Today’s GIF comes from a Blockbuster Card ad, circa 1997.

The Gift Of Abstraction: The History of the Gift Card

Pondering why the electronic gift card, which is newer than you think, took over the retail industry so quickly. Who had it first, anyway?

Ernie Smith
9 min readJan 18, 2018


A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.

You ever run into a situation where you return something to a store, and the only option that you have available to you is to receive the balance as a gift card?

Certainly, this is a frustrating state of affairs, especially if it’s a store you don’t particularly like. Despite that, the gift card — a retail phenomenon that came out of nowhere slightly more than two decades ago to redefine our relationship with gifts — has become a hugely popular industry.

Read on for the history of the gift card. Let’s put an extra layer between us and our money.


The amount that U.S. adults spent on gift cards in 2016, according to the research firm Packaged Facts. The firm notes that while $28 billion of the reported total was spent on gift cards they gave to others, another $11 billion was spent on themselves, while $7 billion came from their employers.

An early McDonald’s ad for its gift certificates. (via the Arcadia Tribune)

The roots of the modern gift card start with the weaknesses of the gift certificate

For all the advantages of a modern gift card, odds are you’re not going to stick one on a fridge.

The fridge was often the domain of the gift certificate, the paper coupon that was worth its weight in cash at one specific store.

It was a phenomenon that gained steam over time. And while McDonald’s wasn’t first to the trend of single-brand funny money, which dates back hundreds, if not thousands, of years, the company’s use of prepaid gift certificates helped to set a broader stage for the retail industry as a whole.



Ernie Smith

Editor of @readtedium, the dull side of the internet. You may know me from @ShortFormBlog. Subscribe to my thought machine: