The History of American Express Cards

Today American Express is a well known brand due to their credit card and charge card operations, but did you know they started as shipping company in 1850? old-amex-building
It’s true…long before they were a diversified financial services company, AmEx was actually in the shipping business just like another financial services company called Wells Fargo!

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 and become a staple of many overseas travelers.

But there was also the railroad business…

american-express-trainDid 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, American Express decided to jump into 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 period of only five years, 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 issued in 1958.first_american_express_credit_card

Eventually that first charge card would be named the Green Card. American Express released the Gold Card eight years later 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 actual credit cards with revolving lines of credit. The Optima was their first card which allowed a balance to be carried forward from month to month and accrued interest to be charged on any unpaid balances.

When 1999 rolled around, it proved to be a historically exciting year for the company:

  • They released Blue from American Express, a no-annual fee rewards credit card which was initially geared towards a younger but still upscale demographic.
  • Although no press releases or advertisements accompanied it, the Centurion Card was launched this same year, by invitation only. With an annual fee of $1,000 at the time, it was a charge card clearly aimed at the upper 1% of the world in terms of personal wealth.
  • A third major event happened that year when American Express replaced Discover Card as the exclusive credit card which could be used at Costco.

And let’s not forget MTV

What does MTV have to do with American Express? Quite a bit, actually.

One of the largely forgotten aspects of American Express’s corporate 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 American Express sold off its stake to Warner in 1984, which in retrospect wasn’t the best financial decision on their part.

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

american-express-logoThere are two different components of the company’s card business:

  • 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 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 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).

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.

It is also heavily involved in various charitable endeavors. In 1993, it began its “Charge Against Hunger” promotion. During the annual promotion, for every purchase made with an AmEx card, the company gave 3 cents to the charity “Share Our Strength.” In its four-year fun, Charge Against Hunger raised more than $20 million. In 2007, American Express began its Members Project initiative, which allowed cardholders to pitch projects to help their communities and the world. The initiative’s first winning idea, “Children’s Safe Drinking Water” came from Cincinnati cardholder Gregory Allgood.

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:

  • Blue
  • AmEx Blue Cash Everyday
  • Blue Cash Preferred
  • Blue Sky Preferred
  • Clear (d)
  • Blue for Students (d)
  • Everyday
  • Everyday Preferred
  • One (d)
  • Optima(d)
  • Cash Rebate Card (d)
  • Platinum Cash Rebate Card (d)

Consumer Retailer Co-Branded:

  • Costco TrueEarnings Card (d)
  • Costco Cash Rebate Card (d)
  • 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:

  • Simply Cash Plus Business Card
  • Business Membership Rewards Card
  • Blue Business℠ Plus
  • Blue for Business
  • Platinum Business (d)
  • Platinum Business FreedomPass (d)

Business Travel Co-Branded:

Business Retail Co-Branded:

Editorial Disclosure: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.