Today American Express is best known for their credit cards and charge cards, but did you know they started as shipping company in 1850?
That’s right… long before they were a diversified financial services company, AmEx was actually in the shipping business!
At the time, the U.S. Postal Service didn’t allow the shipment of packages, but only letter-sized envelopes. AmEx filled the void by focusing on larger sized shipments, especially those of value.
Their shipping service was being heavily utilized by banks and brokers for sending things like stock certificates, interbank transfers, checks, and so forth. AmEx realized that it would be a natural fit for them to jump into some of these financial services, too.
It started with issuing money orders in 1882, which was yet another business that went head-to-head with the U.S. Postal Service.
Next up was the Traveler’s Cheque, which AmEx started offering in 1891. They came to fruition because the company’s President was frustrated with the fact that while traveling abroad, he had difficulty exchanging letters of credit (which are issued by banks) for cash in the smaller cities.
As a result, the Traveler’s Cheque was created to be a universally known and accepted letter of credit. In the coming decades as popularity grew, it would cultivate the international presence and reputation of American Express.
But there was also the railroad business...
Did you know that the railroad business was a big part of American Express' history? As a result of their bread and butter – the shipping business – they controlled 71,280 miles of railroads.
However that ended on December 26th, 1917...
On that day, President Woodrow Wilson created the U.S. Railway Express Agency. Due to WWI, the railways were needed for transporting supplies and troops. What the REA did was merge most of the nation's major railways into a single entity - American Railway Express Company (and 40% of its assets came from AmEx).
Focusing on financial services
When the war concluded the railroads were returned to their former owners, but not the domestic express businesses. As a result, American Express continued to focus almost entirely its financial business, as well as it's newly formed travel services division (which was launched in 1915).
Although American Express first considered the idea of a charge card for traveling as early as 1946, it did not become a serious concept for the company until Diners Club released their charge card in spring of 1950.
Fast forward a few years later, AmEx decided to get in the game and come out with their own charge card. It made its debut on October 1st, 1958, with an annual fee of $6... intentionally $1 more than Diners Club. Why? Because the goal was to position the American Express as the premium charge card. And low and behold, they have certainly stuck by that same marketing strategy of status and exclusivity ever since.
Within a short period of time, only five years later, there were over a million people carrying Amex charge cards and more than 85,000 merchants across the globe accepted it for payment. Below is a picture of the first American Express credit card.
Eventually that first charge card would be named the Green Card. American Express released the Gold Card in 1966. The Platinum Card didn't launch until 18 years later (1984). It carried an annual fee of $250 and was by invitation only. It was not until 1987 when the company started issuing credit cards. The Optima was their first card which allowed a balance to be carried over and interest charged.
When 1999 rolled around, it proved to be a historically exciting year for the company:
And let's not forget MTV
- They released Blue, a no-annual fee rewards credit card which was initially geared towards younger cardholders.
- Although no press releases or advertisements accompanied it, the Centurion Card was launched. With an annual fee of $1000 at the time, it was a charge card aimed at the uber-wealthy of the world.
- A third major event happened that year when American Express replaced Discover Card as the exclusive credit card which could be used at Costco.
What does MTV have to do with American Express? Quite a bit, actually.
One of the largely forgotten aspects of AmEx's company history is a joint-venture it created with Warner Communication in 1979. The Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Company (WASEC) created MTV, Nickelodeon, and The Movie Channel.
However this 50/50 joint venture was short lived, as AmEx sold off its stake to Warner in 1984.
So if you grew up watching Doug, Hey Dude, SpongeBob SquarePants, or TRL... ultimately you have American Express to thank for that! But I suppose that also means we can blame them for Snooki, too.
The American Express of today
There are two different components of the company's card business:
As an issuer, American Express issues fewer cards in the U.S. than Bank of America, Chase, and Citi do. However, AmEx is larger in terms of volume (dollars processed) because its cardholders spend more on average. As a result, AmEx does more volume than any other domestic card issuer, processing approximately a half-trillion dollars every year (which is appx. 24% of purchases made on charge cards and credit cards).
- Payment Network: Visa and MasterCard process transactions, but don't actually issue/manage cards (a card's issuing bank does that). In the same way, American Express operates a payment network. They use this network for (a) the cards they issued, and (b) they license the network for other banks to use on their cards (such as the Bank of America American Express cards, which are issued/managed by BofA, not AmEx).
- Card Issuer: Just like they started doing in 1958, American Express directly issues card (examples include the Green, Gold, Platinum, Blue, etc). These cards are the most profitable for AmEx since they act as both the payment network and issuing bank.
As a company, American Express is one of the largest and most respected within the finance sector. Its stock trades publicly on the NYSE under the symbol "AXP" and has a current marketcap of nearly $65 billion. It is one of the elite thirty stocks which make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average and is among the Fortune 100.
Go here to continue reading the history of the American Express logo.
List of American Express cards
Below is a listing of past and present cards which are issued by the company. Those which have been discontinued are notated with "(d)" next to their name.
Consumer Charge Cards:
Consumer Credit Cards:
Consumer Travel Co-Branded:
Consumer Retailer Co-Branded:
- Costco TrueEarnings Card
- Costco Cash Rebate Card
- The Knot Card (d)
- The Nest Card (d)
Consumer City-Specific Cards:
- In:NYC Credit Card (d)
- In:LA Credit Card (d)
- In:Chicago Credit Card (d)
Business Charge Cards:
Business Credit Cards:
Business Travel Co-Branded:
Business Retail Co-Branded: