A Brief and Surprisingly Neat History of Oversized Checks
Surely you are familiar with this image: a crowd gathered round, balloons and streamers in the background, a grinning recipient who grips a giant placard wider than their wingspan, a dollar amount beaming lustrously at the camera.
The Giant Check has become synonymous with prize money and charitable donations, though the signifier itself may be a bit outdated. But when such images are so ubiquitous, it hardly matters that the usage of actual checks has been declining into oblivion over the last decade. Someone born in the year 2000 is quite likely go their entire life without ever writing a check. Yet the symbolic meaning of the Giant Check still speaks volumes, lending special significance to what might otherwise be a normal monetary transaction. From its humble beginnings in ancient civilizations, to its evolution into an embiggened placard, the check and its giant counterpart make for a storied history.
Ancient historians credit the Romans with using the first versions of checks in the first century BCE. Muslim traders in the 9th century also used a similar concept to curb the dangers of carrying currency over long distances. But it was not until the 1700s in England that checks became a standardized and trusted way to exchange money between parties. From that period forward, the check enjoyed popular usage until the end of 20th century.
The history of the Giant Check, however, is tied more intimately with the evolution of newsprint and photo technology than it is with the history of banking. The Giant Check began to emerge during what is commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Photojournalism. Until the 1930s, the lenses and lighting necessary to take photographs were rather cumbersome. Such bulky and immobile equipment meant that fewer photos were printed in the papers, and the ones that were tended to be portrait-like and posed. But with the invention of compact commercial lenses and flash bulbs, photography became both portable and accessible for newspapers and their staff. With this change, news photography took on both a more candid and more opportunistic character.
The earliest archived photograph of an oversized check was taken in Berlin in 1938. The recipient is none other than Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda for the Third Reich and a close associate of Adolf Hitler, awarded 200,000 deutschmarks for his service to the Nazi Party. The giant check featured here may be hard to recognize alongside contemporary versions, as it appears to be hand drawn on a normal ream of lightweight paper. But there is no mistaking the ceremonial quality of the presentation and the photo.
Since then, the Giant Check has made many more, less-sinister appearances. Children’s show host Doris Brown cheerfully accepts a large check from a hand puppet in 1948. A lion cub supervises the officiation of a giant check donated to fund the building of a hospital in 1971. Ellen Degeneres has awarded dozens of oversized checks to worthy causes and guests on her talk show, like former internet celebrity and leukemia patient Talia Castellano. Even President-Elect Donald Trump wielded oversized checks during his campaign, for example in January of 2016 to benefit a veteran’s organization.
While these oversized checks can, in theory, be cashed or deposited, that function is expressly beside the point. The Giant Check is a gesture and a public statement, given to indicate that this is no ordinary transaction, but rather one worth celebrating and remembering. Gigantic objects are common subjects of interest for photography due to the way they skew our perception of proportions. It is in no small part for this reason that the Giant Check is the subject of so many photographs. Indeed, in most cases oversized checks are printed with the idea of the resulting photographs in mind.
As functional, everyday checks quickly retreat into nostalgia, the Giant Check continues to thrive as a symbol of big wins and big rewards. While it is unlikely that a person born in this millennium will ever write a check themselves, the metaphor remains as potent as ever. Even someone who has never owned a checkbook knows what to do when presented with an oversized check: hold it proudly and smile for the cameras.
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