Proof of Trust or Modern Money? Domesticizing Credit Cards in the 1960s and 1970s Sweden

Friday, 3 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
TW2.2.03 (Tower Two)
Orsi Husz, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden
The paper elaborates on the key theme of the mini-conference, that is the domestication of financial devices and technologies, by focusing on the introduction of credit (& debit) cards in Sweden from the late 1950 to the late 1970s. I study the changing justifications used historically to position, characterize and familiarize cards when they first appeared in a larger scale in Sweden. Who were to use them, in what ways and for what purchases? How was the card user created discursively in the marketing material directed to the consumers and to those working in retail? How was the value of the card established and publicly justified? And most importantly what where those how marketed the first credit cards selling: credit, a new kind of money, a proof of identity and trustworthiness or something else?

Sweden offers an interesting case study for several reasons. Historical studies of credit cards predominantly discuss the US, often treated as a “credit card nation” (Manning 2000, Mandelll 1990; Marron 2009). But using cards for payments is of course not exclusively American (Róna Tas & Guseva 2014; Ossandon 2014), and it was not in the earlier period either. Today Swedes are more frequent users of cards (with the debit card dominating over the credit card) as any other Europeans and the number of transactions by card per capita is three times as many as the European average. Already in 2012 70% of all payments were done by card.[1]

Sweden was also first in Europe with introducing professional credit card systems from 1959. Although influenced by the US, the leading figures of the early Swedish credit cards business emphasised the political and social differences and claimed that the distinctive “cultural context” required other market solutions and marketing strategies. As there was no European model for creating markets for credit cards back in the first years of the 1960s, the Swedish case reveals how the historical agents were handling the challenge of creating a market also in cultural terms: how they tried to entangle credit cards in existing values and cultural practices and/or argued for a new way of thinking (cf. Róna Tas & Guseva 2014, p. 71).

There is however is not necessarily a causal link between these two facts, the early start and the high rate of card payments today. In any case, the historical trajectory and the changing cultural contexts of the Swedish use of cards have not yet been studied. 

In this paper I focus on the cultural economic history of the cards in Sweden and how marketing practices tried to entangle them in the specific national, social and cultural context. The paper thus responds to Paul Langley and his colleges’ appeal for a shift from studies of consumption on credit to the study of credit as the object of consumption. Langley argues that [“the inquiry should extend to […] the strategies and practices of how consumer credit is actually marketed and sold” (Langley 2014). This approach, which is not at all unprecedented within cultural historical studies of consumer credit (e.g Olney 1991; Calder 1999), is in line with the aims of the present paper.

However, focusing strictly on the card adds another important dimension to my study. Instead of automatically treating credit cards as one (of the many) commodification(s) of consumer credit, or even its “generic form” (Marron 2009, p. 84), I ask more openly if it is indeed credit which is advertised or something else instead or along with credit. How was the demand for cards for payment (charge, credit & debit cards) manufactured historically? Practices, moralities, values in the specific cultural context were certainly changed by the efforts of creating a market for this new financial product but they also shaped the kind of device the card turned into.

Credit cards seem to have been redefined in Sweden from “proof of trust” to “modern money”. They were first described as status symbols and later presented as the money of the up-growing generation and part of the new “way of living”.[2] Who should use the credit card and specifically for what kind of purchases changed in both discourse and practice. They were introduced as a civilised alternative for dubious forms of lending but came to be criticised as the quintessential symbols of reckless use of consumer loans. They were advertised as a device for family accounting, a symbol of good domestic money management and criticised for being the opposite. They could be depicted and interpreted as a device for securing freedom and economic independence but also as a tool for creating unfreedom and a continuous economic dependence. Establishing credit, debit and charge cards in Sweden was both about adapting to regulatory policies and entangling the card in cultural practices, moralities and values. The analysis of these kind of discursive negotiations and contested justifications is important in order to understand the history of the financialisation of everyday life and the tricky processes of domestication of financial technologies.

I use the archives of Köpkort, a for long dominating Swedish credit card company established in 1962 after quick mergers of several smaller credit card associations and companies. Formally independent, it was owned jointly by the Swedish commercial banks. It contains a rich collection of marketing material directed towards both the general public and the retailers. There is also a series of presentations and speeches hold by the representatives of the credit card company at various international conferences within the fields of banking, financing and retailing businesses. In these the cultural specificities of the “Swedish experience” are explicitly discussed. I also study bank archives for the very earliest years, before Köpkort started. Furthermore, the sources make possible to access in some extent the reception (at least for the 1970s) in form of both a critical debate in the media and surveys/polls conducted among card users.

[1] Kortbetalningarnas betydelse i samhället, Stockholm 2013, p. 7, 10.

[2] Quotations from advertising material 1960s.