Common enough today, a model of the credit card in its modern form was first invented by a fiction writer in 1887. Edward Bellamy, author of Looking Backward, mentions the “credit card" in the context of a utopian and socialist American society of the future. His hero falls into a hypnotic, time traveling sleep and is whisked forward through the years a full century, ending up in Boston in the year 2000, a place where he is able to make purchases using a commonly held “credit card", much to his delight. Credit, however, evolved long before the concept of carrying it around on a card. Credit and debt have been the driving force behind achievements ranging from a man working his way out of debt to a landholder, to Kevin Smith creating Clerks.
The advent of widespread credit card use was not until the 1920's. At that point in time the credit card was not recognizable as the powerful buying tool it is today. It's use was fragmented, and very often tied to specific merchants rather than specific banks or “captive banks" as it is today. Later, carrying and using a credit card was simply a way of being able to use your money when you were away from your bank, a common use that debit cards have largely absorbed.
Still later, came partial, or revolving, payment. Initially, most issuers required credit card balances to be paid in full at the end of each pre-determined period. With the introduction of revolving credit came the realization that these cards were not just immensely convenient for the user but could provide impressive amounts of revenue to anyone who wanted to tap into our strong desire to consume. This desire, coupled with new products and the convenience and carefree feel of handing over a card instead of cash, has led some critics to believe that credit cards may have been responsible in part for The Great Depression.
Though different in many ways, the modern incarnation of the credit card relies on the same trusts and understandings as its earliest counterparts. The credit card is not cash, but a representation, sometime of resources that don't yet exist. The credit card taps into a history of human commercial interaction, created by necessity and re-imagined hundreds of times on its way to 2006. In the future, many predict that we will be living in a paperless society. Many people believe that every money transaction will be purchased with a credit card from a persons cab fair to a candy bar at a vending machine. The credit card has and continues to stand the test of time.
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