The first credit cards

A 1960s Barclaycard

Credit and chargecards had just started to be used in the sixties. Originally they were used mainly by businessmen for travel expenses, but all this changed when Barclaycard was launched in 1966. It was subsequently sent free to one million Barclays' customers. From the beginning, Barclaycard customers were encouraged to use the card for "ordinary shopping".

By the late sixties, there were just four general chargecards in common use, Barclaycard, American Express, Diners' Club and Eurocard. I use the word "charge" rather than "credit", because only Barclaycard gave credit.  Barclaycard was Britain's first credit card. The first ever chargecard was Diners' Club, which was started in the USA in 1950.

Bills for Diners' Club, American Express and Eurocard had to be settled by the end of the month. They also charged an annual fee of between £3 and £4 and American Express and Diners' Club members were expected to earn at least £2,000 per annum - quite a lot in the sixties. Barclaycard had no fee and was aimed at people of more modest means. Barclaycard's reputation for being accepted at more places around the world than other chargecards was yet to be earned.  In 1968 you could use it in the USA, but in Europe you were limited to the UK, Gibraltar, Malta and the Republic of Ireland.

Acceptance of any of these cards in shops and restaurants, even in the UK, was patchy. Barclaycard was most useful for paying for petrol. In theory it could be used in any kind of shop, but according to a 'Which' report, very few of the large department stores, chain stores or supermarkets accepted any chargecards, apart from their own. Barclaycard remained unchallenged in the UK until Access was launched in 1972 by a group of banks, including Lloyds, Midland and National Westminster.

As well as the general chargecards, there were also store cards which were given to account customers at well-known department stores in the sixties. There was also a GPO card, similar to the cards issued by BT today. Customers could, for a fee of 5s per quarter, have telephone calls charged to the account whenever they were made. They would need to telephone the operator and ask for the call to be charged to the account. Unfortunately, operator transferred calls often worked out more expensive than STD calls (STD was new in the sixties - read more about telephone service). One other advantage, mentioned by 'Which', of having a GPO card was that you could make calls from vandalised telephone boxes. More of a problem in the sixties, than it is today.

Credit cards were very new in the sixties and the 'Which' report referred to above warned people to be careful of overspending, particularly when they first got the card.

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Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history
Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history