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20 Fun Facts You Didn't Know about American Express


There are some great facts about American Express. There is plenty of trivia too: Vietnam first began using new American Express Cards in 1994. American Express is mentioned in the Douglas Adams novels So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Ford Prefect in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy always has an American Express card with him to try to pay his bar bills. Tina Turner sings that she’ll accept American Express in her song Private Dancer. American Express has $181 billion in Total Assets and 112 million cards-in-force. The facts about the company are diverse and reach deep into its history. Here are 20 fun facts about one of the most powerful services company in the world today.

American Express was founded in 1850 by Henry Wells, William G. Fargo, and John Butterfield.

The Postal Service was just beginning operations at the time, but it only delivered mail. American Express set itself up to deliver money and packages, because people needed to get those items from one place to another. Wells and Fargo also started Wells Fargo & Company, which has become the largest bank in the world today. It’s a testament to the business acumen of the founders and successors that the company has lasted 168 years and is still thriving.

The company’s original logo was a watchdog.

The reason for the watchdog was that it stood for the company values, which included trust, security, service, and vigilance. The original watchdog was depicted in a photo, lying on top of an American Express shipping trunk, and the American Pit Bull Terrier had the letters “AM. EX. CO.” inked onto its white fur coat. At the company’s original location on Lower Hudson Street in Tribeca, New York, the American Pit Bull Terrier is sculpted in bas relief in the center of the American Express name which circles around the dog’s head. A heavy-duty collar with large spike-like cubes surrounds the dog’s neck-adding to the certainty that he will guard his shipments to the fullest. The dog logo is nestled into the brick façade of the building several stories above street level, and though AmEx no longer occupies the building, visitors can still see the old logo.

Lizzy Gardiner wore her American Express Gold card dress to the Academy Awards.

It happened in 1995. Gardiner, an Australian costume designer, used real, expired cards to create her dress. At the award ceremony, she won the Best Costume Design Oscar. She had originally come up with the idea for the dress intending to use it for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. But American Express forbid her to use her design for the film. When it came time for Gardiner to attend the 67th Academy Awards event, she had nothing to wear. She created the dress and wore it to the event. In 1999, the dress was sold at auction for $12,650. The proceeds were donated to The Foundation for AIDS Research AmfAR. While Variety called the dress “clever”, Time and Cosmopolitan magazines both described the dress as one of the Worst Oscar dresses ever.

In the Batman & Robin film, Batman parodies the famous American Express slogan.

Everyone is familiar with the “Don’t leave home without it.” slogan. But Batman took it to a new level. In the movie, he pulls out a Bat-Credit card and then says that he “never leaves the cave without it”. Keith R.A. DeCandido compared the moment in his review for TOR-COM, as he took another look at Batman Forever and Batman & Robin in a movie re-watch. DeCandido’s opinion was that Joel Schumachacher’s directing did Batman some “serious damage’ because he made Batman into the same kind of “celebrity hero” that he was in Adam West’s version. So much a celebrity, that Batman even had his own American Express card. DeCandido viewed Batman’s declaration that he never leaves his cave without the card as perhaps one of the most stupid moments of a superhero film-ever.

American Express contributed one penny for each purchase made in 1983 to restoring the Statue of Liberty.

The Statue of Liberty campaign was titled “For Liberty’s Sake”. It featured Lady Liberty with her torch aglow on a rich blue background. It described her as urgently needing restoration. It called for card holders to use their cards from October 5th until the end of the year with the promise that the company would donate to the restoration project on schedule. The plea added that using the card would help to preserve the “great symbol of freedom”. The company adopted cause marketing early on, and its success with the Statue of Liberty project was phenomenal. Contributions totaling $1.7 million were raised. Not only that- the company’s promotion generated a substantial increase in consumer card usage. There was a 28% increase in the card’s use during the promotion.

The “My life. My card. / Are You a Cardmember?” promotions featured amazing celebrities.

