Nine Young Bankers Who Changed America: Marcellus Flemming Berry

By Evan Sparks

For most of human history, traveling with or sending cash was not just a chore—it was a risk. Theft was a very real probability, and irreparable loss was easy too. If you sent money, it was hard to confirm the exact amount would arrive, and if you were traveling abroad, even if your money weren’t stolen, you would be at the mercy of the (inevitably onerous) exchange rate charged by local merchants and bankers.

That changed in the late 19th century thanks to a creative banking innovator named Marcellus Flemming Berry. Born (we believe) in 1849, Berry went to work at American Express as a messenger boy in 1866. He impressed the head man, J.C. Fargo, with his imagination and stayed on as a traffic manager. Express companies like AmEx and Wells Fargo were in those days the payment arms of the banking industry, providing fast and secure transit of goods and funds.

A creative thinker, Berry in 1881 devised a money order system for AmEx to take market share from the Post Office. Fargo rarely welcomed new ideas, especially ideas that could result in fraudsters costing him money, but for some reason he allowed the thirty-something young man with the ruddy face, mustache and bald head to prevail. Berry’s innovation was to include a “protection margin” on the check where the sum was written, allowing the money order seller to physically trim the money order to the exact five-cent increment the order was bought for. Now virtually fraud-proof, the money orders became invaluable to the burgeoning immigrant population at the time and the growing numbers of internal migrants sending money home to family members.

In 1891, Berry took the idea a step further by devising the traveler’s cheque, a one-stop, universally accepted replacement for cumbersome letters of credit that international travelers used to have to arrange. By perfecting the money order and inventing the traveler’s cheque (all by his early 40s), Marcellus Berry brought efficient and safe payments to mass audiences for the first time.

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About Evan Sparks

Evan Sparks
Evan Sparks is editor-in-chief of the ABA Banking Journal and vice president for editorial services at the American Bankers Association.