Wallets. We’ve all got one. And whether you keep in your pocket, your purse, or laying on the dresser back home as you’re pulling into the drive-thru, this tiny square piece of leather is a part of all our daily lives.
How long has it been that way, though?
You’ve probably never actually thought to ask that question up until now, but now you have and you’re grasping for answers.
What were the first wallets? What did they carry?
How did they adapt into what we know today?
All these questions and more will be answered right here as we take a dive into the history of wallets. Buckle up for…not necessarily excitement, but it’ll sure be informative.
The First Wallets
The first wallets came from the same place as many great inventions, that being ancient Greece. This is even where we get the word “wallet”, being a loose translation of the Greek word kibisis, the sack carried by the god Hermes.
Calling them wallets might be a step too far, however, as they were less akin to the wallet we know and love today and more like small pouches or bags with drawstrings attached.
Instead of tough leather like we’re used to in modern times, these early wallets were typically made from soft, pliable materials like lambskin to make them easier to store without compromising their durability.
Typically fastened to the belt or a part of the body, they were designed to hold money as well as anything else a person might need for the day, including food or small trinkets.
It wouldn’t be until several hundred years later during the Italian Renaissance period that something closer to what we imagine to be the wallet took shape.
Even then, it would be quite some length into this era before they found a use. With the shift away from bartering and money exclusively in coins towards paper money, a change in how money was carried was also needed. This is where the wallet came in.
We know that the English word “wallet” had been in use since around the 1300s, though when and how it came to be with some theories citing similar words in Dutch and French that may be behind it all.
While the wallets in question initially started in a similar vein to their Greek ancestors, they slowly began to evolve. Around the 1500s, wallets made from cow or horse leather began to appear, though they were still more sack-like than truly wallet shaped.
However, these early models did include one key feature that would become a staple of the modern wallet, that being internal pockets. These pockets were used for storing things like calling cards, which were used by those of high society similar to business cards today.
It would not be until 1690 when paper money was officially introduced on a wide scale, though. This would happen in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, replacing the need for large pouches to carry coins everywhere people went. As such, the time was right for the modern wallet to take shape.
By the 1800s, paper money had all but replaced large coins for everything but small purchases and loose change. As a result, wallets no longer needed to be large, bulky sacks as before, though still keeping the trend of being made from leather.
Though they were still a ways off from becoming the tried and true billfold, a smaller and more compact version had become quite popular.
One important distinction to make, however, is that these wallets were not always used for carrying money. Particularly popular among Americans was the trend of keeping small objects of importance (including, but not limited to, money, dried foods, and jewelry) in a wallet attached to your belt, to the point that the idea of holding these things in your pockets was somehow uncivilized, though even having a wallet at all seemed to be only somewhat acceptable to begin with.
By contrast, many Europeans did away with the wallet’s function as an all-purpose carrying case entirely. Instead, many English and Spanish began to carry smoking supplies in small leather pouches called wallets, including rolling paper, something to make a spark, a yesca fiber for burning.
The use of leather became much more commonplace during the last century due to improvements in production and industrialization making the means of tanning large amounts of leather easier.
As a result, leather continued to be the material of choice for wallets following the 1800s. It was around this time that a wallet we would recognize today was finally made, combining many of the aspects of the previous examples into a single product.
Most put the date of this finalization around 1950 when the first credit cards were invented. With wallets having taken on the familiar bi-fold shape and taking up residence in their owners’ pockets, the pockets used for holding business cards began to increase in number, eventually filling out the interior of the wallet and giving it a greater purpose besides just holding paper bills.
While not fully taken advantage of until later in history, this is where the first experimentation into just what a wallet could be really took place.
Mostly to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world, wallets of the 20th century began to include all manner of new features, from clear compartments to store a driver’s license or ID to small coin pouches for holding change.
The general design and luxury of wallets would also improve, with designers beginning to incorporate the principles of fashion into their products and turn the wallet from simply a necessary piece of equipment to a true accessory.
The modern wallet continues many of the innovations of the 20th century version, building and expanding into what we have in our pockets today.
These days it’s nearly impossible to find a wallet without at least a few bells and whistles, with fancy designs, premium materials, and dozens of slots and compartments being almost standard practice.
