George Washington wallet

by Dr. Lori Verderame

I discovered and appraised George Washington’s wallet (also known as pocketbook) from circa 1775 which was the focus of a feature episode on FOX Business Network’s hit TV show, Strange Inheritance. Washington’s wallet had many of the typical attributes known to other antique pocketbooks, wallets, purses of the late 18th Century and when appraising George Washington’s pocketbook these traits had to be confirmed and authenticated. Watch Dr. Lori identify George Washington’s wallet on FOX TV’s Strange Inheritance.

George Washington's wallet

Washington’s wallet was English-made and constructed of leather, sheepskin, newsprint paper, marbleized papers with a brass closure. It was commissioned by George Washington (1732-1799) from an American shopkeeper who ordered the custom piece from another maker based in England. The engraved brass closure with the monogram “GW” is only one of the elements that helps to authenticate such a piece as belonging to Washington.

The more evident examples of authenticity include the type of leather used, the watercolor and waxed interior marbleized papers serving as a writing surface, and the bookbinder’s specialty format in the Cambridge style. Some leather pocketbooks were specially made for men and fitted with slate boards for writing instead of marbleized papers. Some pocketbooks of the Colonial period had marbleized or waxed paper inserts which served as a writing surface like Washington’s wallet had. Colonial pocketbooks typically held currency, maps, and other important documents.

The Cambridge style pocketbook was based on books made and bound at the library bindery at Cambridge University. A Cambridge book panel had a text block sewn onto a single raised cord with tooled leather. Marbleized papers on the interior showed traditional patterns used by binderies and book makers in London, England at the time. The dyed leather was drawn onto boards and glued to heavy end papers to cover the volume as was the case with this pocketbook as well as with other valuable old books. Pocketbooks were less fancy than books of the time as book covers were further tooled, decorated, and stamped with gold leaf. The security clasp with George Washington’s monogram on it offered a location for the owner’s monogram instead of using costly gold embossing as was done on books.

Washington’s Letters

George Washington’s wallet had a strong provenance and history tracing it back to President George Washington’s personal secretary, Tobias Lear. Washington’s last will and testament gave Lear unrestricted access to the first President’s papers, personal effects, maps, and related objects including the pocketbook. Washington’s will instructed Lear to copy the extensive collection of Washington’s papers, letters, documents, maps, and other papers for a forthcoming biography about Washington being written by Chief Justice John Marshall.

George Washington’s will from the Archives at Mount Vernon states “Washington prized his papers highly and long before drafting his will had come to look upon the great mass of documents that he held at Mount Vernon as part of his legacy to the new nation…At the end of his presidency in 1797, Washington had his presidential secretaries, Tobias Lear and Bartholomew Dandridge, take from his files the papers that should go to his successor, President John Adams, and instructed them to send the rest of the documents to him at Mount Vernon. Washington also had his letter press contraption sent to Mount Vernon and in his final two years, he used it to make copies of most of the letters that he himself wrote. Lear reported that about six hours before his death, Washington said on December 15, 1799, “I find I am going, my breath cannot continue long,” and then gave Lear instructions to arrange and record all the late military letters and papers. A review of Washington’s letters took place over an 8 month period from circa December of 1799 following Washington’s death to circa August of 1800.

Other Washington Objects

Over the years, many other objects belonging to George Washington have been offered onto the antiques and collectibles market. Washington’s personal letters and signed documents have brought significant interest and high values but there have been other objects relating to Washington’s presidency and his personal life that have been of interest to collectors. In addition, personal effects like Washington’s gunter’s scale (an early surveying/slide rule type instrument) sold for $41,825 and a personal compass belonging to Washington sold for $59,750. Washington’s death sparked collectibles such as the 1799 mourning picture that American women embroidered to memorialize and pay homage to Washington after his death. An elderly woman brought such a mourning picture to one of my antiques appraisal events which was handed down in her family and the embroidered piece featuring a woman in traditional costume seated within a cemetery was worth $15,000.

What to Look For

When it comes to George Washington collectibles like inaugural campaign buttons, signed government documents, autographs, and personal effects, the chain of ownership is key to establishing authenticity and value. Read more about valuable Presidential campaign collectibles. Specific materials that were commonly used during the Colonial period era are tell-tale signs of authentic objects. Rare and unusual objects that once belonged to George Washington, documents that reference his military career during the Revolutionary War or his writings during his Presidency are highly sought after. Condition is very, very important and the better the condition of an object that Washington owned, the more valuable that object will be on the market.

Get an online appraisal report of your George Washington collectible or antique from Dr. Lori.