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Yesterday’s revolutionary form of currency

Uncover the surprising evolution of money from handwritten papers to digital payments.
A yellow advertisement featuring an illustration of customers in line for a bank teller. Sign above teller reads: Cashier Wells Fargo Money Orders.
Featured photo caption: Customers saw this advertisement while flipping through the pages of the company magazine, Wells Fargo Messenger, at their local office. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives.

Pieces of paper with handwritten signatures and scrawled instructions hardly seem on the cutting edge of financial innovation. But they were a revolutionary form of currency in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and Wells Fargo helped bring them to people across the U.S.

Money orders were first issued in large cities and towns by the U.S. Postal Service in 1864. People could help friends and family who needed money quickly, pay bills, and buy things from catalogs with money orders. They allowed people to exchange cash for a replaceable piece of paper that could only be used by a specific person or company, much like a check. While today checks from one bank are usually accepted at another, in the past that was not always the case. Many banks and stores refused to accept a check from an unknown institution. Money orders, however, were easily exchanged and widely accepted.

A handwritten letter dated 1895 on tan lined paper with an attached color Money Order receipt.
A letter and Wells Fargo money order receipt. When Margaret Madigan’s teenage daughter, Mary, got sick in 1895, she needed money for the doctor fast and wrote to a friend for help. Her friend sent a Wells Fargo money order, and Mary recovered in a few weeks. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
Poster for Wells Fargo & Co Express Money Orders with colorful steam train graphic on top and several examples of money orders layered over each other below.
This poster hung in Wells Fargo offices to advertise money orders to customers. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

The universal use of money orders originated from an agreement between Wells Fargo and other express companies to accept money orders issued by their competitors. People could walk into any Wells Fargo office and exchange a money order from another company for cash. This created a national network of locations where people could buy a money order with the confidence that it was worth the amount written on the paper everywhere in the country. Between 1885 and 1916, people purchased 55 million Wells Fargo money orders that helped them exchange $500 million.

Merchants recognized the utility of the new payment system and built mail-order businesses that revolutionized how people shopped. With a piece of paper, people could buy the latest fashions from department stores in New York and home furnishings from stores in Chicago — all without leaving their towns. Money orders changed more than how people transferred funds; they changed people’s daily lives and expectations.

The history of money orders shows that innovation isn’t always the act of an individual; it often results from cooperation and collaboration. In 2017, Wells Fargo partnered with Zelle® to provide a new way for our customers to send, request and receive money with people they know. Today, more than 150 million consumers have access to Zelle® in their banking experience, enabling them to send and receive money via desktops and smartphones with people they know who have a bank account in the U.S. — with funds available typically within minutes between enrolled users. While the exchange of money has evolved over the years, cutting-edge innovation continues today.

An illustration featured in the company magazine, Wells Fargo Messenger, showing a customer buying money orders.
An illustration featured in the company magazine, Wells Fargo Messenger, showing a customer buying money orders. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
A map of the United States in light blue with states outlined in yellow. Across the map are areas shaded in red to indicate where people could purchase money orders from Wells Fargo.
A map from 1907 showing where people could buy Wells Fargo money orders, including many small communities that would otherwise not have had access to the popular payment tool. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
Postcard featuring illustration of planet Saturn on a black background. Reads: Great Saturn! Most Amazing of Planets. Wells Fargo and Co.'s Money Orders.
The meaning of Saturn on this advertisement for money orders is a mystery. It was possibly intended to link the wonder of the cosmos with the wonder of money orders. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
A historic money order from 1917 for the amount of $1 made out to Sears & Roebuck & Co
A 1917 money order for a purchase from a catalog. When stores received a Wells Fargo money order as payment, they knew to send the package to the customer by Wells Fargo's express services. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
A brown money order advertisement stating “A great convenience to the public. Sold to order at nearly all agencies in the United States at very low rates. Can be remitted in letters; deposited in bank; are payable at over ten thousand places; are safer than money for the traveler; receipts given; reclamation can be made for orders lost.” Ad features an illustration of a wagon drawn by two horses and is overlayed with a Wells Fargo & Co Express Money Order tag. Image link will enlarge image.
An undated advertisement for money orders. If a person didn’t have time to go to the Wells Fargo office to exchange their money order for cash, they could endorse it and have the amount “deposited in bank,” similar to checks today. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. Member FDIC.

Zelle and the Zelle related marks are wholly owned by Early Warning Services, LLC and are used herein under license.

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