Wood Wisdom Wednesday: Tally Sticks, the Original Credit Cards

Credit cards may seem like a contemporary convenience that is assuming the place of paper money and coinage. Credit systems have actually been in place for centuries, and it all began with the hardwood industry. Wooden tally sticks were one of the first reliable forms of credit adopted by cultures around the world during the medieval period. This system was a necessity in almost every major civilization at that time because gold and silver were highly limited.

Example of Wooden Tally Stick

Wooden tally sticks were often made out of willow. The sticks were split into two parts with one half being shorter than the other. At the time of purchase, the creditor would cut a notch into the wood to designate how much the debtor owed. The deeper the notch, the more the debtor was responsible for paying back. Each party in the transaction would keep one half of the tally stick as proof of the debt. The creditor would keep the longer part of the stick, referred to as the stock, which is where the modern term stockholder comes from. The debtor kept the shorter piece, called the foil, which is also where the common saying “getting the short end of the stick” comes from. Once the debtor paid the creditor, the two halves of the tally stick were matched, and the debt was documented on the tally stick as paid.

Willow Tree

Willow was one of the most common species used for tally sticks due to its sturdiness and distinctive grain patterns. The specific grain in willow increased the trustworthiness of tally sticks because it was almost impossible to falsify the unique pattern, shape, and size of any individual stick. Wooden tally sticks remained in use until the 19th century, even after paper forms of money gained popularity because of the tally stick’s durability and security. Today, an estimated 183 million Americans use plastic credit cards – imagine if they still had to carry around tally sticks!