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The Story of American Express – A History and Timeline

by on October 6, 2011

The Story of American Express – A History and Timeline

American Express is one of the largest financial services companies in the world, but its climb to the top wasn’t easy. Originally founded as a freight running service, the multinational corporation has undergone multiple periods of innovation and reinvention on its rise to prominence.

As a result, American Express has one of the more interesting stories in the financial sector.   Take a look at the history and timeline of American Express:

  • 1850. Freight company owners Henry Wells, William Fargo and John Butterfield join forces to found the American Express Company in New York City. As an express service, the company specializes in moving light freight such as valuables and other personal belongings non-stop from Buffalo to the Big Apple.
  • 1851. Already the leading freight company between New York, Albany, Buffalo and Boston, American Express expands to the Midwest by signing contracts with the first railroads and using packet boats to connect Illinois, Iowa and Ohio with steamship lines on the Illinois River.
  • 1852. Wells and Fargo propose that American Express expand to become the first transcontinental freight service by setting up shop in a brand new state called California. Although the board turns them down, the founders start their own shipping venture in the Golden State and name it the Wells-Fargo Group while retaining control of the company.

  • 1882. The company introduces the American Express Money Order, which allows citizens to send money safely and quickly across the country by using the company’s fast freight line. It’s an instant success, and over 250,000 orders are sent out in the first year alone.
  • 1891. Looking to build on its success with the money order, the company introduces American Express Travelers Checks. The checks offer a safe and fast way for travelers to send and receive money internationally, and they can be exchanged for currency at any American Express freight outlet. Today, traveler’s checks remain a staple currency for tourists and travelers.
  • 1920. As the travel industry begins to expand, American Express opens travel agency/currency exchange stations in Europe and Asia. This proves to be a vital move when antitrust laws result in American Express’s domestic parcel service becoming nationalized and incorporated into the American Railway Express Company.
  • 1958. Now an internationally established travel and money exchange service, American Express adopts the trademark centurion head as the company’s unifying logo. In the same year, keying in on the success of the Diner’s Club credit cards, the company introduces the American Express Dining and Entertainment Card. Over 500,000 cards are issued in the first three months.
  • 1966. Howard L. Clark transforms American Express from a successful, modestly sized company into an international conglomerate through a massive corporate overhaul. Management is streamlined, assets are acquired and the company introduces its Gold Card – the first exclusive credit card in the industry and a product that would be mimicked by their competitors.
  • 1987. The company introduces the Optima card – also known as the Blue Card – which uses a balance to keep track of debt rather than requiring each customer pay their bill in full every month. The card is targeted primarily towards young people who have yet to build their savings but who are still earning money. It too is an instant success.
  • 1999. Now known for their Green, Gold and Platinum cards, American Express re-introduces the super-exclusive line of credit with their Centurion Card. Only offered to Platinum cardholders in good standing, the Centurion – also referred to as the “Black Card” – is made of titanium rather than plastic, has no credit limit and carries a $5000 initiation fee as well as a $2500 annual fee.
  • 2011. In addition to being the largest supplier of traveler’s checks in the world, American Express is now the leading issuer of corporate credit cards. With over two dozen different credit accounts available to consumers and small businesses, they remain poised to stay on top of the credit industry for years to come.

Although American Express certainly has an interesting history, its story isn’t over yet. As the leading supplier of travelers checks and credit cards in the world, the company should continue to innovate and expand for years to come.

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