The History of Checks as a Form of Payment

I’ve always been the curious type, so when somebody asked me “where do checks originally come from?”,So I began to look into it, and discove...

I’ve always been the curious type, so when somebody asked me “where do checks originally come from?”,So I began to look into it, and discovered quite a bit about the history of paper checks and the role they continue to play in the modern world.

Cheque


A long time ago, if you can believe it, people didn’t used to pay for things with cash. Most economies were run via a system of trade goods, and eventually currency in the form of coins became popular. As much as I would love to own a swimming pool full of gold coins just like Scrooge McDuck, going out for a day of nails, hair, and spa treatment in a world operating solely on rare-metal currency would be anything but relaxing—in fact, it would probably closer to an all-day chore—because of the sheer amount of coin that I would have to carry around.

I know plenty of people that don’t even like carrying paper cash around in their purses/wallets, and paper cash is no burden to carry. It’s a matter of security for them, because they don’t want to lose the money that they have on hand.

The first instances of checks seen in history were created exactly for these reasons. From the Persian Achaemienid Empire that spanned 550—330 BCE came the first recorded usage of checks, called “chek” in the native language. In India from around 320—185 BCE an instrument called the adesha was used very similarly to the way that we use checks today, and Romans began using what is called praescriptiones in the first century BCE.

Checks became even more popular in both the Muslim and Christian worlds, especially when trade between the two became widespread. Because large sacks of coin weighed down transport livestock and essentially presented big targets for bandits that were accustomed to attacking trade caravans, these long trips required that some kind of checking system be put in place. Muslims introduced the saqq, while Christians and the secretive Knights Templar introduced their own checking system.

The Knights Templar set up “houses”, which were essentially banks, that travelers could deposit currency into and then withdraw at a different location by showing the house a draft. Drafts are particularly interesting because of the way that they were drawn up—unlike regular checks that display the name of the recipient and amount in plain text, the Templar’s drafts were written in a complex code that only the Templars and Nicholas Cage in National Treasure would have been able to decipher.

Some form of check eventually shows up in almost every civilization’s economy, and checks are still being used today. Technology has obviously made the system of distributing, clearing, and even personalizing checks not only more available but, some cases, possible. So the next time you’re out for a day with your girls getting your hair and nails done, be thankful that you don’t have to carry around a giant sack of coins and can just pull out your checkbook instead.

Annie Harrington is a small business owner and freelance writer. Outside of work-life, Annie revels in design and the design process. She currently works with Vista Print, a company that specializes in creating business cards and ordering checks.

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