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    

Vintage Liberty Of London Unused Credit Card Holder Wallet Ianthe Fabric LeatherAuthentic Vintage Gucci Tri-fold Continental Clutch Checkbook Wallet Rare Vintage Hardy Fly Wallet 1930's The "allinone" All In OneVintage Chanel Black Caviar Leather Cc Large Wallet / Clutch Bag With Card & BoxVintage Genuine Congo Brown Chocolate Leather Mulberry Wallet,purse,bag Authentic Louis Vuitton Vintage Monogram Long Wallet For Bill Wt 65Hobo International Lauren Double Frame Clutch Wallet Vintage Jade Green LeatherVintage Dooney & Bourke All Weather Leather Navy/tan Check Book Wallet Nwot100% Authentic Louis Vuitton Vintage Checkbook Wallet Great!P2 Vintage Gucci Wallet Brown W/ Stripe Double G Logo Bifold W/ Coin Holder Nr!Vintage Coco Chanel Paris White Tri Fold Wallet Quilted PatternVintage Il Bisonte Leather WalletNice Vintage Mens Crocodile Leather Wallet Circa 1930sRare Vintage Louis Vuitton French Wallet With Original Box And Cloth Bag Vintage 60s Mattel Barbie And Francie Mod Wallet / Change Purse - RareVintage Brown Louis Vuitton Monogram Wallet W/ Matching Coin Purse Set Antique Lot Of 25 Padlocks 20 Keys Key Wallet Combo Lock In Box Safe Deposit KeyAuth Lv Vintage Louis Vuitton Monogram Tri-fold Purse Wallet - NrVintage 1963 Frankenstein Dracula Vinyl Wallet Very Rare MintVintage Prada Purse Or Wallet Badge Tag 2.25"Vintage Dooney And Bourke All Weather Leather Navy Crossbody Purse Clutch WalletCoach Vintage Large Two Tone Leather Silver Tone Buckle Design Clutch WalletCoach Vintage Trifold Checkbook Clutch Wallet - Black LeatherHarley-davidson Deep Rich Brown Leather Wallet W/chain, 6" Vintage Made In UsaVintage Dooney & Bourke Bifold Pebbled Leather Kiss Lock Top Wallet Clutch Auth Vtg Louis Vuitton Double Snap Monogram Bifold Wallet And Coin Purse#5152Vintage Carry All Barbie Wallet With Beatles Photos Circa 1964Authentic Gucci Vintage Purse, Wallet And KeyholderLouis Vuitton Wallet Vintage Single Envelope Leather Monogram No ReserveP3 Large Vintage Gucci Wallet Clutch Document Holder Brown Double G Logo 9" Nr!Fossil Vintage Genuine Leather Wallet Clutch Floral Print Purple, Green Euc!Vintage Rumpp Ostrich Wallet - Billfold - Passport & Document HolderWomens Vintage Beige Premuim Leather Long Wallet Lady Clutch Purse/coin HandbagVintage Hartmann Checkbook Belting Leather WalletAuthentic Louis Vuitton Monogram M61675 Purse Wallet Vintage No Reserve #Vintage Gucci Burgundy Canvas & Leather Wallet 034.904.8284 Italy Excellent CondBrown Monogram Vintage Louis Vuitton Malletier Checkbook Wallet 70'sVintage Sterling Silver - Antique Felt Lined (opens!) 36.9g - Wallet Am986Vintage Coco Chanel Paris Black Tri Fold Wallet Quilted PatternAuthentic Louis Vuitton Monogram Tresor M61730 Purse Wallet Vintage No Reserve #Authentic Vintage Gucci Long Wallet Nwt Fossil Key-per Salmon Quilted Zip Around Clutch Wallet What Vintage Are You?Vintage Retro Style Mens Leather Wallet Zipper Pocket Credit Card Purse#2222Vintage Brown Mens Leather Wallet Purse Credit Card Zippered Pocket -mj2222Christian Dior Clutch/evening Bag/wallet Leather Vtg Auth. Louis Vuitton Malletier Lv Key Keeper Case Fob Key Wallet VintagePolo Ralph Lauren Plaid And Leather Mens Bi Fold Wallet VintageGucci Vintage 80s Signature Logo Repeat Green Red Stripe Bifold WalletFossil Vintage Key-per Clutch Wallet Retired Limited Print Zip Around # 167550Vintage Oversize Black Alligator Crocodile Travel Wallet M&co Gold Edges EnglandVintage Etienne Aigner / Burgundy Red Colored Leather WalletAuthentic Vintage Dooney & Bourke Wallet Beige Brown Grain Awl Leather Usa MadeAuthentic Louis Vuitton Monogram Tresor M61730 Purse Wallet Vintage No Reserve #Antique Sterling Silver WalletVintage Dooney & Bourke Ivory Leather All Weather Satchel And WalletVintage Coach Cream Leather Boston Speedy Doctor Satchel W/checkbook WalletVintage White Mesh Glomesh Large Wallet PurseLouis Vuitton Authentic Vintage Monogram Checkbook Cover WalletDooney & Bourke Vintage 2-tone Leather Awl Trifold Wallet & Checkbook Cover -Styling Men’s Black Leather Wallet Vintage Style Credit Card Slot Wallet C-a5