The history of Credit Cards in the 80s and 90s

80s and 90s credits cards

Are you seeking the history of credit cards? If so, you aren’t alone. Credit and debit cards have become an integral part of our lives. However, many folks wish to know the history of this amazing revolution. When was the first time the cards were introduced? What did those cards look like, and how did they work in the 80s and 90s?

The beginning of the first credit card

80s credit cards

We can trace credit cards back to the 1950s. It was during this time that various companies started issuing cards to customers as a way of encouraging them to shop more frequently. The idea behind this was that if people had access to credit, they would be more likely to make purchases. One of the first companies to offer credit cards was Diners Club.

This company started issuing cards in 1950, and their card became very popular with customers. Other companies soon began to follow suit, and credit cards became increasingly common. Today, credit cards are an essential part of many people’s lives. They offer a convenient way to make purchases and can also be used as a form of borrowing.


What did earlier credit cards look like?

80s credits

Initially, credit cards worked just like the previous coins, plates, and medals. Merchants would imprint a card familiar to anyone who remembers how credit card purchases were made until the 1990s, and by the 1930s, medals and coins evolved into metal cards. However, it was in the 1940s when air travel credit cards were introduced. They mimic the cards that you find today.

This first credit card allowed travelers to buy tickets on credit from various airlines. In 1950, the Diner’s Club initiated the first modern credit card. Users were able to use the Diners Club credit card at several retailers. However, in the 1980s, card issuers included a magnetic stripe on the back. Computer equipment could read the strip; it was state of the art then.

Did the 80s have credit cards?

Of course, the 80s saw a massive transformation of credit cards. In the 1980s, the financial services industry witnessed a boom, making it a more competitive time for card issuers and banks to introduce new products. During the 80s, travel cards such as frequent flyers, car rental, and hotel rewards programs became highly popular, and these products continue even today with modifications.

Names of credit cards and the dates of release

Diners Club (1950)

American Express (1958)

MasterCard (1966)

Visa (1975)

Discover (1986)

The history of credit cards can be traced back to 1950 when Diners Club launched the first-ever charge card. This allowed customers to charge expenses to their accounts and then pay them off at the end of the month. In 1958, American Express followed its version of a charge card.

Then, in 1966, MasterCard was introduced to standardize credit card transactions across different banks. 1975 was when the Visa card came onto the scene as an alternative to MasterCard. Discover was introduced in 1986 as a direct-to-consumer credit card issuer.

How were cards used in the 80s?

In the 1980s, most cards were meant for the wealthy. Still, some card issuers targeted middle income-groups with low or zero annual fees. No matter the charges, many credit cards were used for travel purposes. Buyers would enjoy free car rentals and hotel rewards on some cards. However, a significant number of cards were used for travel.

Were debit cards used in the 80s?

Compared to credit cards, debit cards have a short history. They were introduced in the mid-70s. However, their usage picked up in the 1980s, with more and more ATMs cropping everywhere. Back then, ATM-based cards were called debit cards. However, modern debit cards are multi-functional, and cardholders can use them at stores, ATMs, restaurants, and other places.

Credit card interest in the 80s

In the 80s, the interest rate was 17.3 percent. At that time, the discount rate charged by the Federal Reserve was 11.5 percent on loans, and the prime lending rate stood at 15 percent. Today, the discount rate on loans is 3.5 percent, and the prime rate is 7.75 percent. Even today, credit card interest stands at 17.34. So, credit cards are more expensive today.

How did credit cards work in the 80s?

In the 1980s, many retailers in the US would accept cards using a knuckle-buster – a device operated by hand. The machine takes a carbon copy impression of the credit card user and generates a receipt for the customer to sign.

How did credit card machines back in the 1980s work? 

In those days, credit cards didn’t have the funds. Also, technology was limited. So, a slew of steps was involved in usage. A clerk used to check the card number on the sheet of stolen/lost cards. The cardholder would proceed with the transaction if the card weren’t listed on the sheet. Also, if the sale accounted for 30 dollars or more, the clerk would call MasterCard or Visa for phone authorization. After authorization, the transaction would proceed. The credit card used to go on the embosser. The clerk would pull the roller to imprint the card onto the form.

The customer would sign the form. The clerk would compare the two signatures. The clerk would remove the binding slip holding the three copies if all were fine. One copy would be given to the customer, one to the merchant, and the third to the card issuer. Still, thefts would take place. Robbers would break into malls and access thousands of cards with signatures on the carbon paper. Today’s cards are well protected with double authentication and other safety measures.

All about credit cards in the 90s

The credit card industry underwent a significant transformation in the 1990s. In the early 1990s, only a few hundred million credit cards were circulated. By the decade’s end, that number had grown to over a billion. Credit cards became an essential part of everyday life in the 1990s. 

They were used for everything from buying groceries to booking airline tickets. In the early part of the decade, credit cards were primarily used by businesses and wealthy individuals. But credit cards had become more widely available by the decade’s end. This made them an essential tool for many consumers. The increased use of credit cards in the 1990s was due to several factors.

First, the economy was booming during this period. This led to more people having disposable income.

Second, credit cards became much more widely accepted in the 1990s. This made them a convenient way to pay for purchases.

Finally, introducing new technologies has made credit cards even more convenient.

Were there debit cards in the 90s?

Debit cards became very popular in the 1990s; they allowed bank customers to access their accounts directly from ATMs. This made it convenient to get cash without having to visit a teller. Debit cards also gave customers the ability to make purchases without carrying cash.

Top credit cards in the 90s

The credit cards of the 80s continued in the 90s era.


Visa credit card

American Express

retained their popularity. The truth is they became more popular among users at large. The card issuers made amendments to entice even those in the upper-middle-income groups. So, the focus shifted from affluent to less affluent and affluent, thus attracting more users.

The difference between Credit cards now and retro Credit cards

Today, credit card usage has undergone drastic changes. Back then, these products were limited to airlines and hotels. Now, the scene has changed on many fronts. Firstly, even an average salaried individual or small business owner can get a credit card. Also, the usage isn’t restricted to airlines. Instead, cardholders can use the card for various chores such as booking a movie ticket, making significant purchases, vacationing, and much more.

The amount limit varies from person to person and issuer to issuer. One crucial point is many issuers allow free usage of credit for a specified time. If you use the money and repay it within the designated period, you pay 0 percent interest. However, late payments attract interest and fines.


Getting familiar with the history of credit cards and learning the concept can be handy. It lets you bag a better deal, especially when applying for your first credit card. While these cards have evolved with time, the underlying principles remain the same. Go through the evolution of credit/debit cards and find your options today. That should help you make the best choice without denting your finances. 


I am a blogger that was born in the 1980's. So I decided to write about the 1980's because I feel that was one of the best decades ever.

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