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30 Interesting Facts About the American Express Credit Card Company

American Express is an iconic company with roots in an historical period defined by pioneers, prospectors, and privateers. Today, American Express is recognized the world over as a multinational financial services group, a leading bank holding company, and a highly reputable credit card issuer. But in its earliest history, American Express was actually a mailing and shipping company–at one time, the largest in the rapidly expanding United States.

But this is just one of many little factual tidbits that make this storied company so fascinating. If you’re more interested in applying for an American Express credit card than taking a history lesson, you can jump right to our look at how you can qualify for an AmEx. Otherwise, read on for…

30 Interesting Facts About American Express

1. Founded at the Height of the Gold Rush

As the name implies, American Express was originally formed as an express mail service business. Formed in 1850, it was initially a merger of operations by three independent businessmen from Buffalo, New York named John Warren Butterfield, Henry Wells, and William G. Fargo.

2. Wells and Fargo Go West

If the names Wells and Fargo sound familiar, that’s because they would partner in the formation of not one but two iconic American brand names. As westward expansion of the United States rushed forward, Butterfield refused to expand the company’s operations into California. So in 1852, his partners struck out to form the Wells Fargo Company, which quickly parlayed its express shipping business into the dominant banking entity of the American West.

3. Partnering with the Pony Express

Though American Express resisted undertaking its own express services in California, it did establish an inroad into the fast growing western economy as the provider of financial services for the Pony Express, a fast mail delivery system transporting correspondences across the West by horseback rider.

4. First Foray Into Financial Services

In short order, American Express established a monopoly in the transmission of goods, securities, and currency in the state of New York. This made its earliest exploits in financial services a natural fit. In 1857, American Express saw an opportunity to compete with the United States Postal Service by establishing its own money order services.

5. Working With the Feds

While the recently launched money order business proposed to compete with the U.S. government, the next step forward for AmEx was actually precipitated by its positive relationship with the Feds. According to a historical account from Legends of America, “In 1858, they expanded their shipment services when the company won the government contract for the first transcontinental stage line, carrying the mail from Missouri to  California and receiving $600,000 per year. When finalized, the new mail contract was the largest that had ever been awarded.”

6. The Outbreak of Civil War

In spite of its record setting contract, the plans for a transcontinental AmEx stage line never materialized. The outbreak of Civil War 1861 threw these plans into disarray. However, as the American Express increasingly placed its bets in the growing financial services industry, it proved a robust and stable company even in the midst of a rupturing nation.

7. American Express Enters the Age of Rails

It also helped that the aftermath of the Civil War brought with it new opportunities for yet faster and more explosive western growth. As railroads and steamships expanded across the U.S. in the late 1800s, American Express adapted its services to provide travelers with money orders and financial services related to rail travel.

8. AmEx Invents Traveler’s Cheques

It was thus that American Express introduced a revolutionary new concept to the worlds of both travel and finance. Long before credit cards existed, let alone offered generous rewards points for travel, American Express issued the first traveler’s cheque. The 1891 innovation would revolutionize how people carried money while traveling. In fact, traveler’s checks remained an important financial product for leisure travelers across the next century. Only with the advent of wireless online technologies and the facilitation of instant financial transactions in the 1990s did this business model begin to decline. Still, according to a timeline on the history of credit cards from Capital One, American Express remains the largest provider of traveler’s checks in the world.

9. The Feds Pull the Rails

It’s a good thing for American Express that they ultimately began to focus on financial services and products. As the U.S. economy grew, the finance industry was truly kicking into gear, and American Express was at the forefront. This would prove a critically wise calculation, because the turn of the century saw the U.S. government nationalizing the railway system. There was no longer any private money to be had running the rails.

10. American Express Begins Banking

American Express officially launched its banking business in 1915. The timing would be fortuitous. According to a capsule history from Britannica, “When the U.S. federal government nationalized the express industry in 1918, thereby consolidating all domestic express operations in the American Railway Express Company. American Express turned almost wholly to its banking operations and its relatively new travel services.” In addition to its banking services, American Express began offering a growing number of other novell financial services and products.

