09 May 2007

Petty Cash c.100,000BC-2007AD

Shopkeepers are today ringing up their tills, bank tellers collecting their P45s and the homeless asking passersby if they can "spare an electronic cash card reader" as they lament the passing of Petty Cash, which has today fallen out of the pocket of history and plummeted through the grating of oblivion, following the announcement of a new generation of touch-and-pay cards.

Petty Cash was born in about 100,000BC, the smallest and weakest child of Money - the revolutionary scheme to exchange livestock, shiny things or unwanted family members for goods and services. No sooner had early man found a way of purchasing the necessaries of a neolithic hunter-gatherer's life, from simple tools and weapons all the way up to bashful (in the literal sense) brides or even flatscreen cave paintings, than he began to ponder how he was to purchase the littler things in life, such as the odd root, a few berries, or a swift pint of fermented mammoth milk without having to break the piggy (or, rather, wild boar) bank. So it was that he hit on the idea of dividing up his shells/lump of red ochre/bits of jewellery/smilodon teeth into smaller pieces, and thus Petty Cash was born.

Petty Cash was to prove an instant hit (except with smilodons, who quickly became tired of being punched in the mouth by passing cavemen in search of some spare change for a packet of mammoth scratchings from the bar). It was light, it was portable and - unlike previous forms of wealth such as livestock or slaves - it didn't start to smell funny if you forgot to feed and water it regularly.

By around 550BC, money was being doled out around the Mediterranean in the form of salt, making Petty Cash even more popular as medical advisers realised that using more than a teaspoon of your wages a day was likely to cause a massive rise in blood pressure.

It was with the arrival of coinage that Petty Cash was really to come into its own. Not only was it now easily portable, it was also in a form ideal for sticking in the Samian vase in the consortio's vestibulum to cover minor expenses such as an emergency new thong for a broken sandal, a couple of lark's tongues for lunch or a minor bribe to a petty official to ensure no one sent in the centurions to break up the orgy. Even better, with all those coins looking so similar to each other, less honest employees soon realised that it might be quite a while before anyone noticed if one or two went missing, and thus the ancient and noble pastime of fiddling the Petty Cash was born.

For centuries Petty Cash enabled mankind to carry out minor transactions without needing to open up the great money chest, unlock the safe or, as the case may be, plead for hours with accounts department. And yet, despite its extraordinary usefulness, by the 21st Century Petty Cash found itself unloved: its coinage ruined the lines of ultra-skinny jeans and bulged out of micro-clutchbags, its accessibility opened it up to the light-fingered and its simple existence in physical form threatened to force banks to do something more than merely bunging ones and zeros round on the internet whilst charging their customers vast amounts for the privilege.

For years the downfall of Petty Cash had been predicted but now the forces were in place to ensure such predictions would come true. By the mid-noughties, Petty Cash found itself assailed on all sides, by micropayments on the internet, by instant transactions on mobile phones and even by London Underground, with its Oyster card payment system. The death knell was to come with the announcement by Visa and Mastercard that their credit cards would soon double as electronic cash, allowing owners to charge them up with small amounts of money and make payments up to £10 simply by touching them to a special reader. With even minor cash fiddles being quicker and easier to perform with a click of the mouse than a dip into the till, Petty Cash found itself alone and unwanted. And so it passed away.

Petty Cash will be buried at The Church of St Stephen the "What do you mean there was ten quid in there, I'm sure it was only a fiver", in a black-lacquered tin with a broken lock next to the stationery cupboard. Well-wishers are requested to send flowers and definitely not electronic money.

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