America in So Many Words:
Words That Have Shaped America
by Allan Metcalf and David K. Barnhart
Indexed by word and by date of first usage
More than 250 words introduced into American English since 1555
1888 credit card
Long before the first credit cards were issued in California in the 1950s, an American visionary of the nineteenth century imagined them. Not only that; he envisioned that a cashless society, using credit cards for purchases, would exist at the end of the twentieth century. Falling asleep in 1887, the narrator of Edward Bellamy's novel Looking Backward, published in 1888, wakes in the year 2000 to an America whose problems have been solved by getting rid of buying and selling. Instead, "A credit corresponding to his share of the annual product of the nation is given to every citizen on the public books at the beginning of each year, and a credit card issued him with which he procures at the public storehouses, found in every community, whatever he desires whenever he desires it." It works for travel abroad too: "An American in Berlin [for example] takes his credit card to the local office of the international council, and receives in exchange for the whole or part of it a German credit card, the amount being charged against the United States in favor of Germany on the international account."
Bellamy's credit card is actually what we nowadays would call a debit card, one that draws from an established account. The plastic credit card first issued by California's Bank of America in 1956 was more radical. It did not require prepayment but offered the bank's own credit, instantly, for purchases at a great variety of participating businesses. With credit cards, businesses could offer customers the convenience of credit while the bank took the risk (and a percentage of the price).
We have a long way to go before reaching Bellamy's vision of a cashless society, and we are farther than ever from his vision of a society without banks, retailers, and advertising, but the end of the twentieth century has put credit cards in nearly everyone's hands, with accounts immediately accessible by computer almost anywhere in the world.