The end of World War II saw thousands of American GIs return home from the battlefields eager to start families and get on with their lives. Pent-up demand for housing, cars, appliances, and other household goods led to a postwar economic boom across the nation. In response, banks expanded their offering of consumer-oriented financial products and services, including automobile and home mortgage financing, term installment loans, small-business loans, traditional checking accounts, and time deposits.
During wartime, Americans anticipated future opportunities, and emerged from the war eager to resume normal life. Bank financing for homes, consumer goods, and automobiles helped put America back on the road to peacetime prosperity.
The most dramatic changes to the banking industry in the later 1900s, however, came about through two major innovations — automobiles and computer technology. Financed through bank loans, the number of cars in the U.S. doubled to 50 million between 1945 and 1955, and led to the rise of suburbs offering middle-class families more affordable housing with spacious yards and swimming pools. Where customers went, so did America’s banks. Wells Fargo and most banks began opening retail branch offices in convenient neighborhood locations, and installed drive-thru tellers so customers could do their banking without leaving their cars. Many banks also introduced Saturday hours and banking by mail and phone to accommodate the growing need for flexibility as work commutes grew longer and more women joined the labor force.
“Yes, it’s a check. One of those things that makes life easier, but isn’t really anything to get excited about. Until now.”
Wells Fargo checking brochures, 1967
Generations of Wachovia customers appreciated the convenience of Save-O-Matic, an automatic way to save.
As banks expanded facilities outside of downtown locations, some suburban branches utilized modern, if uninspired, architecture.
In 1967, Shirley Nelson became the first woman branch manager for Wells Fargo Bank. In 1975, this picture was taken of her outside her suburban San Francisco banking store in Stonestown.
Tellers at the San Francisco Chinatown branch of American Trust Company in 1947. Reflecting the diversity of its customers as branches opened in new places, Wells Fargo and other banks hired more diverse team members and produced bank materials in many languages.
The growth of branch banking created a need for computerized records. Instead of tracking customer deposits and withdraws in a ledger book, tellers in 1965 could access customer information by telephone. Today, that function requires only one click of a computer keyboard.
Banking by mail proved a popular option for busy customers.
American consumers not only fell in love with their cars in the 1950s, they never wanted to leave them. That led to the introduction of drive-in diners and drive-thru motor banks. This branch of the National Bank of Washington featured wide lanes and an expansive overhang to protect customers from the elements while they did their banking.
Inside the bank, TV tellers staffed a new type of teller line, complete with cameras and microphones.
Wells Fargo Bank in Napa, California, featured both a walk-up teller window, and two TV auto bankers.
In the 1950s, television was still a novelty, and drive-thru customers got a thrill conversing with a TV auto banker on the closed-circuit screen.
One of the greater conveniences of the drive-thru teller windows meant that busy moms could do their banking on the go with the whole family in tow.
This curb teller machine in High Point, North Carolina, connected the driver with a bank teller through a periscope-like system of mirrors and speakers. An elevator carried cash and receipts between the customer and a teller below the sidewalk. Such banking units were nicknamed “snorkels.”
Customers expected access to their funds beyond the customary bank closing time of 3:00p. By the 1960s, “bankers’ hours” were a thing of the past. The drive-in at Denver U.S. National Bank was reportedly the world’s largest with 15 lanes when introduced in 1964.
Drive-thru tellers welcomed their customers with a friendly greeting, convenient service, and an occasional treat.
Transactions shuttled back and forth between the teller and customer using a pneumatic tube system. Such technology is still in use in some drive-thru banking locations.
In 1988, Wells Fargo checking customers could find 24 hour person-to-person service on the other end of the phone line. Customers placed 10 million calls that year. Today, Phone Bank team members answer millions of customer calls each month.
In the 1990s, Wells Fargo expanded its banking footprint with full-service branches open seven days a week inside local supermarkets.
The rapid growth in American business and population in the postwar economy signaled the need to make other changes as well. Checks were being written in ever greater numbers. Between 1950 and 1960, check volume processed by American banks increased 75%, and each check was handled an average of ten times in clearing and involved nearly half of all banking staff in the process. By the mid- 1950s, the American Bankers Association recognized that the situation was getting out of control and tasked ABA’s Automation Committee, which included Wachovia’s Edward T. Shipley, to investigate new methods of check processing and validation. The solution presented by Stanford Research Institute was a revolutionary new Magnetic Ink Character Recognition (MICR) technology. Preprinted checks encoded with magnetic-ink routing and check numbers (the string of numbers at the bottom of every check) could pass through electronic reader-sorters at speeds of up to 2,000 checks per minute. MICR numbered checks quickly became the industry standard worldwide and are still in use today.
At Wachovia Bank & Trust Co., check clearing in the 1920s involved hand-sorting checks for return to the customer. Each check had to be handled numerous times.
With magnetic-ink character recognition, checks now could be sorted automatically by machines. Banks such as Northwestern National Bank of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, proudly showed off their new sorter equipment.
Magnetic-ink characters enabled machine sorting on this Wachovia Bank & Trust Company check.
Banks turned to computer technology for operations and data storage. Each reel in these IBM units in use at Crocker National Bank in 1964 held nearly a half-mile of magnetic tape. A decade later, magnetic-tape data storage was still the standard.
