The O’Shaughnessy Family Papers (Ms1987-052) is one of those manuscript collections that keeps pulling me back for another look. (For those few who had the misfortune to miss my previous post about the collection, you can read it here.) In brief, Louis O’Shaughnessy was a 1903 VPI graduate who returned to his alma mater in 1918 as a professor of applied mechanics and continued to teach here until his retirement in 1954. Professor O’Shaughnessy, his wife Ida Surface O’Shaughnessy, and their daughter Betty lived at what was then 120 Pepper Street, but is today home of the Alpha Phi Chapter of Beta Theta Pi, on Turner Street.
While at first glance the O’Shaughnessys’ papers don’t appear to hold anything of great historical significance, the collection is full of interesting little items that are worthy of exploration and discussion. Among these is an aluminum identification token, somewhat reminiscent of a military dog tag, measuring just 2 ½ x 1 ¼”. The front is embossed “L O Shaughnessy, Blacksburg, Virginia.” On the reverse, the plate holds a card imprinted with “Charga-Plate Associates of Richmond” and a blank line for the holder’s signature. (The O’Shaughnessys’ card remains unsigned, indicating that the family never actually used it.) The item is housed in a red leather case, with “Charga-Plate” embossed on one side and “Richmond” on the other.
Largely forgotten today, Charga-Plate was an outgrowth of the time-honored practice by merchants of extending credit to favored customers. While retail credit provided advantages to both seller and buyer, the recording of individual credit transactions presented a cumbersome task for the salesclerk and a time-consuming inconvenience for the customer. Developed by Farrington Manufacturing in 1928, Charga-Plate was an attempt to streamline the process so that salesclerks could forgo writing customers’ names and addresses on every credit sales slip.
Upon charging a purchase, the consumer presented the identification token to the clerk, who placed the plate in a small imprinter (about the size and shape of a stapler), with a charge slip on top of the plate. Downward pressure on the imprinter recorded the customer’s data from the plate onto the charge slip via an inked ribbon. Upon receiving a bill for their purchases, customers could pay the amount in full or maintain a revolving credit account.
In addition to the customer’s name and city of residence, each Charga-Plate contained two additional, unseen pieces of information: the position of the circular notch in the edge of the plate represented the city for which the plate was issued, while the position of the square notch represented a specific store within that city. A single plate might contain several square notches, if more than one local retailer participated in the Charga-Plate system.
Charga-Plate soon became a common way for larger stores to offer their customers credit. As such, retailers often promoted their use of Charga-Plate in newspaper advertisements, touting the system’s convenience, accuracy, and security for customers. Use of the credit tags grew throughout the 1930s and 1940s, but the advent and expansion in the 1950s of general-use credit cards, with credit issued by a third party, spelled eventual doom for Charga-Plate, restricted as the credit tags were to local, single-store use.
As is the case with many superseded workaday conveniences, the demise of Charga-Plate went unheralded. And so despite the Charga-Plate era being not so far removed from our own, I couldn’t pinpoint the year of the system’s final abandonment. While several sources indicate that the system reached its end around 1960, newspaper advertisements show that Charga-Plate remained in use, albeit in scattered pockets, well into the 1970s. Miller & Rhoads of Roanoke, for example, continued to offer Charga-Plate to its customers as late as 1974, even as the department store extended credit through BankAmericard and Master Charge (now Mastercard). In Mt. Pocono, Pennsylvania, newspaper advertisements for both Oppenheim’s clothing store and Hess’s department store touted their use of the system as late as 1977, while an advertisement in the Daily American Republic of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, hints that at least one St. Louis store continued to use Charga-Plate as late as 1981.
By that time, of course, the use of plastic, bank-issued credit cards had become increasingly commonplace and soon would become ubiquitous. Today, the plastic credit card is, in turn, giving way to systems that no longer require the customer to use any physical artifact to make a credit purchase. Charga-Plate, and other systems like it, represented a significant step from the burdensome task of recording credit transactions by hand to the instant, automated systems that we have today.
For more on the O’Shaughnessy Family Papers, see the collection’s finding aid.