Industry Insights

A Brief History of Receipts

Imagine if the penalty for not having a receipt was death. Actually, in the ancient world you could be put to death for not paying your taxes. Even if you paid, not having a receipt to prove you did would still end badly for you. Receipts have always been serious business. How serious? Writing itself may have been invented as a way to create receipts. Writing that used symbols rather than pictures was invented in Samaria around 3200 BCE. It was used to keep track of goods given to the temple as offerings. This acted as a sort of an internal receipt.

An Origin Story

The oldest receipt ever found was for five sheep, one lamb and four grass-fed male kids. The receipt was given to a man named Alulu. It was a piece of clay about one inch by one inch and a half inch thick. Like modern receipts it could be easily lost, resulting in an ancient accounting nightmare that could be fatal. Maybe that’s why accountants and bookkeepers take receipts so seriously now.

The idea of receipts spread from Samaria to Egypt, where they were used for more than temple offerings. Papyrus receipts have been found dating from the reign of Ramses II (1278 -1237 BCE). They recorded purchases of things like cattle, grain and beer. Djedi, a Homer Simpson with eye makeup, buys a jug of beer from Djau and heads home. There he is met by Nofret (Marge, minus the blue hair) who asks for a receipt so she can keep track of how much he spends on brews every month. Of course it dropped and shattered so he had to sleep with the pigs.

A Renaissance

Fast forward to late medieval Italy and the invention of modern banking where receipts took on greater importance. Antonio, the Merchant of Venice wants to travel to Paris on business. Rather than carry lots of heavy, easy to steal coins he deposits his money with Giacomo the banker. Who, you guessed it, would give him a receipt. Antonio then travels to Paris. Once there he visits Pierre the banker who takes his receipt and gives him cash in exchange for a small handling charge.

Shortly after Gutenberg’s printing press produced its first Bible, they started cranking out receipt books. Merchants, bankers, and farmers could save time by filling in the blanks on pre-printed forms. It didn’t take long for receipts to be found everywhere and for everything. Receipts still took time to write out and you couldn’t be faulted for not having a receipt for every purchase especially if you were in a hurry. The “no receipt I was in a rush” excuse worked until the 1890’s. That’s when the National Cash Register Company invented the modern receipt generating cash register.

A Giant Leap

By the start of World War I, NCR machines were everywhere. The demand for printed paper receipts was so great that NCR became the largest printer in the United States. 1969 was a big year for small steps for man and giant leaps for mankind. Thanks to the moon landing and the introduction of inkless printing on thermal paper. Thermal paper meant lower cost and more detail on receipts, including date and time. Accountants rejoiced at the improvement as the pockets of business people overflowed with receipts.

A New Day

That brings us to here and now and what may be the beginning of the end for paper receipts. An increasing number of businesses are offering customers’ e-receipts sent directly to their inbox. They’re ready for inclusion in expense reports without ever seeing the light of day. We’ve come a long way from the days when a Sumerian could tell his accountant that he didn’t have a receipt because he broke it.

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