Checks remained local payments instruments throughout virtually the entire nineteenth century. Their significant use in interregional transactions dates only to the 1890s. We explain their lagged spatial diffusion by the evolution of centralized payments institutions to coordinate transactions among myriad banks, not real technological changes to “annihilate” distance. The pivotal institutions were large correspondent banks, especially in New York. After the Civil War, New York funds constituted a national settlement medium, and the concentration of bankers’ balances in New York yielded liquidity and other externalities smoothing the flow of check payments.