A trifold wallet with pockets for notes and cards, and a window to display an identification card
A trifold wallet with pockets for notes and cards, and a window to display an identification card

A wallet is a flat case or pouch often used to carry small personal items such as paper currency, credit cards; identification documents such as driver's license, identification card, club card; photographs, transit pass, business cards and other paper or laminated cards. Wallets are generally made of leather or fabrics, and they are usually pocket-sized and foldable.

Wallets may include money clips, coin purses, a chain fastener, strap, or rein, or a zipper. There are specialized wallets for holding passports, wearable ID cards, and checkbooks. Some unusual wallets are worn on the wrist or shoe. Wallets may be used as a fashion accessory, or to demonstrate the style, wealth, or status of the owner.


The word originated in the late 14th century, meaning "bag" or "knapsack", from uncertain origin (Norman-French golette (little snout)?), or from similar Germanic word, from the Proto-Germanic term "wall", which means "roll" (from the root "wel", meaning "to turn or revolve."[1] (see for example "knapzak" in Dutch and Frisian). The early usage by Shakespeare described something that we would recognise as more like a backpack today.[citation needed] The modern meaning of "flat case for carrying paper money" is first recorded in 1834 in American English.[1]

The ancient Greek word kibisis, said to describe the pouch carried by the god Hermes and the sack in which the mythical hero Perseus carried the severed head of the monster Medusa, has been typically translated as "wallet".[2][3]


Aleutian Wallet for carrying tackle
Aleutian Wallet for carrying tackle

Ancient Greece

The classicist A. Y. Campbell set out to answer the question, "What...in ancient literature, are the uses of a wallet?" He deduced, as a Theocritean scholar, that "the wallet was the poor man's portable larder; or, poverty apart, it was a thing that you stocked with provisions."[4] He found that sometimes a man may be eating out of it directly but the most characteristic references allude to its being "replenished as a store", not in the manner of a lunch basket but more as a survival pack.


Wallets were developed after the introduction of paper currency to the West in the 1600s. (The first paper currency was introduced in the New World by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1690.) Prior to the introduction of paper currency, coin purses (usually simple drawstring leather pouches) were used for storing coins. Early wallets were made primarily of cow or horse leather and included a small pouch for printed calling cards.[citation needed]

In recounting the life of the Elizabethan merchant, John Frampton, Lawrence C. Wroth describes the merchant as, "a young English-man of twenty-five years, decently dressed, ..., wearing a sword, and carrying fixed to his belt something he called a 'bowgett' (or budget), that is, a leathern pouch or wallet in which he carried his cash, his book of accounts, and small articles of daily necessity".[5]

19th century

A mid-19th century wallet or pouch made of leather
A mid-19th century wallet or pouch made of leather

In addition to money or currency, a wallet would also be used for carrying dried meat, victuals, "treasures", and "things not to be exposed". Wallets originally were used by early Industrial Americans. It was considered "semi-civilized" in 19th century America to carry one's wallet on one's belt. At this time, carrying goods or a wallet in one's pocket was considered uncivilized and uncommon.[6]

In Spain, a wallet was a case for smoking paraphernalia: "Every man would carry a small sheaf of white paper in addition to a small leather wallet which would contain a flint and steel along with a small quantity of so-called yesca, being a dried vegetable fibre which a spark would instantly ignite."[7]

20th century–present

A WW I era wallet and its contents
A WW I era wallet and its contents

The modern bi-fold wallet with multiple "card slots" became standardized in the early 1950s with the introduction of the first credit cards. Some innovations include the introduction of the velcro-closure wallet in the 1970s. Pocket-sized wallets remain popular to this day.

For cryptocurrencies that only exist in cyberspace as entries in some online ledger, a "cryptocurrency wallet" is a computing tool whose purpose is to securely keep the owner’s secret key, to authenticate the owner, and to let the owner sign transactions securely. A "hardware wallet" is a single purpose computer to do this even more safely.

