Credit card

Contributed by British Museum

Click on the image to zoom in. Courtesy of HSBC Holdings plc

Image 1 of 4

This credit card exemplifies the global nature of modern finance. HSBC, originally founded in Hong Kong and Shanghai, created its Amanah division in 1998 to appeal to the growing financial hubs in the Middle East and Asia. Islamic law forbids exchanging money for profit and this card is Shari'a compliant, meaning that interest cannot be received on savings, or charged on borrowings. Shari'a compliant banks also cannot invest money in socially or morally damaging businesses and are mindful that Muslims must use their wealth to help the less fortunate.

When was the first plastic credit card created?

In the 20th century financial transactions in many western countries were increasingly no longer made in cash but through credit facilities, cheques and electronic money. The first credit card was the Diners Club Card, created by businessman Frank McNamara in 1950, after an occasion when he did not have enough cash to pay for dinner. Today, over fifty percent of all transactions in the USA and UK are made on plastic cards, although in the rest of the world cash is still used for the majority of purchases.

The first person to use a cash machine in Britain was Reg Varney from popular sitcom On the Buses in 1967

A validation of a promise to pay

I’d say it’s not a currency. This is a means by which an individual can obtain validation of his promise to pay. So that what the bank is doing is in a way helping the person who wants to sell something to the individual whose credit card that is, to validate that the person actually has the resources to meet the obligation to pay. So if you like it’s more like an I owe you, but where the ‘I’ is backed up by the word of the commercial bank that tells the ‘you’ that you can take the credit card because the person has resources to pay and will in fact do so.

This is one way in which using technology you can speed up the time in which when someone says, ‘Well I promise to pay you in the future’, you can somehow ensure that that will actually happen by using electronic payments. And it does mean that, in terms of the future, if everyone were able to make every transaction through a credit card, then would you actually need money in the conventional sense at all?

I think the ways in which the card is constructed is very much between the bank and the customer. And clearly the banks that have issued such cards have seen an advantage in setting up the transactions in a way that their customers will be more likely to accept. And of course the importance of this is that, as in all types of money or cards used to finance transactions, the acceptability, the trust which the other side of the transaction puts in it is paramount. If I could give a different example which I think illustrates the importance of trust here.

When Argentina had its financial collapse, and reneged on its national debt, in the 1990s, the currency became worthless. And in some of the villages of Argentina the use of IOUs as a substitute for paper currency started to grow up. But, the problem with the IOU is that the U has to trust the I. And that may not always be the case. So what happened was that in the villages some of them would take the IOU to the local priest and ask him to endorse it. And the priest, where he felt that he could judge the character of the person who was owing the money, making the promise, would do so, and the person receiving it would be confident that the person making that promise would certainly not want to renege on a promise that he had made to the local priest.

Now here we have an example in terms of the use of religion which was not fundamentally about religion as such, but which was about enhancing the trust that people had in the instrument that was being used.

Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England

Taking care of plastics

Many objects made recently contain plastic components and as museums start to collect them conservators are faced with the new challenge of taking care of these modern materials.

There is a wide range of different types of plastics and many are relatively stable. However some are inherently chemically unstable. This is probably because their purpose is ephemeral and they are not intended for long term survival.

Often plastics may be made to look like natural materials such as ivory, amber and tortoiseshell and so we often don’t know that they are present in an object until we study them more closely.

Most plastics deteriorate by reaction with oxygen - often in processes initiated by light and heat. The most unstable plastics are some of the early forms like cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate, as well as polyvinylchloride (PVC) and polyurethane (often present as foam). Plastics such as cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate deteriorate evolving acidic gases which can be damaging to the objects themselves and also other objects in the vicinity.

As they degrade surfaces start to craze and any associated metal components may start to corrode. PVC deteriorates by loss of plasticiser which is identifiable as a sticky layer on the surface of the plastic while polyurethane foam becomes brittle and crumbles.

So, the question is how do conservators look after objects made out of plastic?

Since plastics have different properties it is very important to recognise which plastics are present which we do using a technique such as infrared spectroscopy. In general the recommended conditions for the long term preservation of plastics are low temperatures to slow down chemical reactions and low light levels. Since plastics tend to become more brittle over time, supportive storage in the correct shape also helps.

As most credit cards have an operating lifespan of one to three years, none of these conservation issues should trouble the users. It’s just us museum conservators who have to worry about it!

Clare Ward and Joanne Dyer, Department of Conservation and Science, British Museum

Comments are closed for this object


  • 1. At 12:46 on 7 October 2010, Suabe_Flute wrote:

    Is that really an accurate transcript of what Mervyn King said, or has it been misheard? "validation of his promised pay" -- shouldn't that be "validation of his promise to pay"?

