A History of Wallets

Wallets are such an important everyday carry item that it can be tempting to think that they've always been around. Wallets as we know them, however, are a relatively new invention, first created in the 1600s to accommodate new paper currency. Even before the 1600s, however, the term "wallet" has been used to describe a number of carrying devices. Today I wanted to take a look at how the term has been used over the years and how it has developed to mean the leather currency-carrying tool we use today.

Before Civilizations: The Earliest "Wallets"

Almost as long as people have been around, there has been need for the convenience of the hands-free carrying of tools, food, and items for trade. Although typically larger than the wallets we use today, they were the everyday carry staples of their time. These ancient satchels, such as the one found holding the weapons of Europe's oldest mummy, have been in use for thousands of years and predate civilizations. Strings threaded through mushrooms to keep them together, for example, can be linked to the way that Japanese mon coins would later have holes in their center so that they could be strung together. In these days, satchels would be used not only as early wallets, but also as early first-aid kits and lunch boxes.

Coin Purses in Ancient Civilizations

Coin purses can first be dated back to Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, and Pompeii. As currency became a necessity of civilization, having a way to keep currency nearby was necessary. Just like today, our ancient ancestors worried about pickpockets and thieves. Coin purses were typically carried beneath togas, close to the thigh, in the hopes that thieves wouldn't be able to access them without the owner knowing.

Although called coin purses, coins weren't the only things contained in these small pouches. The Greek god Hermes, for example, was said to carry messages for the other Gods in his coin purse. This indicates that it may have been common practice to keep small notes and other items of value in coin purses. Although the ancient aristocracy may have only kept coins and notes in their coin purses, among the lower class it was common practice to pack a day's lunch in these pouches as well. This would ensure that people wouldn't have to return home during the day and would allow them to work longer hours.

Paper Currency and Wallets

The term wallet was first coined around the 1300s, though at the time the bags were still more like coin purses than today's sleek wallets. Once paper currency was invented in the early 1600s, it was no longer was it necessary to have a heavy pouch full of coins. Shakespeare was one of the first to use the term in literature in Troilus and Cressida in 1609.

Fat wallets became a sign of wealth and status, and wallets were still commonly warn on a string on the hip so that they could be shown off. It wasn't until the closer to the roaring twenties that wallets finally started being worn in pockets and coats. The company Hermes is said to have first designed wallets as we know them today. These leather goods were made out of the same material as Hermes saddles and became must-have fashion accessories of their time.

By the time the world wars came about, almost everyone had wallets. They kept not just money in their folds, but also dog tags, notes, and photos of loved ones. Wallets also had enough space for a bit of paper and tobacco and became early cigarette cases. As you can imagine, during this time wallets became less a symbol of status and more a reminder of home and family.

Wallets and a Return to Fashion

By the 1950s wallets were once again a state of fashion. During this time increases in understanding of working leather meant that wallets could come in colors and styles that hadn't previously been available. Credit cards were beginning to be popular at this time as well, and it became increasingly important to have a place to store cards as well as cash. This led to wallets with an appearance increasingly familiar to wallets we use today.

Current Wallet Trends

It's obvious that the trend of wallets has been to get smaller over time. As our civilizations have evolved, our everyday carry needs have diminished. This trend continues today. With advanced ways to pay for goods and many companies only needing a phone number or email address to locate your rewards account, many of us no longer need the thick wallets once popular in this country. Even photos of our loved ones are now more easily kept in our phones than in our wallets. These advances in technology mean that we can begin to appreciate things like minimalist front-pocket wallets while still having everything we need at our fingertips.