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Has The Pandemic Hastened A 'Cashless' Future?

NCR cash registers are on display at Dayton History's Carillon Historical Park.
Jerry Kenney
/
WYSO
NCR cash registers are on display at Dayton History's Carillon Historical Park.

Dayton is the home of the cash register. But is cash on its way out?

The idea of moving to a futuristic, “cashless society” has been around for some time. But, the COVID pandemic may have speeded things up as fears over handling physical money caused some businesses to stop accepting cash.

Currency transactions of one form or another have taken place for centuries, and the current cash transactions for business we are familiar with were modernized in Dayton, Ohio with the invention of the cash register.

Inside Dayton History’s Carillon Historical Park, more than 90 National Cash Registers are on display. The brass, bronze, and nickel plated machines are intricately designed works of art showing the progression of the cash register from its start in 1879, up through the early 1920s.

Alex Heckman is vice president of museum operations.

“The earliest model that we have on exhibit looks very much like a clock face. But instead of tracking hours and minutes, it was tracking dollars and cents,” he says.

The first cash register ring is known as "the bell heard around the world.”

Heckman says the concept for this early cash register came from a Dayton man, James Ritty who was losing money to employees who were handling cash for his businesses.

“Which was a pretty common practice where the store employees were basically, 'One for me, one for the company, one for me…', and so he developed what was called the Ritty Dial Register — known as the 'incorruptible cashier.' So, kind of a fun way to highlight that fact that unlike a human being, the machine could not be corrupted."

This ‘mechanical’ aspect of tracking money obviously still exists today, but what we’ve gotten since those cash registers of old - is change.

A visit to the National Museum of the United States Air Force provides us with a look at how cash transactions have recently been affected by COVID-19.

The gift shop inside the Museum is packed with displays of souvenirs - stuffed animals outfitted in space suits, fuzzy green aliens, even military branded hot sauces.

Visiting the shop are Mark and Donna Tronerud of Wilmington, Ohio, who are there to buy B-52 airplane memorabilia for a friend and astronaut ice cream for their grandkids.

Upon checkout, the Troneruds were told the museum wasn’t taking cash - Just credit or debit cards.

We wondered if they minded the 'no cash' policy.

"No," said Mark. "We pay a lot with cash but no, it doesn’t matter."

"As far as money goes," added Donna, "we pay almost everything now, either online or with credit card."

But, that's not always the case she says.

"The one thing that really got under our skin was when our local grocery store put up a sign saying they could not give us cash. That really irritated us now because sometimes we run in for a two dollar item and it just grated against us that we couldn't hand them two dollars and fifty cents."

Recent data indicates that, in fact, since the coronavirus, a significant percentage of U.S. businesses, like the museum gift shop, have gone cashless. But, there’s debate over whether the policy, as a broad business model, is good or bad.

Shelly Ingliss is the executive director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Dayton. She says the digitalization of cash is seen by many as a more inclusive economic approach for developing societies where access to financial institutions is seen as exclusionary.

“They put a lot of barriers to entry and barriers to access, and digitalization and cashless payments either from the government or by people for government services, certificates, addresses, many of those barriers," she says. "It’s also seen as a way to improve efficiencies and to address fraud and corruption.”

But, Riley Dugan, an associate professor of marketing at UD says the idea of going cashless isn’t for everybody, especially women, rural communities, and the elderly.

He points out, “One of the drawbacks is for unbanked people, people who are on the financial margins. They may be negatively affected. They may have less access to bank accounts, less access to debit or credit cards."

No one sees all cash transactions going away quickly, but, Dayton History's Alex Heckman thinks that, as it becomes more prevalent, more people will take it in stride.

“Obviously there's something scary about it for the average person in this sense, but then again at its most basic format, what is history? It's a way to show change over time," he says.

"Well what are we seeing here? Change over time, from the 200-pound brass cash register to paying all of your bills on your four and a half inch wide screen on your iPhone. It is interesting."

The prospect of a 'no cash society has become even more possible with the advent DigiCash in the early 1980's, and the more recent appearance of Bitcoin and other digital currencies being used for business transactions and investments.