Wallet History

From Purses in Ancient Greece to Digital Wallets in the 21st Century

Let's go back a bit now on what the wallet has been in the past. What we call a wallet today has only been around as such since the 1950s. But men has always had to carry around money. In ancient Greek legend, Perseus carried the head of the Gorgon around in a wallet, but we might consider that only a translation error - that 'wallet' was more like a sack.

Coin Wallets in the Middle Ages

The first use of the word 'wallet' in the English language was in the late 1300s, but it seemed to been derived from a Germanic word for a bag a man might use for carrying various articles. Coin purses made of leather were the pre-cursors of the man's wallet; when paper money came into being, the purse was adapted to carry money as folded pieces of paper. Paper currency, which could only exist after the invention of movable-type printing, was invented in China in the 7th century -- that idea migrated to Europe and North America much later. In Europe, Italian promissory notes came into being in the 14th century and pouches called budgets or wallets were designed to hold such paper notes flat or folded.

The First Wallets for Bank Notes

Bank notes appeared for a short time between 1660 and 1664 in Sweden, but were more permanently established in 1696 with bank notes issued by the Bank of Scotland. The first instance of paper money in America was in 1690, when the colony of Massachusetts first issued currency. The same timeline could be said to exist for the other types of printed materials a man might carry around: business cards, calling cards, identity cards, membership cards, etc. All these flat pieces of paper necessitated a growth in holders that encompassed both utility and fashion for men.

Other Types of Wallet

The use of the word 'wallet' to mean 'a flat case in which to carry paper currency' dates to 1834, but was only one of several meanings at that time. For example, a Spanish wallet of the 19th century carried those items required for smoking: flint, steel, rolling papers and tobacco. It was considered unfashionable and even gauche at that time to carry a Wallet in a pocket - the proper place for a wallet was in one's belt, perhaps attached by a chain. The modern day ancestor of this type of long wallet that carries unfolded paper money is called the passage wallet, the secretary wallet or the breast wallet, and is intended for the interior pocket of a suit jacket or for a shoulder bag. A long wallet chained to a belt does exist today and is favoured by motorcyclists and by punk and heavy metal fashion; the long-wallet style, sans chain, is also popular in Japan among business executives for carrying flat cheques and cash unfolded.

Modern Wallets

Modern wallets that fold to fit in a pants pocket did not exist until the 1950s and can be said to be an offshoot of the widespread adoption of plastic credit cards. Secure slots for credit cards necessitated a folded structure for the wallet - some designs, such as wallets made to fit in front pockets, do not even allow room for paper money, a characteristic that could be said to come either from fear of robbery or from creating a public image of not needing to carry cash. One result of that type of design was the resurgence of a separate money clip to carry paper money.

Colours, sizes, shapes and materials have all become variables in the style of the modern wallet. Once we begin talking about variables for an item that originally was made from one type of material and in one style, then we are talking fashion. Leather is still the most fashionable material for a wallet, but wallets do exist that are made of plastic or metal and in minimalist styles that do not even require a material covering. We've seen wallets made to look like rainbows and even like raw bacon. Wrist and shoe wallets that are little more than tiny pouches with elastic bands that stretch the definition of a wallet. Large flat folding containers that might more properly called small purses or carry-alls are sold as travel wallets, but, admittedly, they do hold all the documentation one needs for travel: passports, boarding passes, tickets, foreign currency, printed itineraries and cheques both personal and traveller.

Digital Wallets

Yet another stretch of the word wallet is the digital form - Google Wallet is a trademarked term for that company's software for storing online details of credit cards, gift cards and store loyalty cards. A mobile phone is the container rather than an article made from leather; in the UK, implementation of the Google Wallet or another similar system is 'coming in the near future' - take that to mean what you will.