The Oldest Writing Ever Discovered Was an Ancient Receipt! (A Brief History of Receipts)
Photo: The tablet pictured above the modern receipt originated in Umma between 2029 and 1982 B.C. and records rent paid to temple authorities (source: blog.shoeboxed.com)
The First Receipt in an Ancient Economy
People are often surprised to learn that the earliest piece of writing we have on record is not a piece of poetry or even a letter. The earliest written documentation ever found takes the form of-- you guessed it-- a shopping receipt! This receipt prototype is believed to be about 5,000 years old, dating back to around 3000 B.C., and documents the sale of items of clothing. Originating in Ancient Mesopotamia, the receipt was sent by boat to Dilmun, which is now Bahrai. It represents the oldest writing in the world (The National News, 2011).
This 5,000-year-old relic was written in something called “Cuneiform," which translates in Latin to “wedge shaped.” Cuneiform was a method by which ancient peoples pressed a reed stylus into a damp clay tablet to create a script which looked like patterns of wedges. It is believed to be an older form of writing than even the Egyptian hieroglyphics, and it is thought to have been established for administrative purposes. Cuneiform was a written form used to convey several spoken languages, such as Akkadian, Ugaritic, Hittite, and Elamite (The Biblical Review, 2018), reminiscent of how several of our modern languages use the same or a similar alphabet today.
Photo: An ancient Mesopotamian receipt in Cuneiform, conveying the language of Akkadian (source: thebiblicalreview.wordpress.com)
Mesopotamia was the site of the very first international cities, and thus its people may have created the written form as a way to manage trade and land. Some of the earliest pieces of writing procured from Mesopotamia include shopping lists, lists of wages, and documentation of rations set aside for temple workers. Only later did writing expand to include art, letters, official announcements, and historic records. Many of these later forms of writing were then buried with kings or else stored in temples. The Mesopotamians also developed huge dictionaries with lists of subjects, such as words and gods. This proclivity towards organization, and their development of complex society and trade, made the creation of a written form a necessity. Although Cuneiform went out of use approximately 1,800 years ago (around 200 A.D.), much of ancient history would be largely inaccessible without this earliest form of writing (The National News, 2011).
In an ancient world where you could be put to death for not paying your taxes-- and where if you didn’t have a receipt to prove you submitted payment you could be subjected to the same unfortunate fate-- receipts were of the utmost importance. In fact, many historians speculate that writing itself may have been invented as a way to create receipts (The Abacus Blog, 2022) and run an economy. While the oldest surviving receipt was 5,000 years old, the very first receipt is believed to have originated in Jericho around 7500 B.C., a full 1,500 years earlier. Historians believe this ancient type of receipt took the form of clay balls handed from seller to buyer to acknowledge a transaction (Linkedin, 2022).
It is small wonder why writing was developed so that one could document exactly what was purchased and by whom. In addition to clothing and tax receipts, one of the other oldest receipts ever found was for livestock-- five sheep, one lamb, and four baby goats. This receipt was addressed to the purchaser and took the form of a piece of clay one inch by one inch and a half an inch thick. And while it was more detailed and foolproof than a simple ball of clay, this small piece of documentation could still easily be lost, “resulting in an ancient accounting nightmare that could be fatal” (The Abacus Blog, 2022).
The Receipt's Progression through the Middle Ages
The utilization of receipts eventually spread from ancient Mesopotamia to Egypt, where they were used to record temple offerings, grain, cattle, and more. By this time, during the reign of Ramses II from 1278-1237 B.C., the material on which receipts were recorded was in a period of change. From this time period through the first centuries A.D., papyrus (a material similar to thick paper that was developed by using the pith of the papyrus plant) was used to create receipts for the wealthy. A sheet of papyrus was quite expensive; as of the first century A.D., a sheet would have cost the equivalent of $45-$50 USD. One sheet of papyrus could fit multiple receipt documentations, allowing for receipts to be easily retrieved. For those who couldn’t afford papyrus, a broken piece of pottery was used as a receipt material (Linkedin, 2022).
Photo: A collection of four tax receipts on one sheet of papyrus from Hephaistias, Egypt, circa 149 and 150 A.D. From the Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection at Columbia Univeristy. (source: richardcarrier.info).
In medieval Italy, the invention of modern banking allowed receipts to take on an even greater importance. When traveling, it was now possible for people to deposit their heavy and easily stealable coins in the bank, where you would be issued a receipt. Upon your arrival at your new location, you could then visit another bank and hand them the receipt, at which point the banker would return your cash in exchange for a small handling charge (The Abacus Blog, 2022).
Invention of the Printing Press and Cash Register
The invention of Guttenberg’s printing press in 1436 A.D. allowed for the creation of pre-printed, fillable receipt books. These receipt books made creating receipts much easier and faster, and it didn’t take long for receipts to be found nearly everywhere (The Abacus Blog, 2022). Even so, it took some time for merchants to write out receipts, and up until the late 1800's, it was often considered acceptable and permissible if someone did not have a receipt with the excuse that they were in a hurry.
Photo: A receipt book from 1906. This page documents the purchase of curtains for $6.00 (source: etsy.com)
In the 1890’s, the National Cash Register Company invented the modern receipt-generating cash register (The Abacus Blog, 2022), and by World War One, these machines were quite ubiquitous (Linkedin, 2022). This early cash register was hand-crank operated, and was capable of printing out simple paper receipts.
The Dawn of Modern Receipts
The year 1969 saw the beginning of inkless printing with the invention of thermal paper. This invention meant lower costs and more detail on receipts (The Abacus Blog, 2022). Dot-Matrix receipt printers soon followed, being introduced to the market only a year later in 1970. Both thermal and dot-matrix receipt printers grew in popularity throughout the latter half of the 1900's, and remained popular through to the twenty-first century. In fact, thermal and dot-matrix printers are the most widely used form of receipt printers on the market today!
If you would like to learn more about modern POS receipt printers, please check out our earlier blog posts:
1. Which Types of Receipt Printers are Best for Restaurants?
2. Can a Thermal Printer Print Color?
3. What is the Difference Between a Thermal and Dot-Matrix Printer?
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- Linkedin. (2022, February 1). The Design Evolution of the Receipt from 7500 BC to Today [Blog post]. Retrieved from www.linkedIn.com
- The Abacus Blog. (2022). A Brief History of Receipts [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://blog.abacus.com
- The Biblical Review. (2018, June 17). What Is Akkadian? [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://thebiblicalreview.wordpress.com
- The National News. (2011, April 12). World’s Oldest Writing Not Poetry but a Shopping Receipt [Web article]. Retrieved from www.thenationalnews.com