11. The Charge Card Is Invented

Perhaps no service or product was more innovative than the charge card. Just as it had revolutionized travel spending with traveler’s cheques, American Express would revolutionize consumer spending with the introduction of the very first charge card in 1958. While Diner’s Club had innovated the concept of the credit card in 1950, the American Express charge card gave holders access to a no-limit account that could be paid off like a credit card. The idea was to give traveler’s more spending flexibility.

[Learn more about the differences between credit cards and charge cards with a look at our article on high limit American Express Credit Cards.]

12. American Express Goes Gladiator

It was also in 1958 that American Express officially adopted its iconic Roman Gladiator logo. Meant to symbolize strength and security, the gladiator remains a prominent part of AmEx branding, appearing on its credit cards, money orders, traveler’s cheques and marketing materials to date.

13. Going for the Gold

The original 1958 American Express charge account came with its “Classic” American Express Green Card, with an emphasis on travel spending. In 1966, American Express expanded its repertoire, offering its American Express Gold Card, which was originally designed to serve the needs of business travelers.

14. American Express Prestige Cards

In 1984, American Express introduced its American Express Platinum Card aimed at elite status account holders and boasting all kinds of generous membership rewards. At the time, the Platinum Card was only available by invitation. Eventually, the Platinum became available to top applicants by application. Then, in 1999, AmEx created its Black Card, or Centurion. This highly prestigious card is issued only by personal innovation to high net worth individuals. Its perks include exclusive access to the world’s most luxurious hotels, acclaimed restaurants, prized event tickets, and much more.

15. AmEx in the Go-Go 80s

During a time of massive Wall Street growth, American Express expanded aggressively into the finance industry. For instance, In 1981, American Express acquired Shearson Loeb Rhoades, a leading brokerage firm, for around $930 million. The acquisition of investment bank Lehman Brothers followed in 1984.

16. AmEx Gets a New HQ

Wall Street boomed in the 1980s, so American Express established a brand new worldwide headquarters right at the center of it all. Far from its humble mid-19th Century beginnings, which included a horse stable in the future Tribeca neighborhood, American Express erected American Express Tower at 200 Vesey Street in the Battery Park City neighborhood of Lower Manhattan. Opened for business in 1987, this remains the company’s primary base of operations

17. Going Global

In an increasingly global economy, American Express began its foray into international business in the early ’80s. Today, American Express operates in more than 130 countries worldwide.

18. AmEx Caters to the High-End Consumers

Over the years, American Express has gained a reputation for prestige, exclusivity and taste. AmEx account holders often fill out higher wealth profiles. For this reason, AmEx has often collaborated with high end brands and designers such as Louis Vuitton and Diane von Furstenberg, offering its users access to exclusive and stylish member benefits.

19. American Express Weathers the Storm

Catering to high end clients proved a strong business model. At the height of the financial crisis, American Express endured relative stability–though like many other players in the financial industry, AmEx did receive federal government assistance through its participation in the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). In fact, AmEx converted to what is called a bank holding company in 2008 in order to qualify for receipt of these funds.

20. A Partnership with Time Inc.

While the transition into a bank holding company would qualify AmEx for TARP funding, it would also restrain many of its activities outside of the financial sector. For instance, this new status placed heavy limitations on the company’s ability to generate revenue through its American Express publishing division. This would ultimately require AmEx to sell its publishing division to Time, Inc. in 2013. Since as far back as 1993, American Express and Time Inc. shared a management services arrangement that allowed collaboration over advertising operations. The 2013 acquisition, according to an article from Time, was the logical culmination of a 20 year partnership, and would ultimately bring magazine titles like Travel & Leisure and Food & Wine under the Time umbrella.

21. Inventing Small Business Saturday

Boosting American Express during the financial crisis would actually have untold benefits for small business owners. Why? Well, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, American Express made special efforts to help shine a brighter light on the important role played by small businesses in the U.S. economy. Another in a long line of innovations with global appeal, Small Business Saturday was actually American Express’s idea. In 2010, looking for a way to boost small business owners in the midst of the big box Black Friday shopping season, AmEx introduced this holiday shopping promotion. It proved a success and remains popular to date.

22. American Express Excels At Membership Benefits

Over the last several decades, American Express has excelled at conveying itself as an elite credit card issuer with a high threshold for eligibility and a reputation for prestige. It has gone to great lengths to magnify this reputation by offering cardholders an unparalleled set of membership rewards, unique perks, and unusual services. For instance, American Express offers some of its premium cardholders access to concierge services. For elite status members, you may be able to reach out to American Express for assistance in booking travel arrangements, securing event tickets, scoring exclusive restaurant reservations, and more.