The first promotion launched in 2004. It was the “My life. My card.” Campaign. It successfully engaged viewers with a glimpse of what kind of extravagant and interesting lifestyle might be possible for cardmembers to enjoy. The second promotion launched in 2007. It was the “Are You a Cardmember?” campaign and it encouraged viewers to join the exclusive card club along with the celebrities who endorsed it. The idea for both was to feature celebrities who were cardmembers talking about how the card enhanced their lives. Ellen DeGeneres, Alicia Keys, Kate Winslet, M. Night Shyamalan, Robert De Niro, Diane von Furstenberg, Shaun White, Andre Agassi, and Sheryl Crow are among those who were part of the successful brand campaign. Undoubtedly, both promotions were highly attractive due to the successful stars who took part. The card embraced not only Hollywood stars, but sports figures, musicians, designers, and all sorts of attractive and creative people.

There's an urban legend that the company created an exclusive black card.

The 1980s urban legend was and remains a popular one. The idea was that American Express had designed a super-secret card that only the extremely wealthy would be invited to use. The card would be capable of buying anything form a private luxury jet to a custom race car. The card would be enclosed in a velvet-lined, specially designed presentation box and delivered secretly in the hands of a security guard. Due to the rumors, the company added the Centurion Card to its varied line of consumer cards. This black card was an answer to urban legend, and it catered to elite, select Platinum card users. The select card features an initiation fee of $7,500 and an annual fee of $2,500.

American Express used to run packet boats on the Illinois Canal.

These boats helped to connect deliveries for Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio. The states were connected by steamship lines on the Illinois River. The packet boats were medium in size and they were used to carry passengers, domestic mail and freight in the 18th and 19th centuries. The boats were often pulled by mules of draft horses and though their speed wasn’t very fast, their routes were more efficient and safer than stagecoaches. People would send their shipments on these packet boats as a smart alternative to other options. The packet boats were already popular and in use throughout Europe, so it just made good business sense to use them in expanding America.

American Express helped to launch the Pony Express.

The company joined with Adams Express Co. the United States Express Co. and Wells Fargo to form the Overland Mail Co. The United States Postal Service awarded the newly formed mail service the very first transcontinental contract. Eventually the company was controlled by Wells Fargo and the Pony Express was the result. The service operated from 1860 to 1861. The riders rode in relay to deliver mail across 2000 miles in just ten days. The route crossed eight states including Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. The 18 months that the service was in place required an enormous amount of skill and bravery. The riders traveled from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California and the journey was not easy. Each rider had a specific starting and ending point. Riders accomplished in 10 days what it would take stagecoaches 50 days to travel, and that gave businesses a great business advantage but at great expense.

American Express delivered packages to parts of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

American Express profited enormously from the Civil War because supplies needed to be delivered to soldiers. The company also delivered election ballots to soldiers. The parcels delivered to the South were taken to parts which were under the control of Union forces. Part of the problems with mail deliveries included a shortage of stamps. At one point in the war, postmasters had to use hand stamps to keep the mail moving. But valuable letters or those containing money were sent using various Express mail services. Mail exchanges between the Confederate States and the United States were handled by private companies like American Express. By the time the war ended, special postal agents were assigned to restore mail service and control was gradually returned to the United States Postal Service.

When the Great Depression hit, about a third of American banks failed.

But, American Express was not a bank and did not close during the panic. The company stayed open. The rest of the nation’s assets were frozen when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a national bank holiday. Commerce stopped. But American Express redeemed traveler’s checks and kept financial services for merchants and individual available. Due to traveler’s checks, the company remained profitable as the Depression continued.

The “salad oil swindle” cost American Express $60 million-and that didn’t include lawyer’s fees.

What happened was that the company began to divest its marginal operations. During the sale of two profitable accounts, it was discovered that one of those was sold with 800 million tons of vegetable oil missing. Shareholders were holding forged notes and security interests close to $150 and they were upset. None of those who were defrauded were anywhere near happy, even when American Express assumed moral responsibility for its fraudulent subsidiary, Allied Crude Vegetable Oil Refining Co. Though the fraudulent sale took place in 1963, the cases were not settled completely until 1970.

