Customers saw this advertisement while flipping through the pages of the company magazine, Wells Fargo Messenger, at the local office.
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

Yesterday’s ‘revolutionary form of currency’

A Wells Fargo historian shares how the exchange of money has evolved from papers with handwritten instructions and signatures to digital payments.

October 20, 2017
Alyssa Bentz
Alyssa Bentz

Alyssa Bentz is a Wells Fargo historian.

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 letter and Wells Fargo 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

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.

This poster hung in Wells Fargo offices to advertise money orders to customers.
This poster hung in Wells Fargo offices to advertise money orders to customers.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

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, a new revolution in moving money started with the debut of Zelle℠. Wells Fargo and more than 30 other financial institutions launched the digital payment network, which will soon include more than 86 million customers who can send and receive money via desktops, smartphones, or other mobile devices with customers from virtually any financial institution — or nearly anyone with a debit card linked to a U.S. bank account — with funds typically available within minutes. While the exchange of money has evolved over the years, cutting-edge innovation continues today.

An undated advertisement for money orders.
A 1917 money order for a purchase from a catalog.
A map from 1907 showing where people could buy Wells Fargo money orders.
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
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 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 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
An illustration featured in the company magazine, Wells Fargo Messenger, showing a customer buying money orders.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
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