Ka-Ching! A Brief History of the American Cash Register

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..

For thousands of years, merchants conducted business without the aid of the once-ubiquitous, and now increasingly defunct, cash register. Over the many years, store owners have used a series of lock boxes, safes, and cash drawers to keep their money organized and secure. There was always the danger of an unscrupulous employee stealing unless the store manager or owner hired an extra security guard to monitor the staff. This practice of securing cash operated in conjunction with a series of handwritten accounts recording each sale. However, while the ancient world definitely had accountants, it wasn’t until the Italian Renaissance when mathematician Luca Pacioli developed double ledger accounting that companies could employ a more advanced system to track debits and credits.

If the store owner wasn’t careful about who they hired, they could incur dramatic financial losses due to theft. One such businessman suffering from dishonest staff members was James J. Ritty, owner of the Pony House Restaurant in Dayton, Ohio. The story goes that inspiration struck Ritty when returning to America on an Atlantic steamship in 1878. If a machine could count the revolutions of a ship’s propeller, then a similar mechanism could be used to count the money coming into his business. Shortly thereafter, Ritty partnered with his brother John to design and create what they called a “cash register”.

Ka-Ching! A Brief History of the American Cash Register
The Pony House Restaurant, Dayton, Ohio.
Ka-Ching! A Brief History of the American Cash Register
Image: Wmpearl / Wikipedia.

While quite unusual looking, their first prototype included a large circular clocklike face above a single row of keys used to enter the sales price. Two sets of keys–one for cents (ascending in units of five) from five to 95 cents and dollars from $1 to $9–were located below the dial. The machine measured 22 x 14 x 20 inches or 55.88 cm x 35.56 cm x 50.8 cm.

Ka-Ching! A Brief History of the American Cash Register
Ritty Dial Register Patent Drawings

However, Ritty’s Dial, their first machine, did not actually include a cash tray. Instead, it was actually a sales recorder. Later, the brothers upgraded their device slightly, and in 1879 filed a patent for the new “Incorruptible Cashier”. After patenting the device, Ritty opened the new Cash Register and Indicator Company in Dayton in order to manufacture his new machines. It was then that a certain John H. Patterson, who owned three coal mines and a number of stores, purchased two of Ritty’s first machines for $100 per machine (roughly $3,040 adjusted for inflation). According to Patterson, despite selling around $50,000 of merchandise annually (over $1.49 million adjusted for inflation), he was losing most if not all of it to thieving employees. After noticing that a clerk did not enter a sale into the store ledger around the same time, he received an advertisement from the Cash Register and Indicator Company. Notwithstanding his surprise at the machines’ low quality, Patterson was surprised at how large an effect they had on his staff. In fact, he claimed to have recorded a $6,000 ($178,807 adjusted for inflation) profit only one year after acquiring the machines.

However, being unable to manage the operations of both his salon and the new company, Ritty sold both the Cash Register and Indicator Company as well as the patent to his machine to Jacob H. Eckert of Cincinnati in 1881. This china and glassware salesman incorporated the company under a new name, National Manufacturing Company. Despite adding a cash drawer and selling shares in his new company for upwards of $10,000, Eckert’s cashier was basically a simple calculator that also forced the operator to put all of the money received into the tray and to return the correct change to the customer.

Unlike the early wood types, many of the registers from this period were made from cast brass, and quickly became highly elaborate. Depending on what look the store owner wanted, they could order models made from “cast-iron, wood, and metal, with finishes of polished brass, nickel plate, antiqued copper, paint, and silver and gold plate.” At one point, due to the popularity of the brass models, the NRC Company operated one of the world’s largest brass foundries.

The drawers in these new machines would have been used to hold a large variety of coins.

Often, the trays had four slots in the front and two additional slots in the back left. Most commonly these would have been used to hold Indian head cents; 5-cent Shield nickels; Seated Liberty dimes, quarters, and half dollars; and Morgan dollars. Despite this, many registers did not have designated or labeled slots for each coin denomination. Instead, the store clerks would place each denomination in a different slot, usually in ascending or descending value/size from left to right. Bills were then placed in a similar method in slots behind the coins. Some higher-end models did, however, come with an extra cover for the slot designated for gold coins. Also, while mostly made out of wood, a number of register cash drawers had coin slots with rounded bottoms to help the clerks take out coins. This made it so that the coins did not get stuck in the corners.

These first registers began to gain popularity around the same time as did paper money. In the decades after the US Civil war, the American public truly embraced the role of National Bank Notes, and later, starting in 1914, Federal Reserve Notes. Therefore, early register cash trays were made with three larger rectangular slots placed behind the spaces designated for coins. In slightly later models, these slots would include a bill weight bar. Consisting of a small circular metal weight attached on moveable arms, these attachments were used to hold down paper notes and checks.

In a sudden turn of events, Eckert sold a controlling share of his business to Patterson in 1884 for $6,500, who later renamed the business as the National Cash Register Company, later known as NCR company. Four short years later, there were 84 companies that made and sold cash registers. One such company, Tucker & Dorsey Mfg. Company of Indianapolis, developed a product called the Alarm Cash Till. Not a true register, it consisted of a small box that would have been screwed to the underside of the store counter. When the clerk would open the till, there was a mechanism inside that loudly rang a small metal bell.

Shortly thereafter, the first motorized register was created in 1906. Using profits from this and other models, the National Cash Register Company purchased a number of its competitors, put others out of business, and grew to dominate approximately 95% of the cash register market and sold their millionth register in 1911. As a result, the Federal Government hit the company with an anti-trust lawsuit in 1912 under the Sherman Antitrust Act. While weakened, the company still retained approximately 5,900 employees, and by 1924 sold their two-millionth cash register.

Ka-Ching! A Brief History of the American Cash Register

Prior to the Great Depression, these machines would have held mainly cents through dollars. In 1920, a loaf of bread cost $.12, a pound of butter cost $.70, and a gallon of gas went for $.30. Gold, however, was quite rare; it would have been unusual for customers to pay with gold coins.

Later, when the silver dollar began falling out of circulation in the 1950s, and the half-dollar in the 1970s, the trays were adjusted. These newer cash trays, which are quite similar to those currently being used, included five slots for paper currency (usually $1, $5, $10, $20, and $50 dollar bills). These bill slots were placed directly behind the five coin slots (cent, nickel, dime, quarter, and dollars). By 1978, they no longer needed to accommodate the large-format dollar coins, though there has been a progression of smaller dollar coins over the years. Nevertheless, today it is quite rare to see a register with dollar coins. Usually, they only have cent through quarter denominations.

These machines not only became more sophisticated (by 1944, NCR had filed upwards of 2,400 patents), but also much cheaper, which allowed even more stores to provide a register for each clerk. By the 1950s, electronic registers first came onto the market, and it wasn’t long until credit cards began appearing.

Unfortunately, this marked the beginning of the end for registers. While many stores still have recognizable cash registers with the same trays, there is a growing number of stores that have moved to either an iPad and cash tray setup or have skipped right to the cashless option and only allow their customers to pay with a credit card.

Who knows – are we seeing the death of cash?

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About the Author

Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).


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