The History of the Wallet - Harvey Ltd

The History of the Wallet

Known to the French as “le porte-monnaie,” and to Spanish-speakers as “la cartera.” To English-speakers: the wallet, the pocketbook, the change purse, the billfold. This compact carry-all was born out of necessity early in human history, but has since evolved into a status symbol, a fashion emblem, and to many - the fundamental, final thing you check for before you leave the house. So, who do we credit for the invention and advancement of this necessary accouterment? The answer might surprise you.


It shouldn’t be astounding that the wallet - the most essential of everyday accessories - first came to be early in human history. Early wallet warriors invented small, fabric packs with drawstrings, typically tied to their belts, that were used to hold a day’s lunch and a handful of coins. This cutting-edge development came to be long before the invention of paper banknotes, though, and traces its roots all the way back to the Archaic Period. In one of the oldest examples, going back to 3,300 BCE, Otzi the Iceman was discovered with a coin purse attached at the hip. This coin purse included knives, flint and a few small pieces of food.

Ancient Greeks used their wallets, then called knapsacks, to hold food and other personal provisions in a way that was out-of-hand and convenient enough for a day’s worth of work. However, wallets were viewed with distaste in Ancient Greece as they were seen as a way for the poor to carry their provisions around with them; it was an impoverished look.

Greek gods, like Hermes, carried messages with coin purses and satchels. The ancient Greek word kibisis, said to describe the sack carried by Hermes, has been typically translated as “wallet”. Even in Pompeii, archaeologists found evidence of various kinds of coin purses on many of the people. While many of these wallets have eroded away in the two thousand years since, remnants of these ancient wallets remain, showcasing their importance in society.

In the 10th century Anglo Saxons began to carry wallets which contained currency as well as other regular, day to day items.

The 20th century classicist A. Y. Campbell wrote “… a wallet is no modern lunch basket, out of which come Derby-day salmon and champagne. The wallet was the poor man’s portable larder, or poverty apart, it was a thing you stocked with provisions.” So, it seems, the wallet was no aristocrat’s accouterment. It was, simply, the original lunchbox.

The Renaissance

The word “wallet” has been in use since the late 14th century to refer to a bag or a knapsack for carrying stuff. The word may derive from Proto-Germanic. Notably, the word "wallet" appeared in 1609 when Shakespeare wrote it in the tragedy “Troilus and Cressida” (“Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, wherein he puts alms for oblivion, a great-sized monster of ingratitudes.”)

In the 15th century, men gave their new brides purses as wedding gifts; they were often embroidered with a love story for that extra romantic touch! Both men and women wore purses during this era, and it was not uncommon that the more expensive ones would be embroidered with gold.

By the 1600s, with the rise of paper currency, the flat wallet became a norm for the most fashionable people to wear. During the Renaissance time period, these wallets ranged from the very simple to the incredibly ornate, with unique stitching and crests often being show off. At this time, wallets were still attached to the hip and carried everything from old notes to bits of food.

In 1690, the Massachusetts Bay Colony introduced paper money to the New World, but paper-oriented billfolds had actually been used long before, in 1500s Europe. Traditionally made from cow or horse leather, and shaped more like a sack or a purse than a modern, foldable number, these old-school staples often had specially made pockets for calling cards or visiting cards, an early form of identification typically carried by aristocrats or the elite. Campbell’s “poor man’s portable larder” had evolved, then, to become a mark of status and privilege.

The scholar Lawrence C. Wroth’s recounted the dress and air of a 1559 merchant in his essay "An Elizabethan Merchant and Man of Letters,” from 1954. He writes, “The traveler in question was a young, English man of 25 years, decently dressed, mounted upon a mule, wearing a sword, and carrying fixed to his belt something he called a ‘bowgett,’ [or budget] that is, a leather pouch or wallet in which he carried his cash, his book of accounts and small articles of daily necessity.” Since pockets, historically, were only worn by women, and didn’t appear in clothing until the 17th century, it’s no wonder this well-dressed merchant was inclined to carry a bowgett, in which he stored everything but his sword.

The 19th Century

In the 1800s, wallets adapted to their surroundings. Instead of holding money or food, they became used principally for tobacco and smoking accessories, especially in Spain and England. With just enough room to carry a bit of white paper, flint and a small piece of steel, the wallet was the pre-modern cigarette case.

