American Express was founded during the same excitable westward expansion that spawned Western Union. After gold was discovered in California in 1848, droves of pioneer settlers headed West and relied on express riders — the Pony Express being the most famous — to send and receive packages and currency from the East. American Express, which operated between New York and the Midwest, started out as a delivery service for goods and valuables in 1850. Two of its founders, Henry Wells and William Fargo, split off to found Wells Fargo [source: American Express].
Like Western Union, American Express has continuously reinvented itself over its history. In its early days, American Express's best customers were banks, which relied on American Express to shuttle stock certificates, notes and even currency between remote branches. In 1882, American Express began offering its own financial product, the money order. The company issued the world's first traveler's checks in 1891. At the turn of the 20th century, American Express went global, opening currency exchange offices across Europe [source: American Express].
After World War I, American Express entered the luxury travel business, organizing international tours and chartering cruises, including the first-ever "around the world" cruise in 1922 [source: American Express]. But the reinvention that made the biggest impact to American Express's bottom line was its entry into the charge card business. The very first American Express charge card was issued in 1958. It charged $6 per year for membership, $1 more than its competitor (Diner's Club), to establish itself as a prestige card. Today, American Express still thrives as a global financial services and travel company.