I was digging around in a barn loft a while back collecting things that had been stored away for half a century.
When I pried open a suitcase, I found a stack of newspapers from November 1963, cataloging the details of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
I carried the suitcase down the ladder to show its contents to my young daughters. They looked at the headlines: Kennedy, Johnson, Oswald, Ruby, Tippit. They asked the appropriate questions, but then they saw a silver-colored tray stuffed among the pages.
One of my teenagers carefully examined the artifact and asked what it was. Her two sisters looked on equally perplexed. Then they looked at me with expectation.
I explained what they held in their hands was called an ashtray.
I couldn’t help but be amused. When I was growing up, a pack of Old Golds was always in my dad’s shirt pocket and an ashtray in most every room.
But today, my daughters are never around anyone when they smoke. Springfield banned smoking in restaurants and other public places before they were born, and all of Illinois soon followed suit. So, the once ubiquitous ashtrays on every restaurant table are gone.
When I entered the newspaper business 33 years ago, I could always tell when one particular editor proofread my copy because there were singe marks from his cigar on the bottom of each page that he had marked up.
A few years later, workplace smokers were relegated to the outdoors. Today, smokers have become lonely distant figures puffing away near curbs — just off their employer’s property.
What was once a cultural touchstone has become an artifact of another era.
The conversation got me thinking about what other cultural talismans will disappear in coming years. (If you are thinking newspapers, I’ll smack you upside the head.) Here’s my prediction: bank checks.
A couple of years ago, I had this conversation with a young man I had a business relationship with: “Just mail me a check.”
The 20-something paused and finally said, “I don’t have any checks. And I don’t have any envelopes or stamps.”
This was no ordinary person. He’s an accomplished entrepreneur and a college graduate.
And he ran a business.
But he didn’t have a checkbook?
How on earth can someone operate a household, yet alone a business, without checks?
Many millennials simply pay with plastic. A debit or credit card more often than not will suffice. And they have apps like PayPal and Venmo on their phones that allow them to pay in ways without a pen.
My young friend ultimately dropped by his bank to have a half dozen checks printed. But before he filled one out, he watched a YouTube video showing him how.
When he shared that with me, I felt old. Really old.
For me, getting a checking account was a rite of passage. I grew up on a farm, and when I was 11 years old, I opened an account so I had a mode of paying for the feed and supplies for the calves I was raising.
I can remember my mother standing over me at the kitchen table as I worked to balance my checkbook. It was hard work — at least for an absent-minded 11-year-old who kept forgetting to enter transactions into his check register.
Federal Reserve data shows that checks are becoming less popular with Americans. And in countries such as Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Finland and Netherlands, bank checks have essentially been eliminated.
If the trend continues, someday the written check will go the way of the telegram.
Still, there is something to be said for holding a check in your hands. I still remember my first paycheck as a journalist. I was a summer intern at the Galesburg Register-Mail when an editor walked by my desk, handed me a check and said “Congratulations.”
I assure you, $3.35 an hour never felt so good.
Future students will ponder these words in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
Will those future young scholars marvel at the great man’s eloquence, or ask: “What’s a check?”