I recently received a package from my friend David Greenberger, an artist and musician who does, among other things, the great Duplex Planet project. Inside was his latest CD (recorded 20 years ago but newly released) and the cancelled check that's shown above.
At first I was confused by the check. Did David owe me money? Did I owe him money? Then I realized the check was from 1981, and that there was a note written on the back:
12 Feb 15
Another new CD (recorded 20 years ago).
So instead of writing a note on a piece of scratch paper or a Post-it, David had used an old cancelled check! I emailed David to ask him about this. Here's his response:
Glad you liked the check stationery. I was clearing out decades old envelopes of taxes dating back 30+ years and had this stash of checks from an old account (bank now gone, bought by some other bank, I think). Haven’t lived in Brookline since ’84.
If that’s one of the green checks with the little guy repairing a toaster or something in the upper-left corner, here’s how those came to be. One of my roommates back then, for my birthday, went to that bank, which was around the corner from our apartment, and ordered new checks for me with that little picture on it.
I love this. It's particularly interesting given that, for the most part, banks no longer return our cancelled checks to us — instead, we get small facsimiles of the checks along with our statements or, for those who've gone paperless, we access scans of the checks online. So future generations won't be able to repurpose their old checks as note paper, or to tell stories about how the little illustration on the check was a birthday present.
Cancelled checks aren't the only hard-copy aspects of banking that have been replaced by electronic recordkeeping. If you're older than, say, 40 or 45, you may recall bank passbooks, which provided a record of all the deposits, withdrawals, and interest payments on a savings account. This was before the days of ATMs — if you wanted cash, you had to go to the bank and present your passbook to the teller, who would put the passbook into some sort of special machine/printer thingie that would record the transaction on the passbook's pages in very official-looking type.
I recently went looking for old passbooks on Etsy and bought several of them from one seller, including this one, issued by a Massachusetts bank in the early 1980s (for all of these photos, you can click to enlarge):
As you can see, the pages of this passbook were stamped "Cancelled." That's nice (I'm thinking this was probably before the days of self-inking stampers and that a bank employee therefore had to keep moving the rubber stamp back and forth between the passbook and an ink pad in a rapid-fire rat-a-tat-tat), but it's even better to find a cancelled passbook with those dot-matrix letters punched through it. Here's an example of that (click to enlarge):
The first two of these books were issued to a couple named Roger and Helen Motta; the third belonged to a woman named Florentine Agrella. I haven't yet done any research on these people to see if they're still alive — not even a simple Google search — because for now I'm enjoying the mystery surrounding these artifacts. As I've said before, sometimes the questions are more fun than the answers.
Update: Shortly after this post was published, I received an email from reader Doug Keklak, as follows:
Oh how this entry takes me back! I have worked my entire adult life in the banking industry. In the late ’90s, when I was getting started, things were in the midst of a change. We began to offer a free service known as "check safekeeping" — instead of returning all your cancelled checks each month, we'd make any copy available to you upon request, free of charge. In order to accommodate those "old-timers" who still wanted their checks returned, we still offered that, but at a monthly fee to offset the shipping cost to the bank. Of course this was prior to the post-9/11 world and Check 21 legislation, which really changed everything.
It was similar story for the passbook accounts, as they were being grandfathered at that time as well. While we still serviced existing passbook customers by entering their interest, deposits, and withdrawals, all new accounts were opened as "statement savings," not passbook savings. For these accounts, we'd simply give the customer a register, just like with their checking account, where they would be responsible on their own for entering withdrawals, deposits, and interest. They would also receive a statement to "balance," should they choose. This was a complete 180 from the days when the passbook was it and was treated pretty much like money by the customer.
Another topic, not mentioned on your post, is Certificates of Deposit or CDs. At one time, they were printed on official-looking certificate-style document paper (hence the name). Customers would often place them in their safe deposit boxes for security purposes. Again, as with the passbook, these were treated like money by customers and you could not redeem on maturity date without the certificate. These days, customers are given a paper receipt, but it's only for recordkeeping purposes. With proper ID, they can redeem any CD at the bank on the maturity date.
Very illuminating — thanks, Doug!