Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Writing checks.

It's going away more slowly than the telegram and the letter, but bit by bit, the check is becoming one more bygone relic of Sherlock Holmes's Victorian era. Not having the charm or personality of those other two, I doubt too many will even indulge in it as an affectation once it's gone. But this is check-writing time of year in the old Sherlockian world, renewing annual subscriptions, signing up for events, etc., and it's transition out is felt now a bit more than the rest of the year.

Since the personal check didn't come around until the 1800s, it has a definite Victorian flavor to it. Sherlock Holmes got paid with a handsome "cheque" on occasion. Professor Moriarty seems to have written plenty of checks. And Dr. Watson . . . well, there's that odd bit where Watson's checkbook was kept locked up by Sherlock Holmes.

It's been theorized that Holmes kept Watson's checkbook locked up because the good doctor had a gambling problem, but I would suspect it was for a more mundane reason -- checks in that time were probably only used to move larger sums of money, for things such as the investment option that Watson's friend Thurston had him considering. Holmes refers to the money in Watson's account as "your small capital," which probably means they were Watson's primary assets of the time -- more of a savings than a checking accounf for everyday matters.

Watson undoubtedly used cash for most of his needs, and cash will probably hang on quite a bit longer than checks -- certainly nobody got their identity stolen this holiday shopping season by paying with cash. And in Watson's time, checks were probably not as prevalent as they were in the late 1900s for the same reason they're in decline today -- they were a more costly form of transaction for those institutions processing them than other available means: cash then, debit cards and online transactions now.

Of course, the rise and fall of the check could also be due to one other factor: it's a rather tedious little thing, and while writing one's first check was, at one point in our lives, a happy symbol of becoming an adult, as the years pass, it is a chore whose absence no one will miss . . . but it will make a neat footnote the next time an annotated volume of Sherlock Holmes comes around again in forty years.


  1. Hmmm, I guess it is no surprise that I still write checks - though you can not avoid paying some things electronically. I prefer using cash, but do not carry huge sums around anymore. (Different story during my drunken sailor days) At the grocery store there is always someone still using checks, and though they may be slow they have less problems than those with debit cards. Some day I may be forced to go total electronic, but until then, no. (No, I no longer have a landline phone, nor do I have a cell - my wife has one and, once a month or so, I do borrow it.) I guess I was born in the wrong century!

  2. On Watson's locked-up checks: I've always thought the simplest explanation was that Holmes' desk was in the sitting room and the sitting room was where Holmes' clients and visitors would be sent to wait if the pair was out. As some of the visitors were unsavory characters, criminals, informants, politicians, the safest thing was to lock the checks away from potential mischief.

  3. I doubt the reason Mr Holmes kept Dr Watson's chequebook locked up was a mundane one. Dr Watson was a writer, thus he most assuredly had his own desk, and most desks in our day had drawers which could be locked. Why, then, did the good doctor not secure his own chequebook? Why should he require Mr Holmes to do it for him?

  4. I work at a nonprofit organization which collects donations for disaster relief as well as for programs to aid hospitalized veterans, and I can tell you that although we have a website and provide the ability for online donations, we receive hundreds of checks (and sometimes even cash) in the mail every week. Many hours a week are spent sorting, processing, doing data entry, and preparing those checks for deposit. The cost of this (plus reconciling several bank accounts every month) is that hidden cost of work-hours, which few consider when making a donation by check. The generosity of the average person is really quite phenomenal (I weep when I receive a one dollar bill in an envelope--the quaint thoughtfulness really touches my soul), but so much money could be put to better use if checks weren't involved. Though they may not be much of a part of your daily life or mine--outside of work--checks are still very common and much-used in the daily lives of many others. Forty years from now, who knows? Most of those check-writers as well as myself will be gone by then (unless I win by being The Oldest Living Sherlockian). Funny to think about that.