History of why we carry wallets, sort of

by Mark Ward October 24, 2016

History of why we carry wallets, sort of

Wallets have been around since the Archaic period and have appeared in every civilization in one form or another since that time.  They evolved due to necessity.  One had to have a way to bring their daily meals and other items necessary to get them through the day with them….in such a way that provided their hands freedom to continue their work or other travel duties (like driving a horse).  But do people really like wallets?  Now THERE’s the psychology we’re looking for!  Come to find out there are many camps related to wallets.  We’ll look at the two extremes.

There are those who like wallets, actually LOVE unique wallets and show them off as status symbols.  In the middle ages, “larders” as they were known were very elitist and were used by the aristocracy to maintain calling cards, small accoutrements and other doodads that rich folk would carry.  In ancient Greece,  wallets were more like knapsacks to hold the days items.  Even the “sack” that served as the resting place for the head of Medusa when Perseus met her in a dark labyrinth translates to “wallet” in Greek (that term is “Kibisis” for you entomology geeks). 

The term “wallet” was finally found in English text as early as the 1300’s and even in a play by Shakespeare, in the tragedy “Troilus and Cressida”.  They truly had a social symbol associated with them…wealth.  If you carried a wallet, then you apparently had the means to go with it.  Whether it was the 1600’s or the 21st century, the psychology of flaunting wealth stays the same.

In today’s world this hasn’t changed much as those who like to be seen will carry enormous wallets or small purses (even "wallets for men") to show the brand label, the gaudy decorations on the wallet/purse or other means to project wealth, status or importance.  To each their own! 

Paper money didn’t drive the need for a wallet, but it did simplify the bulkiness of the carry.  Once paper money became more prevalent in the West, think the 1690’s and the Massachusetts Bay colony, it was easier to think up more creative designs for wallets and there wasn’t a need to store food or other items anymore.  To this end, let’s not confuse coin purses with wallets, although they’re a close cousin (due to the money relationship), they have distinct purposes.  There are many “wallets’ which include a coin carrying portion, usually with a zipper, but I’ll ignore those as nothing more than an aberration.  Oh, I’m sure they deserve their own place in design history as a product extension idea, but the closer we get to more bulk, the farther away we end up from the ideal of a wallet.  I’ll let my bias show, smaller and thinner is better. 

Regarding smaller, there are those who really don’t care to carry any wallet (love these people), but still are looking for style, comfort and uniqueness.  The slimmer the better and the fewer items they need to carry, EVEN better.  Minimalist wallets drive these folks and they thrive on thin, thin, thin.  A wallet to carry an access card, one or two credit cards and identification is almost too much.  Done, nothing more needed.

What we see today are more and more wallets coming to market and more people buying them.  The designs are always minimalist, introducing ingenious design ideas to make the wallet MORE minimalist, easier to access, lighter, stronger and still, attractive.  A renaissance of wallet design has emerged once again and it’s awesome to see!  But what has enabled this movement toward lighter and smaller?

As money migrated to banks and access to those funds ended up on plastic in the 1950’s, card slots were invented and the need for bulk disappeared. In the end, the overwhelming need to carry bulk has gone the way of a fashion statement and we’re back to practicality and purpose.

Take a look at Narwhal Company’s line of one-of-a-kind wallets hand sewn from vintage men’s ties.  Each one of unique, just like you!

Wallets by I for Design


Mark Ward
Mark Ward

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