Known to the French as “le porte-monnaie,” and to Spanish-speakers as “la cartera.” To English-speakers: the wallet, the pocketbook, the change purse, the billfold. (Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “le porte-monnaie,” does it?) The compact carry-all was born out of necessity early in human history, but has since evolved into a status symbol, a fashion emblem, and to many – the fundamental, final thing you check for before you leave the house. So who do we credit for the invention and advancement of this necessary accouterment? The answer might surprise you.
It shouldn’t be astounding that the wallet – the most essential of everyday accessories – first came to be early in human history. Early wallet warriors invented small, fabric packs with drawstrings, typically tied to their belts, that were used to hold a day’s lunch and a handful of coins. This cutting-edge development came to be long before the invention of paper banknotes, though, and traces its roots all the way back to the Archaic Period. Ancient Greeks used their wallets, then called knapsacks, to hold food and other personal provisions in a way that was out-of-hand and convenient enough for a day’s worth of work. The 20th century classicist A. Y. Campbell wrote “… a wallet is no modern lunch basket, out of which come Derby-day salmon and champagne. The wallet was the poor man’s portable larder, or poverty apart, it was a thing you stocked with provisions.” So, it seems, the wallet was no aristocrat’s accouterment. It was, simply, the original lunchbox.
The word “wallet” appeared as early as the 1300s, and, notably, in 1609 when Shakespeare wrote it in the tragedy “Troilus and Cressida” (“Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, wherein he puts alms for oblivion, a great-sized monster of ingratitudes.”) In 1690, the Massachusetts Bay Colony introduced paper money to the New World, but paper-oriented billfolds had actually been used long before, in 1500s Europe. Traditionally made from cow or horse leather, and shaped more like a sack or a purse than a modern, foldable number, these old-school staples often had specially made pockets for calling cards or visiting cards, an early form of identification typically carried by aristocrats or the elite. Campbell’s “poor man’s portable larder” had evolved, then, to become a mark of status and privilege.
The scholar Lawrence C. Wroth’s recounted the dress and air of a 1559 merchant in his essay “An Elizabethan Merchant and Man of Letters,” from 1954. He writes, “The traveler in question was a young, English man of 25 years, decently dressed, mounted upon a mule, wearing a sword, and carrying fixed to his belt something he called a ‘bowgett,’ [or budget] that is, a leather pouch or wallet in which he carried his cash, his book of accounts and small articles of daily necessity.” Since pockets, historically, were only worn by women, and didn’t appear in clothing until the 17th century, it’s no wonder this well-dressed merchant was inclined to carry a bowgett, in which he stored everything but his sword.