I began to carry a wallet right after graduating from high school in 1935. I've seen little girls playing dress up and carrying a tiny purse so they look like "mommy." What would my grandfather say if he could look into my wallet today? Would my grandmother recognize what she would find in her great-granddaughter's purse now in 2013? Before 1935 there was no need to carry a wallet. Any young man could go downtown to a large movie theater and his admission plus the cost of bus or streetcar fare both ways would amount to less than one dollar.
Men's pants often had a watch pocket sewn into the waistband. That pocket could carry a watch or it could be used to carry small change in amounts of a dollar or less. The only other thing a man might carry would be bus or streetcar tickets. Even now, I often wish my pants came with that little watch pocket. If a man wore a vest, he would have four small pockets that could carry everything he might need.
Social Security began around 1938 and before that no one even heard of carrying a Social Security card around all the time. Now, that card is a universal identity card and must be guarded against identity theft. Before automobiles were mass produced, there was no such thing as a driver's license. Now, you can't leave home without one. If you drive a car, you must have liability insurance and carry with you proof that you have it. You also must carry a document that provides proof of registration and ownership of your car. In the good old days, you really didn't need to carry proof of identification. People lived in small towns or in local neighborhoods in larger cities and the police and merchants knew everyone in the town.
Can you imagine needing a license to drive a horse drawn wagon and proof of liability insurance if your horse kicked someone? In Wild West days, if you were riding a horse that was not yours, you might end up being the guest at a "necktie party" held under the nearest overhanging tree limb.
If you bought something and didn't have cash to pay for it, the store owner might "put it on the book" meaning he would let you pay for it later, usually on payday. A record of what you owed would be kept in the storekeeper's little book usually written with a lead pencil. After that, some larger stores issued charge-a-plates. They were made of aluminum and would print your name and account number on a sales ticket to keep a record of how much you owed. Now we do that all the time with plastic credit cards. One charge-a-plate could be used in several stores just like a credit card except that now many people carry more than one credit card.
I have my first library card, issued in 1931. I don't know when libraries began using cards. Libraries are pretty old, but I wonder if there was much need of keeping records of who borrowed what book and when it was supposed to be returned. Now I carry a fancy plastic library card that allows me to borrow books from almost any library in the state.
A long time ago, a man might have some $2 bills in his wallet. They were known as racetrack money because the usual wager at the track was $2. If you ask at your bank, they might have some of that racetrack money or for special requests, they can get some for you. Long ago, when I saw my first ever $100 bill, it was such a rare occasion, I took a picture of it. Now, $50 and $100 bills come out of my wallet and into a cash register without notice or comment. I'm sure my grandma never saw either one.
I have an implanted pacemaker and I carry a card in my wallet that contains information about it, if needed, in a medical emergency. I also carry identification cards as proof of prescription and hospital insurance coverage. I have a card that says what my blood type is, but it's so tattered and worn I no longer carry it in my wallet.
A wallet is a good place to carry a photo of your sweetie, your wife, or your children. There is a story of the woman who asked if her husband really loved her. He said he did and showed her evidence of just how much by opening his wallet and letting her see that he carried her picture right next to his money.
I don't know as much about purses as I do about wallets, but I know ladies consider the inside of their purses as very private property. I don't recall ever going into my wife's purse until after she died. Funny thing is, women will carry many things in a purse, including a wallet. If I needed something like a paper clip, ballpoint pen, toothpick, safety pin, or nail file, my wife would always have one in her purse.
Some women carry a purse, others a handbag or a pocketbook. What's the difference? Long ago, in Europe, ladies carried a necessaire. That was a small decorated container fastened to the wrist with a strap and containing necessities such as cosmetics and toiletries and maybe a few coins. Today, women who smoke, carry cigarettes either in a pack or in a cigarette case, along with a lighter or matches.
I met a young lady around 1938 who had just cashed her paycheck and was carrying the money in her First National Bank. For those who don't know, that means the cash was safely tucked into the top of one of her stockings.
Grandmothers like to carry pictures of their darling little grandchildren. For some, that seems to be the most important thing in a purse. When my mother was in her 80s, she was one of a group of widows that would go places and do things together. They even went to Florida for a week. Card parties and bingo were good entertainment for them. That's why my Mom's purse held a deck of cards, dice, and a rosary.