The First Travellers Cheques

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The First Travellers Cheques

The First Travellers Cheques

The original American Express Travellers Cheque, copyrighted by Berry in 1891, was almost exactly like the Travellers Cheque used today. Indeed, the only basic difference was that in those days of sound government financing and gold standard currencies, when a pound was always worth £4.86 and the franc held steady at 19 cents, the face of the Cheque stated its value in pounds, francs, and lire as well as dollars - an impossible thing today when currencies have depreciated and foreign exchange fluctuates rapidly.

The invention that was the essence of the Travellers Cheque consisted of two blank lines, one at the top left corner of the paper, the other at the bottom left corner. When you bought an American Express Travellers Cheque you signed your name on the top line, and when you cashed it you identified yourself by signing the bottom line. It was just as simple as that.

However, the steps taken to procure acceptance of this new financial instrument throughout the world were far from simple; they were, in fact, a brilliant and thorough campaign. Before the first Cheque was sold, sample copies, printed on specially made blue paper with faint dots and the unforgettable watermark, were sent to banks, hotels, steamship companies, and railroads throughout the world. With them went instructions on their use and the unqualified guaranty backed by all the resources of the company that no one should suffer loss who cashed an American Express Travellers Cheque in good faith and with reasonable care. Even though the Cheque had been stolen and the signature forged, American Express promised to redeem the Cheque and pocket the loss. So from its very beginning, confidence in the American Express Travellers Cheque was firmly established, nor has that confidence ever been shaken.

In this connection they tell the tale of an American traveller in the Sahara Desert in the 1920s, who coveted the beautiful woven camel blanket of the sheik who guided the caravan. He bargained for it, and the price was fixed at twenty dollars.

The traveller, who must have been a little old-fashioned even for those days, pulled a twenty-dollar gold piece out of his pocket and offered it to the sheik. The Arab regarded it suspiciously and shook his head violently. In despair, the American produced an American Express Travellers Cheque. Smiling and nodding, the sheik immediately handed over the blanket.

The public liked American Express Travellers Cheques. The first year the value sold was only £9,120, but by 1900 it was £6,000,000, and in 1913, £32,000,000. Sales to date are in terms of billions.

The public liked the Cheques, but the public demanded more than safe money. People wanted to know why American Express had no offices in Europe. They wanted advice on everything from train schedules in the British Isles or hotel rates in Budapest to social customs in the Djebel-Druse and the tariff on coconuts in the Republic of Andorra. They turned to the company for help with their problems. It was the sort of challenge that men trained in the tradition of American Express were not likely to refuse.

Even before the Travellers Cheque was invented, American Express had been edging toward an invasion of Europe. It had become a bonded carrier for handling imports to the United States in 1874; and on May 1, 1888, it announced: "On and after this date, the American Express Company will transact a general European business, eastbound from New York, instead of transferring such shipments to other express companies as heretofore." In 1891 a European Department was formally set up, and, appropriately, M. F. Berry headed it.

However, all the European business was done through shipping correspondents abroad. J. C. Fargo was dubious about foreign commitments, but as sales of Travellers Cheques rose and the pressure from the public increased, he was too good an expressman to neglect the demand for service. On one point he was adamant, however: American Express was not going into the travel business. That ukase turned out to be as effective as King Canute's famous halt order to the waves of the sea. American Express could not help itself.

The thin edge of the wedge was a very forceful and extremely intelligent gentleman named William Swift Dalliba. Mr. Dalliba had been with American Express since 1869. In 1893 he had charge of the company's activities at the Chicago World's Fair, and he made it very active indeed. So persuasive was Dalliba that American Express secured a virtual monopoly of the Fair business, and at its height had more than 800 wagons serving its huge demands for the transportation of goods.

J. C. somewhat dubiously sent this enterprising gentleman on a mission to Europe in 1894. His instructions were cautiously worded to limit him to the task of "working up business there, chiefly westbound, for the American Express Company and the Merchants Dispatch Transportation Company." But Dalliba was not one to be literal about instructions. Rather, he was one to seize the forelock of occasion and ask permission later. When J. C. sent him on that trip he started a very considerable chain of events.

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What next? The Money Order Takes Off

The Money Order Takes Off

The Money Order made its way with very little advertising; in fact, virtually none in the modern sense. A brash young expressman in Wisconsin named Howard K. Brooks tried to remedy this. He had no money for billboard advertising or posters, but he had brains. He bought a quantity of big white cotton sheets and painted on them:


To Send Money Away


Safe Cheap and Convenient

Brooks had two sheets sewn together at the top and draped them like a tent over American Express teams. It created a sensation in Wisconsin, and business was booming until a misguided friend of Brooks took a picture of one of the teams and, thinking to give the young man a helping hand, mailed it to the peppery president of American Express. Back came a sizzling wire to Mr. Albert Antisdel, the manager of the Western Department.


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