    Complain about this comment

  • 2. At 14:57 on 7 October 2010, Floriella wrote:

    I've got a fistful of old plastic cards the ladies at the British Museum are welcom to have to add to their burgeoning collection. Anything to advance the pursuit of knowledge and culture.

    Complain about this comment

  • 3. At 21:36 on 8 October 2010, Angus wrote:

    The thing is, it is not really "an object" is it? If the series was "The history of the world in 100 concepts" then fair enough, and object 100 would probably be an AK47. Unless of course Tariq's individual Visa card was a landmark in the history of the world. Other "examples" in the series have been actual "objects" with a history of their own that is representative of what they are icluded to symbolise. Mind you with a Visa Card number like that it could be used to introduce that finest of man's achievements: Identity Fraud.

    Complain about this comment

  • 4. At 11:30 on 12 October 2010, Odalchini wrote:

    Actually, Angus, I think the inclusion of a credit card is fair enough. I agree that an individual's card, rather than a symbolic one, might have been better, but that would have drawn the discussion towards that individual rather than the quite important subjects of modern credit finance, and its adaptation to Sharia, which are relevant to recent history.
    And we do have an AK47 as part of the preceding object, the Throne of Weapons, though an AK47 might indeed have been an interesting object in itself, both for the history of its owner (if known), for the ramifications of General Kalashnikov's career, and for its use by the Soviet Union as a tool against the West. But perhaps all that would need a full-length programme - the 15 minutes of this series wouldn't do it justice.

    Complain about this comment

  • 5. At 08:59 on 19 October 2010, KATIEINLONDON wrote:

    Lots of people don't know that we have a collection of credit cards (and other plastic cards) at the British Museum - I'm one of the curators who looks after it. The plastic cards form part of our collections of contemporary objects, which are growing all the time.

    The question about why it's a specimen card, rather than a card from an individual, is an interesting one, and has to do with issues around fraud. If you think about it, we couldn't put an image of an individual's credit card on the BBC website without exposing them to some risk of fraud, so the whole collection of plastic cards is kept under very strict security, with only a very limited number of people allowed access to the objects. The British Museum's collections are there for the very long term, though, so in a few years or a few decades we should be able to release more information about, and images of, this part of the collection.

    Complain about this comment

  • 6. At 09:58 on 21 October 2010, Chris Rogers wrote:

    Agree, it's a bit daft to have a representative of 50 million items - it's NOT a unique object

    Complain about this comment

  • 7. At 11:55 on 21 October 2010, Quitedecu2 wrote:

    More importantly, I am still not sure how a credit card can avoid making a profit for someone. HSBC charges interest? As usual? Where's the trick?

    Complain about this comment

  • 8. At 11:15 on 26 October 2010, Robert Allen wrote:

    I think the comments on uniqueness are a little misconceived. Many of the objects from the past are also not unique (in the sense of being the only ones made): the coins and the vessels and the pieces of armour, for example. It is true that some of these objects may be the only ones to have survived (although even that is not always the case) but this does not make them 'unique' in the historical sense that is relevant here.

    Complain about this comment

  • 9. At 16:24 on 7 November 2010, Paul R Syms wrote:

    I agree that a bank card of some kind should be included - but if you needed a specific one, how about the original Barclaycard? I think in the advertisements it was issued to a Mr. M. Stephens.

    Complain about this comment

  • 10. At 16:30 on 7 November 2010, Scott I wrote:

    It is not a bit daft?though arguably it is less than ideal?to have a representative of 50 million items, especially when one considers that millions of pieces of eight were struck, yet the piece of eight of an earlier episode of AHOTW was also a monetary device representative of thousands that still exist. However, the complaint that the credit card is not actual, is not working (nor once-working), and is?as it were?a ?sample,? has a bit more resonance with me. But then I consider that the very reason why it must be merely a sample?privacy issues?is itself a literally phenomenally important point, one that was worth a mention in this episode, and that opens up discussion of the histories of the practices and concepts of personal identity, privacy, and uniqueness?particularly relevant in our age of plastics, serial numbering, mass production, computer technology, and?representative samples themselves, since almost any mass produced object has a representative sample or master as a standard to follow.

    Complain about this comment

pages 1 2 

Most of the content on A History of the World is created by the contributors, who are the museums and members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC or the British Museum. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site’s House Rules please Flag This Object.

About this object

Click a button to explore other objects in the timeline


Issued in United Arab Emirates




View more objects from people in London.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.