Even so, the plain leather wallet still holds strong as model these more lavish versions spin off from.
These days, just like any aspect of the world, are some of the most cutting edge in terms of wallet development. By the end of the 90’s and beginning of the 2000’s, the scope of what a wallet can be changed dramatically.
Synthetic materials like polyester and plastics have become common in making wallets. These materials, as well as metal, can be used in conjunction with or in place of leather.
Wallet accessories and extra features have also become more common. One popular accessory has been the wallet chain connecting the wallet in your pocket to a spot on the belt, almost as if in reference to the object’s roots. Other advents include things like Velcro closures, RFID-canceling technology (a security measure to keep people from scanning your credit cards to steal your money), and even wallets made entirely from paper.
Though the physical wallets of today are no less common or important, the greater shift to digital exchange of money and goods has led to the coinage (pun intended) of various terms related to a computerized wallet.
This sort of “wallet” exists only within the confines of a computer, acting as a sort of security tool to keep a user’s cryptocurrency and electronics funds stored in one place, similar to how a real wallet does the same for a person’s paper money.
Cryptocurrency wallets in particular employ rigid security measures to keep out anyone trying to access them without the proper authentication. They can also be used directly to send or receive funds through various transactions.
An added layer of security some employ has been dubbed a hardware wallet, essentially a computer used exclusively for this type of job. This can have various advantages and disadvantages from the convenience of storing everything related to your finances on a single machine to the risks of doing just that, meaning you could risk losing everything should something happen to that machine (once again, not too dissimilar to the traditional wallet).
As mentioned earlier, wallets of the modern age have undergone many drastic changes and innovations. These can be big and small, modifying the shape or appearance of the wallet or drastically changing how it’s used.
To demonstrate just how extensive these new features have become in scale and scope, here’s a short list of some of the more prominent features wallets may have these days.
Wristlets are a handy variation on the wallet intended to be worn on the wrist by some kind of strap or band. Though they’re often somewhat smaller than a standard wallet, they do save on pocket space and make it much harder to be pickpocketed provided you’re aware of what happens to your own arm.
The ultimate in tacticool accessories, a tactical wallet is essentially a normal wallet souped up with the kind of things you’d normally find on a Swiss army knife, like a knife, bottle opener, ruler, screwdriver, and more. May be made of leather or another material like canvas or nylon.
The breast wallet is intended to be stored in the breast pocket of a suit jacket. Designed primarily with business in mind, these are functionally identical to the standard wallet save for their shape, which allows money, checks, or other long slips of paper to be stored without the need for bending them.
Money Clip Wallet
Minimalist in design, money clip wallets do away with much of anything related to the standard wallet, typically being little more than a piece of metal with a clip or band to hold folded bills and cards in place.
Though still compact enough to carry around, a travel wallet is usually a much larger version of a wallet closer in usage to a small folder.
Used by travelers due to the extra size it provides, it can hold things like passports and important documentation in addition to the standards of money and credit cards.
The shoe wallet is an interesting invention similar to the wristlet in function. Attaching to the front of a shoe, these wallets can be used to hold important things while the owner is exercising, typically in clothing that lacks pockets to store a traditional wallet.
The standard wallet is known as a bifold due to folding over itself once. The trifold, on the other hand, adds another fold to the mix, offering the owner more room to hold their things.
These are long wallets designed to emulate the function of an envelope, with a flap that can be opened or closed to hold its contents inside.
The L-Zip wallet is closed by a zipper surrounding two sides of the otherwise unfolded, rectangular accessory, giving the impression that the zipper is in the shape of the letter L.
When unzipped, the owner can take things from inside, which can be designed like a simple pouch or set up like a more traditional wallet with pockets and compartments.
A cardholder wallet is minimalist in design, featuring only about two to three pockets that make up its entirety. The largest that takes up the most space is typically for folded bills, while the others are for different cards.
What makes it unique is that the frontmost pocket features a transparent plastic screen, allowing the owner to show off a business card or ID when it’s taken from the pocket.
Whether from ancient Greece or modern day America, the wallet is a constant companion for people who have lives to live.
Having held our most valuable assets since time long past, these simple squares of leather have gone through all sorts of changes since they were first created.
Hopefully you’ve grown to appreciate them just a bit more now that you know the history of wallets both past and present.