Antique pocketbook

by Dr. Lori Verderame

Pocketbooks, wallets, and purses are accessories that have stood the test of time. Depending on the time period or century in history when they were used, pocketbooks, wallets, and purses may have been carried by either men or women. As time passed, the names of these popular carry-alls became somewhat interchangeable. For example, hand held objects that held personal effects and were called pocketbooks in the 1700s yet similar objects were referred to as wallets by the 1900s. And, men were known to carry pocketbooks as frequently as women carried purses. Even President George Washington carried a pocketbook. Watch me show you how to authenticate and appraise one owned by President George Washington.



The history of clothing had a great impact on desirable personal accessories like the pocketbook, wallet, and purse. For example, on fancy occasions, men did not wear belts. That meant a pocketbook would have been placed inside his waistcoast and carried in his pocket. For women, there were some pocketbooks that were secured or tied at the waist which hid the item beneath a woman’s dress or skirt. Decorative exteriors of these items showing fanciful embroidery work or tooled leather. These details addressed the fact that these items were part of a high society person’s wardrobe.


Typically, pocketbooks, wallets, and purses are made of a single 10 to 16 inch piece of linen or a piece of leather that was folded at the ends to form pockets measuring about 4 inches each. A separate piece of linen or covered board would be inserted in between the two end folds to create individual, separate sections within the pocketbook. Pocketbooks made in the 18th Century had a metal closure with a lock or latch for security. Some pocketbooks had a loop and tassel with a button or wrapping string used to close the hand held case.

What’s inside?

By the early 1600s, people carried pouches, bags, wallets, and pocketbooks regularly. Some of these carrying cases were for ammunition, papers, tools, or daily necessities. Most early 19th Century pocketbooks or wallets housed items like maps, documents, letters, bills, checks, and some paper money.

Coins were more popular until circa 1750 when paper money took the lead. Coins were carried in a ‘pokete’ or small change purse and tied at the waist like today’s fanny packs. Poketes were eventually sewn into men’s clothing to hold spare change.

What to Look For


While pocketbooks, wallets, and purses show up at estate sales, flea markets, yard sales, auctions, and antique shows, some of the most coveted early examples are very expensive.

Certain traits are more sought after with collectors like:

Repetitive, decorative needlework patterns in dyed wool or silk threads over boards of linen canvas.

Leather pocketbooks with pieces of slate or board covered with beeswax and marbleized watercolor paper. These boards served as a writing surface as well as a separator/insert piece.

Hand-tooled leather covers that are similar to books made during the same period by a book bindery.

Owner’s initials or monogram, dates, personal attributes like Freemason’s symbols or religious iconography and family names are also highly prized with collectors.

Antique pocketbooks, wallets, and purses command very high prices based on condition, lineage, ownership or provenance, decoration or pattern of the front embroidery or leather work, quality of the execution of the pattern, and high quality materials.

Get an online appraisal report of your pocketbook, wallet, purse by Dr. Lori.