Like most people who frequent antique shops, I am on the lookout for objects with personal meaning or for my own eclectic interests. I am a collector in a few areas that are not directly related to my work (mostly glass) and it is certainly fun to hit the shops with particular objects to fill home crannies in mind.
I have "antiqued" for the past ten years or so with a different purpose too. While working primarily as an archival consultant, my finds were used for highlighting archives preservation and other archival methods for my adult audiences. I now seek things to educate in a different way. My antique shop excursions have taken on a higher meaning (so to speak) as a librarian / Information Specialist at a high school. I seek to connect the past to the present so that students have a better appreciation for what came before. I seek to make the past tangible so that it is more immediate and so that it seems more pertinent to the lives of young adults.
One of the most important parts of my job is getting familiar with school curriculum and lessons so that I can supplement classroom activities with appropriate information sources. By making the past real, by showing that real people are connected to classroom concepts, I hope that students see their studies from a more holistic perspective. And so, I antique with that purpose in mind.
A Lesson in Personal Finance
I recently learned that the Economics classes focus a project on personal finance. So, something that would normally catch my eye, but then have me walk away, drew me in at the antique shop this week. A Charga-plate charge card stared at me from its glass case and I began to wonder about it. I purchased it.
I was accustomed to the 19th century ledgers that I see all the time in archives. Those ledgers always made me think of the show Little House on the Prairie, when Mr. or Mrs. Olsen would pull the credit book out from under the counter and write the Ingalls name in it. Mrs. Olsen always filled out the ledger with a sigh and a dig such as, "You know we are ALWAYS extending credit to you and that is such a hardship for MY family!"
But what did a credit card mean? What did it tell us about the holder? I can't picture my grandparents living in New York City with one in the 1950s. My grandmother, who would go out to pick out her own chicken for dinner to have it freshly killed, surely didn't have one of these? I need to ask my mother about that. And some research was in order.
According to the Dead Media Archive of NYU The idea of a credit "card" started in the 1920s as a credit coin.
The coin functioned as both an accounting and authentication device. The only information on the credit coin was the name of the store and a number representing the customer. The customer’s name and address still had to be written out by hand and was prone to human error. This often lead to discrepancies between the information maintained in the customer’s credit file and the information provided at the point of service. The Farrington Manufacturing Company of Massachusetts developed the Charga-Plate to solve precisely this problem. A small metal plate was embossed with the customer’s name, address, and account number. A customer would present this plate at the point of purchase; the merchant would then fix the plate into a manual hand-held press that would then imprint the customer’s information onto a sales bill. The original press required downward pressure, unlike the roller platen press that would later become more common.
The Charga-Plate was wildly successful. The first store to implement the system in 1928 issued 93,000 plates within the first month. This success had much to do with its standardizing effect at both the front (sales counter) and back (accounting) end.
Some sites that I came across while browsing the Internet indicated that the card was indeed regarded as a status symbol. The fine leather pouch my purchased card came in is indicative of that. As an example, the holder of my card was identified in the metal imprint as a "Miss." Did that mean she was a woman of some means with her own money, which was unusual in the mid-twentieth century?
It is funny how that idea of credit changed in a relatively short time. Did it go from a necessity for survival to being representative of trustworthiness - as in someone was willing to issue you this card and therefore we know that you can pay your debts? What a good research project this would be... Perhaps for one of my fine students?
- What information did you have to give the credit card company to be issued a card?
- Was the Charga-plate company vouching for you or were there various banks supporting this new system?
- How did this system grow over time? How many people started with charge cards and what were the statistics on its growth over the decades?
- What other companies were issuing charge "plates?"
- How old were people who generally got these cards in the 50s? What is the average age of credit card holders now? How old did you have to be to get a credit card then? Now? Why the change if there is one?
As I left the antique store, I bumped into a colleague who is older than I. "Did you find anything good today, Melissa?" He asked.
"Oh yes. I found this!"
As I handed over the little card my friend said, "Ah, my mother had one of those..." I wonder how much longer any of us will have cards of this sort. We went from ledgers, to metal, to plastic and now we are slowly moving to phones and other identifiers for payment. The cards started in the 1920s. Will they be gone by the 2020s?
Temple University has a great image of a Charga-Plate employee making cards. See the Temple University Libraries Urban Archives.