Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Collecting colorful Christmas Club checks

While preparing a group of vintage Christmas Club checks for sale on eBay beginning this week, I worked up this history of the genre. 

In the paper money hobby, the word “Christmas” usually evokes visions of Santa Claus notes; that handful of obsolete currency designs that incorporate vignettes of the Victorian-era St. Nick.
            With four-figure price tags the norm for surviving specimens, such a Christmas collectible is out of the reach of most of us.
            An attractive, and surprisingly challenging yet affordable, alternative for a collector in the holiday spirit might be Christmas Club checks. Often colorfully Christmas-themed, these checks can often be found in dealer stocks and on-line shopping venues for just a few dollars each.
            They offer a nostalgic look at a time when banks were a hometown, if not a neighborhood, institution and the end of the year was the Christmas season, rather than the Holiday season.
            Begun more than a century ago, and reaching their popularity peak in the 1960s, Christmas Club savings accounts were designed to entice savers – particularly youthful savers – to make regular deposits throughout the year with an eye towards withdrawing the balance during the holiday season for the purpose of gift buying.
            Left unsaid in the promotion for such accounts was that they were largely there to safeguard your money – from yourself. With even small amounts set aside each week, it was beyond the reach of temptation to spend it during the course of the year.
            The banks generally offered interest rates comparable to regular savings accounts, despite the incrementally higher costs of maintaining these low-dollar, short-term accounts. Lower interest rates, or even no-interest returns were not unheard of, and most programs assessed a hefty penalty for withdrawal earlier than the specified redemption date, which might be as early as Nov. 1, or as late as mid-December.
            A small gift was often offered as an enticement to enroll in the Christmas Club. Colorful lithographed cardboard Santa Claus ornaments seem to have been a popular come-on. Also common were Christmas-themed ink blotters and desk or pocket calendars.
            The first known such program is believed to have been the Carlisle (Pa.) Trust Company’s “Christmas Savings Fund” in 1909. It drew 350 participants whose average account balance as the Christmas shopping season arrived was $28.
            By the early 1920s, some banks were issuing tokens “Good for 25c in opening a Christmas account”. Such pieces are known from the Dime Savings Bank of Toledo, the First National Bank of Hazleton, Pa., and, undoubtedly, others.
            The earliest themed Christmas Club checks seems to date from the 1920s, with the use of such collectible paper petering out in the 1960s.
As Main Street banking has given way to large interstate and international conglomerates, and interest rates on most savings accounts have drifted down to insignificant, Christmas Clubs at banks are little known today. The costs of maintaining such small accounts has made them unattractive to big banking.
Today, credit unions are the principal promoters of Christmas Club accounts; their national association recently indicated 72% of credit unions offer such a savings plan. The Washington, D.C., Capital Communications Credit Union had 3,500 Christmas Club members in 1984, to whom checks had to be printed, signed and mailed. They found that 70% of the checks were returned to be deposited in another account.
            Regular thrifty deposits have given way to credit cards to fund holiday spending. The annual New Year’s reminder to open a new Christmas Club account has been replaced by whopping January credit card statements.
Collectible Christmas Club checks and related ephemera are a good way to recall Christmas the way it was in decades gone by.   


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