The wallet has a long and illustrious history, although not always in the form that we see today.

Back in the sixteenth century, a “wallet” was an all-purpose bag, generally made of leather. It was mostly worn on your back, rather like a backpack. In fact, it was simply a handy bag for carrying just about anything that you might need during the day, including your lunch. Money, if you had any, was carried in a purse attached to your belt.

A leather coin pouch worn on the belt

The wallet as we know it today results from two developments: that of the pocket, and of paper currency.

Let’s deal with the pocket first. Unlikely as it may seem, the first pockets were actually worn on the outside of your clothes. However, unlike the purse, which was detachable, the pocket was actually sewn on.  The pocket was fine for carrying string, handkerchief, penknife and money, but it was very visible and likely to advertise your wealth to those who might seek to appropriate it. The answer was to incorporate the pocket into the garment.

Paper currency was introduced by the Bank of England in 1694. These were promissory notes, handwritten and for pretty large sums for the day, which meant that very few people, if any, actually carried them around. The Civil War in the United States accelerated the issue of paper money but in Great Britain it was not until 1914, when banknotes were issued for 10 shillings (50p) and one pound, that the weight on your trouser pockets was eased somewhat.

One of the first banknotes as issued by the bank of England

Because that is where most men carried their coins. In their trouser pockets. In pre-decimal days, if you were unfortunate enough to receive change for one pound in pennies, you would be carrying roughly 2.3 kilos of metal in your pocket. No wonder people were smaller then.

So, it would not be an exaggeration to say that paper currency was welcomed by most people. 

We now had flat, lightweight currency and an internal pocket to carry it in. Which is where the wallet, now devoid of lunch, made its glorious return. You could now reach casually into your inside pocket, peel off a couple of notes, and save yourself a few months’ physiotherapy.

Fresh bank notes

But it was exactly in this action of “peeling off” that the wallet ceased to be a purely practical item and started to become a fashion accessory. If you were treating Gwendoline to a cream tea at the Lyons Corner House in 1927, it made a much more favourable impression if you extracted your crisp one-pound note from a handmade, full-grain leather wallet.

And here’s a fashion tip from Debonair: avoid wallets with a coin purse. They will inevitably fill up with useless small change, ruin your wallet and spoil the shape of your jacket. If you want to carry coins, invest in a coin wallet.

Happily, Debonair can supply classic, hand-crafted wallets, cardholders and coin wallets. So Gwendoline can’t fail to be impressed.