The Evolution of Wallets

The Offbeat Evolution of Everyday Wallets

Wallets have been traced back to the days of the ancient Greeks, when big bags containing haunches of meat and perhaps your entire wardrobe were dragged along or slung over a shoulder hundreds of years before they were remade and sized down to fit into a back pocket.

Contrary to modern conjecture, the world did not begin calling them wallets in the 14th century because they were the size of small walls. The word wallet is derived from one or a combination of the Old English weallian, older German word wallon and later German variation wallen, which meant to go roaming about or on a pilgrimage.

Wallets did not shrink quickly over the next centuries. Drawstrings were used to secure belongings inside leather pouches, sometimes carried next to a sword, in the 16th and 17th centuries. Paper currency had been invented by that time, so cash was tossed in with dried foodstuffs and valuables. In some countries, roll-your-own smoking materials and flints to light up the precursors to cigarettes were added. By the 19th century, the pouches had become smaller leather containers often worn on belts.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century, after credit cards had been introduced, that the wallet began to resemble today’s version, with space for plastic and cash in fold-over bi-fold designs to better fit inside back or front pockets. The chief material used was still leather.

Then came Velcro.

The hook and loop fastener system invented in the 1950s was called Velcro by its inventor as a combination of the words velvet and crochet. NASA astronauts used them in the 1960s to keep their stuff from floating away inside space capsules devoid of Earth’s gravity. By the time of the disco era of the 1970s, Velcro brand closures were becoming the groovy fashion to show off on sneakers and wallets.

It’s a fashion that stuck to more than the Velcro wall that talk show host David Letterman, wearing a suit covered in Velcro, attached himself to during an interview with a Velcro executive in the 1980s. Nylon wallets with retro Velcro closures are still popular sellers. Except today, you’re more likely to buy them from Internet retailers.

In the latter years of the 20th century, men’s and women’s wallets were becoming available in traditional leather, faux leather and nylon in bi-fold and tri-fold versions.