Credit card collections that have nothing to do with debt

For some, collecting credit cards is a hobby

Created date

October 29th, 2019
Metal or celluloid charge plates may have resembled dog tags, but they were the credit card of choice in the early twentieth century.

Metal or celluloid charge plates may have resembled dog tags, but they were the credit card of choice in the early twentieth century.

Earlier this year, Zheng Xiangchen from Shenzhen, Guangdong, China, earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for holding the world’s largest collection of valid credit cards—a whopping 1,562. 

Zheng said he was inspired to start his collection by the previous record-holder, Walter Cavanagh of Santa Clara, Calif., who had held the record since 2004. Cavanagh had 1,497 cards, which added up to $1.7 million in available credit.

A growing number of enthusiasts are collecting credit cards—albeit, most are collecting inactive cards of a historical nature. For many, these cards are fascinating relics of days gone by.

In 1993, the American Credit Card Collector Society (ACCCS) was established to help collectors connect with other collectors to exchange ideas and trade cards. 

As Chuck Jennings, past president of ACCCS, says, “People in our hobby develop what I would call niches. Some people are more inclined to collect retail cards; other people may specialize in hotel cards or travel cards. We collect them for their sheer beauty. Some of the cards and coins are just beautiful.” 

The history of credit

The concept of buying now and paying later can be traced to early civilizations. The Code of Hammurabi, which dates to 1754 B.C., listed rules for how loans could be made and how interested could be charged.

In more modern times, U.S. retailers began issuing credit coins to their customers in the late 1800s. Most coins were made of metal, but celluloid was also used. One side of the coin bore the merchant’s identity and the other side was marked with the customer’s number. 

Credit coins were issued by major department stores, hotels, taxi companies, and even laundry services to well-established customers. 

Jennings says credit coins are what attracts many new collectors. When coin collectors come across a credit coin, they research the unusual coin’s origins and discover a whole new avenue of collecting.

Not surprisingly, the best place to find credit coins is on eBay. Checking the site, you may find a credit coin from Joseph Horne Department Store for $79 and a coin from the Arthur Rosenbaum Company for $19.80.

Jennings worked with fellow collector Edmund Tylenda to produce The Charge Coin Reference Guide, which is also available on eBay. The book is over 300 pages and packed with 1,500 color photographs. It is also full of useful information about the history of credit coins. 

Charge plates

By the early twentieth century, credit coins had been replaced by charge plates—metal or celluloid rectangles resembling dog tags. They usually came with plastic or leather cases. For collectors, having the card with the original case increases the value but generally, charge plates are not as valuable as credit coins. Most sell for less than $10 on eBay.

In 1946, a Brooklyn, N.Y., banker named John Biggins issued the first bank-issued credit card. The Charg-it plate could only be used locally, and patrons had to do business with the bank to obtain a card. 

Plastic

In 1950, the credit game was changed forever when Diner’s Club issued cardboard cards to 200 customers. The cards were accepted by 14 New York City restaurants. Diner’s Club quickly expanded and, by the end of its first year, had 42,000 cardholders who could use their cards at 330 businesses. 

For collectors, these early Diner’s Club cards are particularly valuable. The company transitioned to plastic cards in the early 1960s and famously made an appearance in the classic film Breakfast at Tiffany’s with Audrey Hepburn’s character Holly Golightly marveling at the power of a credit card. 

In 1958, American Express expanded its traveler’s check business to become a credit company and in 1959, issued the first embossed plastic cards. These early cards are highly prized by collectors.  

The collectors

“I think the holy grail for people are new ones—or those that have never been seen before,” says Jennings. “We just found a coin issued by Hecht’s Department Store from about 1890, and that was the first time anyone had seen that before. Learning new information is more the holy grail than any one item.” 

Credit card collectors often pursue a specialized collection. Some enthusiasts collect cards affiliated with sports teams or music groups. Others seek out cards that once belonged to famous people. 

Today’s credit cards are even more advanced employing computer chip technology, but virtual “cards” generated by smartphones are also gaining popularity. 

As virtual cards gain a foothold in the marketplace, traditional credit cards may start to disappear from consumers’ wallets—making that old plastic all the more collectible. 

The ACCCS holds a biannual convention. The next one is scheduled to be held in Philadelphia in the summer of 2020. For more information, visit creditcollectibles.com.

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