From a cultural perspective, wallets would be considered fairly ‘uncivilized’ for the most part. In Otis T. Mason’s essay “The History of the Carrying Industry,” he suggests that by the late 1800s, carrying food in one’s wallet was considered “uncivilized,” while attaching your wallet to your belt at all was considered only “semi-civilized.” They were regularly used to carry meats among other items that were considered to be secret, treasures or simply not to be exposed to the elements. This was common in America at the time and was increasingly fashionable to carry your wallet on your belt. Unlike today in which a wallet would be carried in your pocket, this was considered highly uncivilized, uncommon and was to be avoided.

People in England were more likely to carry a purse as opposed to a wallet as their wages were paid in coin rather than notes; purses were simply more practical. In fact, 75% of the population had never even seen a pound coin let alone paper money.

By 1834, paper currency and city living were part of the norm. The flat case wallet was born in this time period. It was often seen as inappropriate to carry one’s wallet in their pocket, so instead wallets would be attached to belts and outwardly shown off. The fatter the wallet, the more important the man. Paradoxically, the truly rich were less likely to carry wallets than the middle class Americans. Nevertheless, they still began to rise in popularity and use through the 1800s, often exclusively by men.

The 20th Century

The turn of the century marks the turn of the wallet as we know it today, or as we’ve known it to be for the last hundred years - a foldable, pocket-sized accessory with the express purpose of carrying paper bills. While leather has been a staple in the textile industry since as early as Middle Ages (and in fact, even before: a complete leather tannery was unearthed from Pompeii in the late 1800s, suggesting that leather-making techniques date as far back as 79 A.D.) the industrial revolution made leather goods more accessible to the masses, and new technologies meant the material could be dyed, oiled and preserved in a way that broadened the spectrum of wallet styles.

In the 1920s, Hermes (at the time, a bridle and harness maker whose clients had primarily been horses) seized the opportunity to create fashionable leather goods for everyday life. These unique wallets (crafted from saddle leather) became our first modern style wallets.

Wallets in Wartime

As World War II began to take effect in the world, the fashion industry began to slow. France’s Vogue was shuttered as the Axis powers took hold. Rationing and shortages limited use of textiles, fabrics, and other materials needed to create new products. However, wallets were still carried close to the heart and made out of materials meant to last through wartime. Wallets found in Austria dating back to World War II included pictures of loved ones, dog tags, and other small items.

After the war, the resurgence of fashion and financial boom led to wallets taking on an even bigger role. Credit cards, cash, and small moleskin notebooks were all bundled into an array of wallets. Parisian-style wallets became a fashion must. Plus, with exotic leathers and colors to match every outfit, wallets became a critical part of fashionable attire for both men and women. In terms of wallet origins, the modern wallet can be directly seen in the surge of fashion and design in the 1950s, from the bi-fold wallet design to the clutch wallet.

Evolution of Fashion and the Wallet

While the 1950s saw the heyday of high-fashion wallets, the 70s-80s saw the evolution of the simpler wallet. With the punk movement came wallets to match. Dark colors, chains, nylon, and other modern textiles made wallets more accessible to everybody. In the same vein, velcro wallets became a fashion staple through the 90s. And while chained wallets originated with the idea of security, they soon became the hit fashion to wear around town. Many of us can fondly remember our first velcro wallet that carried all the coins and currency we needed for the local arcades and candy stores.

Today and Tomorrow

The modern-day wallet takes cues from all of these purposes. While not typically used to store food, and with less of an emphasis on coin cargo, today’s wallets come in an enormous variety of styles to help making consolidation simple. With manmade materials offering a more versatile, sensible way to manufacture goods, today’s wallets come in varieties that are washable, waterproof, neon, pastel, patterned and - most importantly - skinny.

Since the invention of the credit card in the 1950s, wallets have evolved to include slots designed just for the square-shaped, plastic charge cards. But you can still find wallets of any variety, including money clip styles that are designed specifically for cash, and checkbook wallets that are large enough to cover your checks. Bi-fold wallets, tri-fold wallets and breast wallets all came to be in the past several decades, ensuring that you have plenty of options for storing your money and personal belongings in your back pocket or bag.

As technology has evolved, so has the modern wallet. With technologies like Apple Pay, virtual wallets and the smartphones letting you pay on the go, the wallet has gone through a steady transformation. Currency and methods of payment change and our wallets have journeyed with us. Many no longer need to carry dozens of credit cards and thus the minimalist camp was born. However, even with the evolution of technology, traditionalists and their love of classic leather wallets has stayed strong.

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