23. American Express Goes After the Travel Set

The connection between American Express credit cards and travel rewards is inextricable. After all, the company can claim to have invented the world’s first traveler’s checks. Not only that, but the very first American Express charge card membership was largely held out to those looking for more spending flexibility while traveling. So it makes sense that American Express outranks many of its competitors when it comes to travel rewards. Membership rewards include bonus points for booking flights, hotels, car rentals and much more. American Express allows cardholders to transfer their Membership Rewards points to a variety of airline and hotel loyalty programs, providing flexible travel redemption options.

24. Business Travelers Get Great Perks

American Express credit cards are particularly popular among business travelers. This is because its membership rewards programs include heightened perks for those who like to mix a little business and pleasure. For instance, with the American Express Global Business Travel program–Select–your company can work directly with American Express to tailor a comprehensive business travel strategy specific to your company’s needs. According to AmEx, “Businesses that want to transform their corporate travel experience choose Select. And for good reason. With Select, the travel products and services help meet the needs of your company. Whether you’d like a cost-efficient travel program, or consultative advice, you can count on us for help.”

25. American Express Becomes an Early Adopter

Always at the front edge of innovation in the financial sector, American Express was actually one of the first credit card issuers to fully embrace mobile payment technology through the use of a smartphone. In an article dating back to 2015, American Express announced that its card holders could now integrate their accounts with the emergent ApplePay mobile payment app. According to the article, “American Express is enabling its corporate card holders to pay with their smartphones while on-the-go via a new partnership with Apple Pay, highlighting how the payment platform continues to gain steam in the financial sector.”

26. American Express Continues to Support Small Business Owners

Since launching Small Business Saturday in 2010, American Express remains closely allied with small business owners. In addition to its big annual event, AmEx promotes the support of small and local businesses every day with its “Shop Small” initiative. The campaign aims to support local businesses by offering membership rewards points and benefits to those who enlist services, place orders, and make other eligible purchases through small businesses.

27. American Express Offers Benefits for Small Business Account Holders

In addition to rewarding shoppers for patronizing small businesses, American Express offers additional benefits to business owners who use American Express business credit cards for business travel, expenses, and more. According to the American Express “Shop Small” initiative, “Amex is committed to supporting your small business every step of the way. From free marketing materials to deals on services, we’ve got you covered.”

[Want to find out how American Express credit cards could help with your small business? Jump to our article on how to contact American Express customer service to find out how AmEx can assist you!]

28. American Express is a Lifestyle Card

Because American Express often places an emphasis on high-end benefits and luxury accommodations, it has a reputation as a “lifestyle card.” Particularly for elite status account holders, card membership can mean heightened access to hotel upgrades, first class flight seating, and posh airport lounge access in locations around the world. If you happen to be among the select car holders with a Centurion club membership, your airport lounge experience may also include free access to amenities like food, drink, and spa services.

29. Skip to the Front of the Line

Not only will AmEx give you access to exclusive benefits, but your card membership may also allow you to access these benefits ahead of other consumers. In fact, membership rewards for some Platinum cardholders may include access to the AmEx Front of the Line program. According to the AmEx website, “Cardmembers can purchase Front of The Line® presale tickets to some of the most in-demand concerts, theatre productions, restaurants and special events often before the general public. Cardmembers can purchase Front of The Line® Reserved tickets from a block of great seats reserved exclusively for American Express® during the public on-sale period for many major events.” Your AmEx membership could make it possible to enjoy the kinds of experiences and events reserved only for a select few.

30. Strict Qualification Criteria

Speaking of a select few, the reality is that American Express is one of the more exclusive credit card companies. In general, American Express tends to target a more affluent customer base. Indeed, those interested in applying for an American Express card of any kind should have a minimum credit rating of 700. Moreover, because American Express offers so many generous rewards programs to its users, you can expect to pay a high annual fee relative to other credit card brands. For instance, the annual fee for the American Express Platinum Card is $695.


If you’re interested in checking out rewards cards that come with a slightly lower credit score threshold and cards with low annual fees or no annual fees, check out our article on the Best Chase Credit Cards for travel rewards.