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Tracing the origins of the personal check

In 1648, Englishman Henry Snelgrove wrote out a curious document that helped to change the world of finance. It asked a friend, Will Daines, to pay $:20 to the bearer of the document. According to people who follow such things, it is one of the oldest existing examples of the modern check.

Snelgrove couldn't have guessed the paper mountain his little note would generate. By 1982, a nation of former colonialists across the Atlantic were cranking out some 36 billion checks each year - about 160 for every American citizen.

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Now, however, there are signs Snelgrove's Revenge is becoming Snelgrove's Retreat. A study released last week by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta predicts American checks will peak near the end of the decade - at a mere 40.1 billion a year - and then begin a slow decline.

One of the main reasons for the change is the growing popularity of automated teller machines (ATMs), which have doubled in number since 1980. Some predictions of future growth are so glowing that ''you'd have an ATM beside every Coke machine,'' says Nancy Grant, editor of Bank Network News.

In Massachusetts, Shawmut Bank of Boston has doubled its ATMs in the last six months and is considering redeploying its branches, some of which may be staffed by one person and several ATMs, says Barrie MacKay, vice-president of corporate relations. Another trend is networking among banks. BayBanks, for example, is hooked into a network that by the end of this year will allow its customers to withdraw cash at selected machines in nearly every state.

Banks are likely to save money as ATM transactions replace the check. According to the Bank Administration Institute, it costs about 22 cents to process an ATM transaction. That's much less than processing costs for checks - or credit card slips.

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