A wallet, which had once been a name for a kind of sack, is a flat container used for carrying cash, credit cards, a driver’s license, identification, and sometimes checkbooks or change. Wallets as we know them today first appeared in the late 1600s, corresponding with the invention of paper currency and the innovation of sewing pockets into clothes. Shortly thereafter, thieves developed the concept of pickpocketing.
The first wallets, also called billfolds, were used exclusively by men, as women were not generally allowed to keep or spend money on their own. At first they were made of cow and horse leather, but eventually sewn canvas wallets became more feasible. During the Renaissance, wallets also included spaces to carry coins, and in the 19th century, men tended to carry wallets on their belts rather than in their pockets—they often carried dried meat in them, too.
It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that women began to carry a little bit of cash in their purses, although still not as much as men. Before then, women’s handbags were used for personal items like fans and perfume bottles...
In the 1920s, liberated flapper culture made it more socially acceptable for women to wear heavy makeup, to primp in public, and to smoke. Young women began carrying sleek, modern clutch purses to hold their face powder, lipstick, and cigarettes. In 1933, Van Cleef and Arpels introduced the minaudière, a chic metal box with secret compartments for cigarettes, money, and cosmetics.
These clutches and minaudières, the forerunners of women’s wallets, were replaced with larger and more practical shoulder bags during World War II. It wasn’t until the ’50s, though, that truly modern wallets were developed, along with the widespread use of credit cards and cars.
Novelty or character wallets featuring popular TV and comic-book characters like Hopalong Cassidy and Superman, sports teams like the Brooklyn Dodgers, and rock stars like the Beatles and Elvis also appeared in the last half of the 20th century.
At the higher end of the style spectrum, top designers like Coco Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Hermes, Gucci, and Coach made coveted wallets, usually out of leather, crocodile, ostrich, snake, or alligator skin—canvas wallets were often monogrammed with these designer’s logos. Designer wallets for women were made in styles, colors, and materials meant to complement a matching purse.
In the ’70s, the introduction of Velcro led to cheap, easy-to-open wallets made out of synthetic materials like nylon. The proliferation of pickpocketing in the 1980s and ’90s led to the popularity of chain wallets that could be fastened to belt loops. These were big with motorcyclists and skateboarders who wanted to avoid losing their wallets when they were on the move.
Other common kinds of wallets include bifold (one fold) and trifold (two folds) wallets, breast wallets (large enough to hold banknotes without folding them), and Jimi wallets (made of hard plastic). Moneys clips, too, are sometimes called “front pocket wallets” (the metal ones) or “wallet bands” (those made out of elastic), and small pouches designed to attach to shoes while exercising are called “shoe wallets.”
Popular vintage wallets include tooled leather cowboy-style wallets for men, with Western scenes burned into them, as well as elaborate embroidered needlepoint clutch wallets for women.
Interviews & Articles
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