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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)



Anna Checcoli's homage to the beauty and art of hand fans ('ventagli,' in Italian). Use the left-hand nav to browse… [read review or visit site]



Dr. David Fleishman's comprehensive spectacles site (over 3500 images), in collaboration with museums around the wo… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Coach Black Leather Vintage Kisslock Coin Purse Wallet CaseVintage Ww1 Leather Wallet With Australian Army Military Rising Sun BadgeLouis Vuitton Vintage Epi Porte Tresor International Wallet Rouge Red 161387C1968 Vintage Omega Watch Red Wallet With Guarantee & Your Omega Bookle & TagFossil "what Vintage Are You?" Soft Tan/camel Bi-fold Leather Owl WalletVtg. Dooney & Bourke Florentine Black Leather Zip-around Wallet Coin Purse 5x4Brown Long Live Vintage Leather Fossil Wallet Clutch OrganizerNwt Authentic Vintage Gucci Blue Monogram Leather Checkbook Wallet MintVintage Black Coach Handbag With Matching WalletVintage Etienne Aigner Maroon Leather Wallet With French Purse Style "coach" Vintage Red Pebbled Leather Bifold Wallet W/ Kiss-lock Coin PurseFossil What Vintage Are You? Orange Purple Leather Bifold Wallet Change Great+++Fossil Long Live Vintage Rare Wallet Brown Leather Lot Of 1 Louis Vuitton Womens Red Wallet Vintage Mint! Excellent Condition! Authentic Coach Black Leather Vintage Tri-fold Woman's Wallet W/ Zip Coin PouchVintage Gucci Wallet 1980's Used Louis Vuitton Vintage Wallet Trifold Vtg Dooney & Bourke Kisslock Leather Wallet Checkbook Organizer Brown TaupeCoach Vintage Black Signature Embossed Leather Wallet Coin Purse SpainVintage Dooney & Bourke Pebbled All-weather Leather WalletFossil Brown Multicolor Leather "what Vintage Are You?" Clutch WalletVintage Brown Leather 3 Pocket Biker 7.5" Trucker Wallet W/ 12 Inch ChainLes Must De Cartier Calf Pocket Secretary Wallet In Box VintageDooney & Bourke ~ Vintage Brown Pebble Leather Small Wallet Bifold UsaRolex Green Plastic Card Wallet, No.100.00.41, Vintage, Genuine, Mint ConditionVintage Men's Leather Bifold Wallet Credit Cards Holder Clutch Long Chain CycleCartier Vintage Men's Bordeaux Calf Skin Bifold WalletCoach Coin Wallet Change Purse Black Leather Vintage GucVintage Rolex Watch Travel WalletVintage Gucci Gg Canvas Doctor Boston Bag Speedy Purse + Wallet - ItalyVintage Coach British Tan Leather Combination Wallet Checkbook No.4859Authentic Vintage White Multicolor Murakami Louis Vuitton WalletVintage Mens Large Handtooled Leather Bifold Wallet Bank Money BagVintage Man From U.n.c.l.e. Ideal Message Reader Wallet UncleVintage Coach Blue Signature Suede Leather Wristlet Wallet Purse Handbag Fossil Vintage Black Leather Wallet Card Coin Case Organizer Change PurseMens Genuine Cowhide Leather Vintage Bifold Wallet Passcase Wallets Valentino Italy Vintage Chestnut Brown Leather Wallet Change Purse ClutchLouis Vuitton Vintage Wallet Leather SignatureCoach Vintage Legacy Whiskey WalletVintage Gucci Wallet Clutch Coin Purses Tri Fold Blue No Reserve Made In ItalyDooney & Bourke Auth.vtg.taupe /british Tan Leather Trifold Wallet & Key HolderVintage Barbie Wallet Vibrant Red 1960s AmazingAuthentic Louis Vuitton Monogram Wallet & Card Case Vintage 2 Set 7b150200Mens Leather Wallets Credit Card Wallet Zipper Pocket Purse Vintage Cowboys Women Lady Retro Vintage Owl Small Wallet Hasp Purse Clutch BagBeatles Gumball Mimi Records & Wallet Charms Money 1964 VintageVintage Gucci 500 Address Planner Credit Card WalletVintage Fossil Women Leather Crossbody Wallet Shoulder Bag Small Purse BrownVintage Classic Coach Black Leather Trifold Wallet Euc Vintage Brown Buxton Key Tainer Leather Key Wallet Holder Case Saddle CowhideSlim Wallets For Mens Leather Credit Card Wallet Vintage Retro Brown Mj3822Womens Retro Vintage Flower Small Wallet Card Holder Coin Purse BagWomens Girl Sequin Wallet Card Holder Vintage Coin Purse Clutch Handbag Bag ToteWomen Lady Retro Vintage Owl Leather Small Wallet Hasp Purse Clutch BagWomen Lady Retro Vintage Flower Small Wallet Hasp Coin Purse Clutch Bag ToteWomen Lady Retro Vintage Flower Small Wallet Hasp Purse Clutch BagWomen Lady Retro Vintage Flower Small Wallet Hasp Purse Clutch Bag Bk D10Vintage Louis Vuitton Leather Canvas Monogram WalletVintage Coach Black Leather Small Card Case Wallet Coin Purse