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Don't Leave Rome Without It: Credit Cards Through the Ages

June 30, 1996

1750 BC.........................................

* The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi sets forth ethics for extending credit.

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* Jesus drives the money changers out of the temple.

1914............................................

* American retailers issue credit cards to wealthy customers. Gas companies follow with "courtesy cards."

1928............................................

* Department stores issue embossed-metal charge plates.

1949............................................

* Alfred Bloomingdale, Frank X. McNamara and Ralph Snyder form Diners Club at Major's Cabin Grill restaurant in New York. Their concept--a single card honored by many establishments that are charged 7% of each transaction--becomes the blueprint for the industry.

1958............................................

* Carte Blanche, American Express cards launched.

* Elvis gets an American Express card.

1959............................................

* Clerk Joseph Miraglia, 19, goes on a $10,000 spending binge with a Carte Blanche card. "For a month . . . I was somebody," he says when arrested.

1962. .....................................

* American Express card turns its first profit.

1966...........................................

* A group of Chicago banks mass mails 5 million unsolicited credit cards--recipients include teenagers, infants, several dogs and the deceased. The combined loss from theft, fraud and unpaid balances is estimated at $25 million.

* American Express introduces the gold card.

1967............................................

* Famous "one word" of advice given to Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate" is misconstrued by baby boomers as "plastic,' setting off a three-decades-long credit-card spree.

* Sen. William Proxmire warns Congress: "Unless we bring unsolicited credit cards under control, we are likely to produce a nation of credit drunks."

1973............................................

* Marquette Bank in Minneapolis becomes first bank to charge an annual fee for credit cards.

1976............................................

* BankAmericard, card-issuing association created by the Bank of America in 1958, changes its name to Visa.

1980............................................

* Mastercharge renamed MasterCard.

1982............................................

* France develops microprocessor-equipped "smart cards," which can store passwords, credit limits--even medical histories. They finally catch on in mid-'90s.

1984............................................

* American Express introduces the platinum card.

1985.............................................

* After years of losses, credit cards generate huge profits as cost of money drops for banks while cardholders are charged 18% interest. By the early '90s, Citibank's credit card subsidiary is earning nearly $1 billion a year.

1987.............................................

* Director Robert Townsend finances "Hollywood Shuffle" with $100,000 in cash advances on 15 credit cards.

1989............................................

* Rumors surface of an American Express "black" card, supposedly carried by Imelda Marcos and Adnan Khashoggi, with no spending limit and fantastic perks. Amex vigorously denies the card's existence.

* The number of Visa, MasterCard, Discover and American Express cards in circulation exceeds the U.S. population.

1992............................................

* Barbara Smiley of Los Angeles complains about a $15 late fee on her Citibank Visa bill. She becomes lead plaintiff in a class-action suit challenging fees charged by banks that locate their credit-card operations in usury-friendly states like South Dakota and Delaware.

1993.............................................

* Eunice Gail Shores, who lived on $840 a month, dies at age 69 in Denver, $89,000 in debt on 37 credit cards.

1994............................................

* The Rolling Stones sponsor a Visa card.

1995.............................................

* After reportedly rebuffing a similar request for a cross-dressing character in "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," American Express provides 254 gold cards to Lizzy Gardiner, the film's Oscar-nominated costume designer, which she transforms into a floor-length gown.

* Irvine police arrest William Everly, 31, on suspicion of fraudulently securing more than 30 credit cards by Dumpster-surfing for discarded applications.

* Elvis' first American Express card fetches $63,000 at auction in Las Vegas.

1996............................................

* The Supreme Court upholds a California high court ruling in the Smiley class-action suit, allowing credit card companies to charge late fees of $20 or more even when state laws stipulate lower fees. Plus ca change . . .

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