Cheque-ing Out

Roughly the size of paper currency, which it acts as substitute for, it originated in the 1600s in England as a bill of exchange. By adding a serial number to it to certify its value, we know it today as a cheque (a/k/a “check”). Following the California gold rush, banks on the East Coast, vulnerable to stage-coach robberies by transporting large amounts of ore from points west, started accepting drafts or cheques. And around 1913, the cheque became an accepted payment standard in the United States. The Federal Reserve set up a system of clearinghouses to expedite processing, coast to coast. By 1952, 47 million checking accounts existed, with annual cheque-writing reaching eight billion. Nearly fifty years later, the numbers were more like 70 billion a year.

Cheques have been declining in use thanks to electronic methods of payment and easy access to cash. In some European countries, banks have stopped issuing cheques altogether. The future looks dim for the paper cheque, the place of cheques being usurped by newer technologies. I think about cheques because I write them often, have been writing them for years, and I have a number of memories associated with them.

As a child, my parents helped me to start a savings account. It was nice, with a small booklet or ledger in which transactions were written and balances kept. It was my own financial diary, for what it was worth. I used to watch my mother write cheques and it was she who taught me how to fill them in properly. I felt like an adult when I got my own checking account and started paying for things with cheques. It was kind of like getting a driver’s license for money management; ergo, perceived independence. The nice thing about cheques was that you were always aware of your outgo and your balance. And, with cheques, as opposed to credit cards, you couldn’t spend what wasn’t there.

Cheques are records of memories for me, something like photographs. I can look at old cheques and conjure up images of events or acquisitions of note. I have my mother’s old checkbook registers and cheques, and as I look through them I am reminded of years that certain things took place, expenditures that were made, when items found their way into the house, trips that were taken, how ridiculously cheap their mortgage was and how much they gave their parents every month. I have one of the final cheques my father wrote, when he paid cash for the last car he owned. (Yes, there was a time when you could write a cheque to cover the full price of a car.) I find that cheques can tell stories about lives. And for some inexplicable reason, I had a special chuckle when the sequential number on a cheque I wrote matched my address number. There was a strange circularity to it.

In 1981, newly married and living in Seattle, we switched banks and realized that there was now a box of useless cheques in our possession. Always eco-minded, I just couldn’t see the sense of throwing them out – they were cheques, after all: in one moment worth whatever we had in our bank account, the next moment without any value whatsoever (and maybe, at that time, one and the same). The winter holidays were approaching and I decided to put them to good use: I made a Christmas tree out of the cheques. I cut them lengthwise into strips and curled them, then fastened them to a wooden stand, layering and shortening the curled pieces until they became a facsimile of a conical evergreen in paper – pale-green paper, to boot. And the special meaning of Christmas as a symbol of money was perfect in every way. Those cheques never had such a meaningful existence.

The space on a cheque has been in my thoughts lately. As cost of living and inflation continue to rise, the cheque hasn’t increased in size accordingly. Over a few decades, the amounts written on my cheques have grown beyond the space provided. Whereas a cheque written when I was first starting out could have been for five dollars, these days cheques for thousands of dollars seem de rigeur. But the line to fill in the amount is unchanged, the same space whether the number has three places or six. There seem to be more zeros than ever before and, yet, the cheque design stays the same. Maybe for that reason alone, they will become obsolete – because they have run out of space.

I was always fascinated by the idea that a cheque could be written on anything and be legally binding. As long as it had the account number and signature, it didn’t have to be the “official” bank cheque. I doubt that it would be acceptable currently if it couldn’t be easily scanned; for instance, if it were on someone’s plaster cast. I used to try to think of possible surfaces to attempt to write a cheque on to challenge the system. According to M. Liepner, in Applying the Law, a Canadian farmer during the 1930s painted a cheque on the side of a cow and then cashed it. This idea might have been derived from Jewish law: a “get” (divorce document) can be written on any durable material, including the horn of a cow. Perhaps, to avoid this kind of thinking, banks devised “personalized” or customized cheques with images, colors, photos – you, your children or pets, your favorite candy bar, cartoon character or endangered species. Cheques have become cousins to the tee-shirt industry in advertising commercial products and also our sense of self (or is that the same thing?).

Not so long ago, you used to get your cheques returned by the bank after processing. Now you get an electronic image of that cheque, made smaller and smaller every year (somehow inversely proportional to the money amounts). The writing seems to be on the wall – that banks are doing everything they can to discourage us from using cheques. They are treated as necessary evils, separated out on your statements from the “electronic payments” as second-class citizens. Funny, since they helped to develop the banking industry. Just like they replaced money, they are being replaced by computerized virtuality and Internet clouds. The sad part is, these latter forms of banking will leave no relics, no artifacts to ponder. Try tracing your signature on airspace. It’s like blowing smoke rings. Cheques aren’t just about money, they are archival records of a life well (or mis-) spent.

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