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Old Checks Combine History and Beauty
By Neil Shafer
Bank Note Reporter

Whenever I get the opportunity to take a close look at any group of older United States check issues, I am quickly filled with a number of emotions.

The first might be feelings of awe at their artistry, often combined with other aspects of their existence perhaps having to do with monetary exigencies or other characteristics they may exhibit. Next would come the sense of history that might be imparted through some of the general characteristics a particular piece might possess. It could be that special signature at the bottom, or the name and/or place of issue, the time period, and of course the various personalities or scenes often but not always a part of the design. All these feelings and more are to me part and parcel of the collecting of checks and related fiscal documents.

As for the actual use of checks, some experts think the Romans may have invented the idea (but not the word) about 352 B.C.E. But even if that were true, the idea apparently did not spread to other places very quickly. According to most history texts, it probably was not until the early 1500s, in Holland, that the check first got fairly widespread usage. In the 16th century, Amsterdam was a major international shipping and trading center. People with accumulated cash began depositing it with Dutch "cashiers," for a fee, as a safer alternative to keeping the money at home. Eventually these cashiers agreed to pay the debts of their depositors out of the money in each account, after receiving the depositor's written order to do so.

The concept of depositing funds and writing checks as a method of payments soon spread to England and elsewhere, but not without some resistance. Many people in the 16th and 17th centuries still had plenty of doubts about trusting their hard-earned money to strangers and little pieces of paper. In the United States, checks are believed to have first been used in 1681 when cash-strapped businessmen in Boston mortgaged their land to a "fund," against which they could write checks. Apparently they were simply written out by hand.

The first printed check forms are traced to 1762 and British banker Lawrence Childs. The world "check" also may have originated in England in the 1700s when serial numbers were placed on these pieces of paper as a way to keep track of, or "check" on them. Since then the evolution of more sophisticated forms has been an ongoing process, the artistic culmination of which is seen in the mid to late 19th century, perhaps through the first decade or so of the 20th. By this time the major security printers were in on their production, and the results are just beautiful works of art, regardless of the actual function of the check itself.

The Arizona Territorial Check

It is a real treat when there is a confluence of artistry and history in a single piece. A good example is the 1898 Arizona territorial check with a lovely rendition of Liberty at left and issued by the short-lived Arizona Co-operative Mercantile Institution. Its parent company was The Zions Co-operative Mercantile Institution, founded in 1868 and one of the earliest department stores in the United States. For many years it used the slogan, "America's first department store." Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, it quickly became a household name in the community.

The Mormon Church was a significant influence in the company, retaining a majority interest in ZCMI until the store's eventual sale. ZCMI had been established by a vote from the Council of Fifty, an early organization in the LDS church.

But that's not all to this particular piece. There is a two-cent U.S. revenue stamp featuring a battleship affixed to the face of Liberty. This stamp represented a tax required of everyone who wanted to issue a check in order to help pay the costs of the Spanish-American War. There are higher denominations in different colors, needed I believe for documents of higher face values or different uses, but I am not sure how they were used.

The Battleship Check of 1898

The revenue stamp discussed above depicted a battleship that looks very much like the one on this piece, the Iowa. I wonder if it is just a coincidence that a check with the design featuring this particular vessel was available in the State of Iowa, and during the same year as the Spanish-American War. The rendition is excellent; moreover, there is one of those same two-cent stamps right next to the ship.

The Evolution of Trains

As trains progressed in style and efficiency over the years, their appearance on fiscal documents of all sorts changed in fairly consistent conformity with these newer models. My earliest is a remainder check from the 1850s on the Bank of Prophetstown in Illinois. The train at left shows rather boxy passenger cars that I believe are typical of those years.

Next is another remainder, this time from the 1860s and from the private banking firm of Bratty, Trimble & Co. in Galion, Ohio. This train has passenger cars that take on a longer, more modern and comfortable look - at least as I see them.

By the way, the imprint on this second check is "The Major & Knapp Eng. Mfg. & Lith.Co. 449 Broadway N.Y." Its work was recognized as among the best of its kind for the period, and I believe that it became part of the American Bank Note Co. later on.

Issues from the 1870s appear to have trains that look pretty much like their predecessors, as the Downer & Bemis Brewing Co. piece from Chicago shows. Even in the 1880s they do not appear to have changed very much, as evidenced by the 1884 check issued by Bradt & Grimes from Beatrice, Neb. But the 1899 Beaumont, Texas piece is adorned with what would have been a much different and more powerful locomotive, judging from the appearance of the partial image.

There follows a U.S. Post Office Department transfer draft issued in 1908; its train looks to me like a more modernized version perhaps similar to the Texas piece. It also features a portrait of Benjamin Franklin. Printer is obviously the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, even without imprint. There are a great many more train vignettes available on all sorts of checks as you can see, so I will let you find "the rest of the story" for yourselves.

The McCormick Reaper Check

A Chicago issue of C.H. McCormick that seems to be dated 1867 illustrates a reaper at work. Is that the real signature of the famous inventor at lower right? I am not sure, but there appears to be a good chance that it is. How's that for a piece of history?

The Busch Receipt from Missouri

There may be no more famous name than Busch in all of the state of Missouri, judging from the amount of beer made by this brewery. Here is an 1880s receipt form showing a great picture of the old brewery building as it looked then.

The Davis Sewing Machine Agency Receipt

This sewing machine was rated very highly at the inception of the company in 1868 in the city of Watertown, N.Y. Once the largest industry in the area, it went through the usual up-and-down business cycles for various reasons, finally moving to Dayton, Ohio in 1889. It ceased production in 1924, putting 1,800 employees out of work.

The National Bank Changeover Check

This check has two separate aspects of interest going for it. The obvious one is the Statue of Freedom shown at left. This is a very famous sculpture adorning the top of the nation's Capitol building. It also appears on issues of paper money such as the $5 notes of 1861 and 1862.

Less obvious is the change of bank name from Bank of Nunda to First National Bank of Nunda. Such alterations in many bank names to include the word "National" were required in order for those banks to be able to issue National Currency under the 1863 law.

Ute Chief Ouray on Bank of Ouray Check

Ouray, the Ute leader portrayed on a check from a bank named after him, lived from 1833 to 1880. As chief, he was known to be friendly to whites and even visited President Hayes in Washington, D.C., the year of his death. He is also shown on the $20 Military Payment Certificate issue Series 692.

Jay Cooke on an 1873 Check

Jay Cooke, portrayed on this beautifully printed New York check by National Bank Note Co., was one of the most important and influential bankers of the 19th century. Especially during the Civil War, he was responsible for raising huge sums of money to support the war effort. He ran into trouble lending money to some railroads, and was forced to close his bank in September 1873, just one month after this check was written. His story is certainly worth an article by itself.


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