American Express was the first to introduce plastic credit cards.

The year was 1959, and before that time cards were made of either celluloid or cardboard. The original American Express Card was made of paper and was printed in purple ink. It was designed to match the company’s Travelers Cheque. The official launch date for the original card was October 1, 1958. The company had issued 250,000 cards and 17,500 businesses had formally agreed to accept the new cards. The new purple card featured the familiar Centurion logo in the upper left-hand corner, printed in purple ink. The card was printed with a border and intricate background details which looked very similar to printed paper money.

The company introduced the first Money Order product.

It was perfect for people's needs in 1882. The Money Order was easy to use and secure. Immigrants used American Express money orders to send money to their home countries. Checking accounts were rare then, so families used the money orders to pay their gas and electric bills. The company facilitated the growth of the country by ensuring that money, gold, freight, parcels, financial documents and household items of many kinds reached the people who were expecting them. Though American Express began as an express delivery company, after almost 70 years, the company launched financial products. The Money Order was quickly followed by the Travelers Cheque. The Money Order transformed the company into a payments service. This opened the way for developments in the areas of business financial services and global travel services. The company opened an extensive network of offices focusing on travel in Asia, Latin America, and Europe and this created new opportunities for both the company and its customers.

The company ran special express trains from New York to Chicago.

The arrangement was made with New York Central Railroad in 1883, and offered a huge time advantage to customers. The trains were able to make the runs almost four hours faster than any of the passenger trains using the same route. The faster times were very popular with the public, even though the local press noted that the special express trains were expensive to run. The idea caught on quickly that the extra expense was worth the savings in time.

American Express was granted the contract to run the official currency exchange office on Ellis Island.

During the early years of the 1920s, about 1.25 million people passed through Ellis Island. The new immigrants needed to exchange the gold and currency from their home countries into United States currency. For many, they carried all the money they had saved over an entire lifetime. At some point, it was discovered that money changers on the island were cheating immigrants. The money-changers were systematically giving the immigrants less than their savings were worth. The United States government stepped in and gave American Express the official contract to exchange currency at the currency exchange office on the island.

American Express stopped shipping express packages in 1918.

The United States had just entered World War I, and the government combined private express and railroad companies into a nationalized system of delivery. American Express moved forward with its financial and travel services. It was at that time when money orders, Travelers Cheques, travel services, and foreign currency exchange became the company’s path to a new business model.

The first computer arrived at American Express in March 1961.

The computer was an IBM 707-1401. The computer mainframe was located in the new American Express data processing center in New York City. The so-called Eastern Regional Operations Center was housed at 770 Broadway. The new computer gave the company the capability of switching from manual to automated systems for converting its money orders. The computer also handled accounting and payroll applications.

The American Express Card was originally purple, but changed to green.

In 1969, the company decided that cardholders were using the card all the time instead of cash. The company wanted to emphasis the idea that the card had evolved from just a once-in-a-while treat for entertainment and travel. They wanted their members to know that the card had been changed to “money green” to underscore its new purpose-every day and all the time use. The green color was perfectly coordinated to the color of United States cash.

All American Express card numbers begin with 3.

That’s because cards starting with the number 3 are entertainment, travel, financial and banking cards. That first number is official called the Major Industry identifier or MII. It’s the number which shows the card issuer’s category. The various numbers identify American Express cards from foreign countries as well as the United States. If an AmEx card is issued in Canada, it will have similar number indicators.

Garrett Parker

Written by Garrett Parker

Garrett by trade is a personal finance freelance writer and journalist. With over 10 years experience he's covered businesses, CEOs, and investments. However he does like to take on other topics involving some of his personal interests like automobiles, future technologies, and anything else that could change the world.

Read more posts by Garrett Parker

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