Contemporary examples

A large wallet attached with a leather cord or magnet
A large wallet attached with a leather cord or magnet
An RFID signal-blocking slim wallet
An RFID signal-blocking slim wallet

Wallets are usually designed to hold banknotes and credit cards and fit into a pocket or handbag. Small cases for securing banknotes which do not have space for credit cards or identification cards may be classified as money clips: this may also be used to describe small cases designed to hold ISO/IEC 7810 cards alone.


Most major designers offer seasonal and perennial wallet collections of black and brown leather. Major retailers also sell a wide selection of men's wallets, including branded and house-name wallets. Branded wallets may include logos or other trademarks to identify the brand. The right wallet can add a touch of class to any outfit. When shopping for wallets, a good rule of thumb is to buy one size larger than you normally wear. This will ensure that the wallet fits comfortably and securely in your pocket. If you prefer a smaller wallet, try sizing down by half a size. You should also consider how often you use your wallet. A simple leather wallet might work fine if you carry cash only occasionally. However, if you frequently need to pay with credit cards or store large amounts of money, then you’ll probably benefit from a more durable wallet.


The traditional material for wallets is leather or fabric, but many other flexible flat sheet materials can be used in their fabrication. Non-woven textiles such as Tyvek are used, sometimes including reuse of waterproof maps printed on that material. Woven metals, such as fine mesh made of copper or stainless steel have been incorporated into wallets that are promoted as having electromagnetic shielding properties to protect against unauthorized scanning of embedded NFC & RFID tags. Do-it-yourself websites such as Instructables feature many projects for making wallets out of materials such as denim, Kevlar, or duct tape.

Regional differences

A Japanese wallet with a coin purse
A Japanese wallet with a coin purse

Some wallets, particularly in Europe where larger value coins are prevalent, contain a coin purse compartment. Some wallets have built-in clasps or bands to keep them closed. As European banknotes, such as euros and pounds, are typically larger than American banknotes in size, they do not fit in some smaller American wallets.

Metaphorical usage

A poster seeking innovative suggestions tells readers "An Idea May Mean Wealth In Your Wallet".
A poster seeking innovative suggestions tells readers "An Idea May Mean Wealth In Your Wallet".

There term wallet is also used synecdochically to refer to an individual's overall personal budget. One of the definitions of "syndecdoche", by Sasse, uses a wallet reference as an example of the meaning of the term ("an abbreviated speech in which the containing vessel is mentioned instead of its contents"), such as when a person holds up their wallet to a person asking for money, while saying "here is $100".[8] A wallet is also used as an example in a definition for the related rhetorical device of metonymy ("using a vaguely suggestive, physical object to embody a more general idea"): "If we cannot strike offenders in the heart, let us strike them in the wallet."[9]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Online Etymology Dictionary entry for "wallet"". Archived from the original on 2007-12-24. Retrieved 2007-09-06.
  2. ^ "CTCWeb Glossary: K". Archived from the original on 2011-07-12. Retrieved 2007-09-06.
  3. ^ Apollodorus (1921). "Perseus". In Frazer, James G (ed.). Bibliotheca (Pseudo-Apollodorus). Vol. 2. London: W. Heinemann.
  4. ^ Campbell, A. Y. (April 1931). "The Boy, the Grapes, and the Foxes". The Classical Quarterly. 25 (2): 91. doi:10.1017/S0009838800013501. JSTOR 637006.
  5. ^ Wroth, Lawrence C. (August 1954). "An Elizabethan Merchant and Man of Letters". Huntington Library Quarterly. 17 (4): 301–302. doi:10.2307/3816498. JSTOR 3816498.
  6. ^ Mason, Otis T. (January 1889). "The Beginnings of the Carrying Industry". American Anthropologist. A2 (1): 21–46. doi:10.1525/aa.1889.2.1.02a00030.
  7. ^ Cushing, Caroline E. W. (1832). "Letter XIV". Letters: Descriptive of Public Monuments, Scenery & Manners in France & Spain. Vol. 2. Newburyport, MA: Allen. OCLC 8401193. Archived from the original on 2017-05-07.
  8. ^ Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and Lubomír Batka. The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther's Theology. OUP Oxford, 2014. p. 328
  9. ^ "Tropes". /web.cn.edu. Dr. Wheeler. Retrieved 3 April 2020.

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