By 1960, checks were personalized and encoded with magnetic ink, but the 22 billion checks Americans wrote each year were all written on plain color paper. In 1967, Wells Fargo introduced a dynamic new concept in check design ― scenic checks showing a stagecoach in a four-color photographic landscape. Scenic checks were an immediate hit with customers, and soon customers of other banks could also express their individuality through their checkbooks.
By 1973, Wells Fargo customers could choose between many styles of colorful designs.
But even check writing had its limitations in an increasingly mobile society. In 1966 Wells Fargo joined with three other California-based banks to form the Western States Bankcard Association to introduce an all-purpose credit card program, called MasterCharge in 1967 (renamed MasterCard in 1979). MasterCharge allowed credit cardholders to maintain a revolving balance that did not have to be paid off in full at the end of each billing cycle. Welcomed by participating merchants everywhere, plastic credit cards transformed the economy by making it easier for consumers to shop, travel, and pay bills without carrying around large amounts of cash.
Plastic credit cards put buying power into the wallet of millions of customers around the world, and revolutionized retail shopping.
Wells Fargo marked a milestone in its decades-long MasterCharge program by signing up its one-millionth customer in 1977. The account holder was honored with a ride on Wells Fargo’s historic stagecoach.
Retail banking became even more convenient for consumers in the early 1970s with the introduction of automated teller machines. Wells Fargo launched its pilot ATM project in 1970. Initially, the self-service teller machines only allowed customers to withdraw money. That in itself was viewed as a major advance. No longer restricted to “banking hours,” consumers appreciated the fact that they could access their account day and night, 365 days of the year. Today ATMs not only allow customers to tap an extensive array of banking services, they can do so with a mobile phone instead of a bank card using Wells Fargo’s Card Free ATM Access.
“If you haven’t met Tillie yet, you’re missing out on the easiest, most convenient way to do your banking.”
Ad for “Tillie the All-Time Teller” ATM, National Bank of First Atlanta, 1982
At Wells Fargo Express Stop®, ATMs in the late 1970s, customers could make deposits, transfer funds, and make credit card and loan payments.
Automated teller machines allowed customers to do their banking on their own schedule. To help customers feel more comfortable banking at an ATM, in 1974 First National Bank of Atlanta gave its All-Time Teller machines a friendly personality, Tillie.
Today, ATM customers can do even more including sending remittances to the Philippines and nations around the world.
Automated teller machines are just one technology connecting banks and customers. The introduction of personal computers in the early 1980s and the launch of the internet in the early 1990s enabled Wells Fargo to become the first bank in the U.S. to offer secure account access on the internet in 1995.
In May 1995, Wells Fargo was the first bank offering customers secure internet access to account balances and transaction history. Since then, millions of customers have used Wells Fargo’s online banking services.
A customer shows how she banks using her cell phone in Wells Fargo’s 2007 annual report. Introduced that year, the pioneering Wells Fargo Mobile® service enabled individual and small-business customers to access their account through their mobile devices (smartphone, tablet, or smartwatch) to manage their accounts on the go from almost anywhere.
Wells Fargo has been proactive in utilizing advanced electronic technologies to create opportunities that build secure networked information systems across the continent as well as around the globe. Innovations have facilitated the development of new types of financial products and the ability to provide competitive financing options for consumers.
In 1971 Wells Fargo Bank pioneered the index fund by investing pension trust funds from the Samsonite Corporation in a computer-selected portfolio of stocks designed to match the performance of New York Stock Exchange. Designed to balance risk vs. return, the innovative indexed model performed as predicted, satisfied the client, and revolutionized the business of investment.
1978 ad for Wells Fargo’s Special Industries Group which insured that new industries got the tailored financial advice they needed. The bank’s Palo Alto and San Jose offices catered to new Silicon Valley technology firms.
The January 1978 edition of the Wells Fargo Banker, the company magazine, featured articles about the bank’s interest in solar energy investment and usage.
By the mid-1990s, federal banking regulations recognized that electronic technologies had broken down geographic barriers to banking and ushered in a new era of interstate banking. The changes in regulations led to a flurry of bank consolidations to combine assets in order to offer customers more competitive rates through cost savings. Wells Fargo expanded across state lines and returned to communities it served over hundred years ago.
Further lifting of restrictions prohibiting bank holding companies from owning non-financial institutions made it possible for Wells Fargo to offer banking, brokerage, and mortgages from a single source.
Today Wells Fargo is in every sense of the word a diversified financial services company, with banking branches and locations serving customers across the United States and throughout the world. But like the Wells Fargo agents of old who set up offices in remote places to bring banking services to miners and settlers, Wells Fargo continues to place responsiveness to customer needs before all else. That has been the hallmark of the Wells Fargo brand since 1852.
On May 30, 1986, Wells Fargo and Crocker Bank joined in what was the largest merger in American banking history at the time. The merger created a unified bank able to serve the entire state of California.
When Wells Fargo merged with First Interstate bank, the Wells Fargo name returned to nine states it had operated in during the 1800s: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington.
Newsletter announcing the 1998 merger between Wells Fargo and Norwest.
Wells Fargo stagecoach in front of a Wachovia branch during the Washington, D. C. Pride Parade in 2010. The merger with Wachovia in 2008 during the Great Recession created a national bank. Previously, Wells Fargo had no branches in the Southeast and Wachovia had no branches in the West.