How the Centurion Made It Into Manhattan

From the Brand Historian’s Timeline: 1850

Most nations have their quotient of memorable dates, and the United States is no exception. 1620, 1776 and 1863 come readily to mind. Whilst 1850 may not have such a high profile,it is a serious contender as a year of strategic significance. It also coincides with the foundation of one of the USA’s most iconic corporations.

1850 started promisingly. Against the background of increasingly bitter debate about the slave economy, heightened further by the victory of the US army in the Mexican war, which had secured huge new territory in the West, the Compromise of 1850 diffused tension and probably delayed the outbreak of more serious conflict for ten years. The Compromise put the question of whether enslaving people was lawful in the hands of the populations of individual States. California was admitted to the Union in September, and its population decreed it would be a free State. At the same time, New Mexico and Utah were given territory status, further opening up a promising landscape of opportunity.

Railways were central to the industrial revolution that was now gathering momentum. In 1850, US railways were evolving from a scattered network into a coherent continent-crossing system and in that year, a further 9000 track miles were added. For entrepreneurs, following the railways was always an excellent route to profit. On March 18,  three American corporations, which had been operating in New York State for a while, were merged to form American Express. It was founded by individuals whose names have since become synonymous with the opening up of the West: Henry Wells and William G Fargo. John Butterfield and James D Wasson were the other founding partners.

The original purpose of their new company was to move mail, money and freight securely and quickly throughout the Empire State. But with the help of savvy partnerships and joint ventures with railroads and steamships, the company soon had a virtual monopoly and was only partially affected by the Civil War, which finally broke out between the North and the Confederacy in 1861. 

From its beginnings, American Express displayed a strong talent for spotting opportunities and demonstrating leanness and dexterity in redefining its business. Express mail and logistics may have been how the corporation started, but it was a stream of financial service innovations that dramatically built the company. In 1857, it launched money orders to compete with the unconditional payment products of the Post Office. And for the first time, it introduced the Roman centurion as its brand icon to emphasise its security credentials.

In 1891, JC Fargo was on a European Grand Tour and apparently got some first-hand experience in discovering the difficulties of getting cash on the move. Arriving back from Paris, he briefed Marcellus Fleming Berry to develop a new kind of international travellers’ cheque. While travellers’ cheques had been around in various forms for some time, the scale of American Express’ global system made them hugely successful. As the 20th Century dawned, American Express had become one of the world’s first mega brands.

Strangely, however, American Express was not the first to market with a charge card. Diner’s Club introduced a travel and entertainment charge card in 1950. But despite not being a fast follower- it launched its first card in 1958 – the power of the brand and its merchant support organization helped it to market leadership. Aspirational advertising, courtesy of David Ogilvy helped (Don’t leave home without itMembership has its privileges), as did clever market segmentation, which saw Amex play the precious metal game of card innovation: gold, platinum, black and so on.

From its origins in lower Manhattan, American Express had morphed from a local logistics and distribution business to a financial services Behemoth and served as a corporate metaphor mirroring the transformations that were taking place throughout the United States in the years after 1850.

Some Banjo Music for 1850:

The Camptown Races – Stephen Foster

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