as a collectible.

Tennessee Ernie Ford, in his 1955 hit Sixteen Tons, sang that he was  “…another day older and deeper in debt.” He lamented, “St. Peter don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.” But times change. The credit card has replaced the company store now.  

According to analysis by NerdWallet.com, an average household in the United States has a revolving credit card balance (where payments are not fixed) of $15,983 with a national total of outstanding credit estimated at $931 billion in 2017. A lot of it is from unnecessary spending, according to the study, about 41% of the total, but cost of living and emergencies are factors, too, with an average interest rate of 16.15 percent as of November 2017. This is why St. Peter can’t call you.

But instead of paying the credit card company, maybe it’s time the credit card paid you.

Curiously enough, credit accounts for consumers isn’t a relatively recent business practice as you might have thought. Companies sought out credit all the time, of course, but credit for consumers came as early as 1865 in the form of a charge coin.

Credit for consumers came as early as 1865 in the form of a charge coin. This Saks Fifth Avenue charge coin sold for over $350 in 2016.

Made from celluloid (an early type of plastic), copper, aluminum, steel, or metal in general, a charge coin was about the size of a half dollar or so with a hole at the top so it can be used as a watch fob. It could have been round, square, or any kind of shape with its own unique number and issued usually by any type of merchant such as The Bush and Bull of Bethlehem, PA, (a local tavern, I hope) that sold for $352, LeLewer & Son Hatters of Chicago, IL, that sold for $209, and even Saks of Fifth Avenue that sold for $361. Yet, there is a whole range of the most unusual charge coins from gas stations, hotels, department stores and even an auto club that easily sold from $10 to $50. These charge coins lasted until about 1930 or so, according to Wikipedia.

The metal charge plate replaced the charge coin. This Marshall Field charge plate sold for $20 in 2017.

What replaced the charge coin was the charge plate about 1928 or so. About the size of a military dog tag and made of basic metal, the charge plate was embossed with your name and address with a unique identification number in front. The name of the business itself and a place for your signature was on paperboard inserted on the reverse. These were issued in a carrying case of sorts or kept at the merchant where the clerk would then use the charge plate to credit your purchases. The charge plates lasted until the 1950s.

A Sears charge plate, for example, sold for $113 with a Rich’s Department Store charge plate selling for $63, both from the 1940s. Many examples of charge plates, like the charge coins, sold for as little as $10 and were available from many types of merchants. You can even get the charge plate for a celebrity such as Jack Benny that sold for $15 or Sammy Davis, Jr. that sold for $40.

Another innovation in charge accounts was the Air Travel Card. This unsigned Elvis Presley Air Travel Card sold for $1400 in 2015.

Another innovation in charge accounts was the Air Travel Card. A partnership between American Airlines and the Air Transport Association in 1934 resulted in what could qualify as the first “credit card” by 1948, but was specific only to air travel. Today, the Universal Air Travel Plan (UATP) still issues charge cards that are accepted by air, rail, hotels and travel agencies. An unsigned Elvis Presley Air Travel Card sold for $1,400, for example, but many start out at $10 to $50.

All of these credit devices were issued by individual merchants and balances were expected to be paid in full at the end of each month. However the concept of consumers paying different merchants with one card didn’t evolve until 1950 when Diners Club issued its charge card that was accepted by different merchants, mostly for dining and entertainment, with Carte Blanche then American Express following with their own “general purpose” cards in 1958. One of the first Diners Club cards sold for $1,200 with an early American Express set of cards from 1959 auctioned for $1,200 for the pair. Even though these cards were accepted by more than one merchant, the entire balance still had to be paid at the end of the billing period.

One of the first issued BankAmericards sold for $1,555 in 2016

At the same time, Bank of America tested its BankAmericard in Fresno, California, the first truly revolving credit card where any balance “revolved” each month until the entire balance was paid in full. One of the first issued BankAmericards sold for $1,555 in 2016. The card was renamed Visa in 1976.  Master Charge competed with BankAmericard starting in 1966 (a 1967 card sold for $178) until it was renamed MasterCard in 1979. Both cards were the first true “revolving” credit cards that we are familiar with today along with the daily “you have been pre-approved…” mailings that go with them.

While I’ve shown that credit devices from coins to cards can easily be collected in many different categories of merchants, banks, travel, and entertainment, the most collectible throughout the genre are the celebrity cards such as the Elvis Presley, Jack Benny and Sammy Davis, Jr. cards mentioned above. Other celebrities such as Mickey Mantle’s American Express sold for $4,908 and a Michael Jackson signed credit card receipt sold for $3,500, while Kurt Cobain’s signed credit card receipt sold for $3,000. You can’t necessarily fake a signature on a credit card purchase, which makes these signatures quite unique.

Kurt Cobain’s signed credit card receipt sold for $3,000.

Besides the credit cards themselves, there are also the signs advertising “credit cards accepted here” such as this metal Chevron sign that sold for $950, and even early credit card machines like this 1955 Gulf Oil hand operated imprint machine that sold for $406.

There is truly a great “interest” in collecting credit card memorabilia in many of its facets as this article on creditcards.com from 2007 suggests, an interest that doesn’t have an expiration date.

To learn more, sign an application for the American Credit Card Collectors Society. They have conventions, forums, catalogs and memberships that you can pay for, yes, with your credit card.

And by the way, women were finally granted the legal right to sign up for credit cards only since 1974 when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was signed by President Gerald Ford. Before that, only males could sign up for credit or at least have to co-sign for women.  And, according to creditsesame.com, women have the lowest credit balances. So, give them credit for that.


Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia and he has been the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals and heraldry) since 2007. Tom is also a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.

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