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Photograph of Lincoln's brown leather wallet, with purpule silk lining, and separate pockets for notes, U.S. currency, and railroad tickets.
Wallet carried by Abraham Lincoln on the night of his assassination, April 14, 1865. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.

What’s In Their Wallets?

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The most famous wallet at the Library of Congress is arguably Abraham Lincoln’s, which is scheduled to go on public display at the Library of Congress beginning on June 14, 2024. Lincoln’s wallet was among the contents of his coat pockets on the night of his assassination, April 14, 1865. Held by the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, the trifold wallet is made of brown leather, lined with purple silk, and offers three compartments embossed with gold lettering. One pocket was intended for “Notes,” another for “U. S. Currency,” and yet another for “R. R. Tickets.” These pockets suggest what a Civil War-era man might need to carry with him: paper notes, paper money, and paper railroad tickets. Lincoln did not have railroad tickets in his wallet, but as president of the United States, he did not really need them. He was carrying currency, but what remained in his wallet when it arrived at the Library of Congress in 1937 was a five-dollar Confederate bill that he likely picked up as a souvenir during a recent visit to the fallen Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Instead of notes, Lincoln stored in his wallet eight wartime newspaper clippings on a variety of subjects. Although the wallet is now most associated with Lincoln’s death, the contents speak more to how he lived. Maybe the newspaper articles contained ideas and phrases he wished to reference at a moment’s notice? Perhaps he enjoyed showing people the Confederate currency and discussing his visit the previous week to Richmond?

The contents of President William McKinley’s wallet when he was shot by an assassin at the Pan-American Exposition in September 1901 can be found in the papers of his secretary, George B. Cortelyou (1862-1940). The spartan contents include a card from his friend and political mentor Mark A. Hanna asking the president to see attorney Pablo Desvernine, and some scribbled notes. Were Lincoln and McKinley typical of nineteenth-century presidents in not needing to carry much in their wallets, especially if trips were arranged for them and they had aides to provide other necessities? The William McKinley Papers includes a list of the president’s clothing and personal effects when he was shot that records that his wallet contained an unspecified amount of currency and he had change in his pocket.

George Cortelyou’s own wallet was similarly devoid of personal materials at his death, containing primarily newspaper clippings, typed quotes, and various handwritten notes. While political themes dominated the clippings, a quote collected by a former Virginia governor defining genealogy as “tracing yourself back to people better than you are,” betrayed Cortelyou’s sense of humor. Another item in Cortelyou’s wallet documents that he was “punctual, regular & obedient.”

Illustrated wallet card titled "Public Education, Primary Department."
Undated card in George B. Cortelyou’s wallet recognizing him as “punctual, regular & obedient.” Box 72, George B. Cortelyou Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The contents of humorist and political commentator Art Buchwald’s (1925-2007) wallet are more familiar to the modern eye, consisting of the usual identification cards, business cards, and health care information that many of us need in our daily lives. But in Buchwald’s wallet was also a sweet photograph of two young children in a toy airplane (likely his grandchildren Tate and Corbin Buchwald). Both sides of Buchwald’s brown leather wallet feature a sticker of the South Carolina flag. Was this perhaps a reminder of boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, which made him into a United States Marine during World War II, and changed his life in the process?

A brown leather wallet, open to show two South Carolina flag stickers on the front and back.
The outside of Art Buchwald’s wallet at his death in 2007, featuring stickers of the South Carolina flag. Box 202, Art Buchwald Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Rather than offering wallet contents, the papers of journalist and historian Douglas Southall Freeman (1886-1953) instead document what had been in his wallet when he was pickpocketed by two thieves as he boarded a northbound Pennsylvania Railroad train at Trenton, New Jersey, on June 17, 1947. As many of us have had to do, Freeman contacted the businesses who had issued him credit cards to request the cancellation of the stolen cards and the issuance of new ones. Freeman’s correspondence reveals that he carried cards for the Statler Hotel chain and the Southern Railway, as well as his Virginia driver’s license, vehicle registration card, and cash. The Fidelity and Casualty Company of New York reimbursed Freeman for $109 for his loss in the theft, which may have been the amount of cash Freeman lost in the robbery.

At the time of his death in December 1967, playwright and author George Middleton (1880-1967) carried in his wallet insurance cards, membership cards, and a calling card identifying him as a member of The Players, a New York City membership club for artists. Middleton’s wallet also contained admittance cards to the Vice President’s Gallery in the U.S. Senate Chamber signed by then-Vice Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson (88th Congress) and Hubert H. Humphrey (90th Congress). But perhaps the most valuable card in Middleton’s wallet? A pass to a Library of Congress study room.

A study room pass for George Middleton for the year 1967, with regulations.
Front and back of the Library of Congress pass in George Middleton’s wallet at the time of his death in 1967. Box 92, George Middleton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

In our own time, wallets increasingly are becoming obsolete as cell phones and other electronic devices transfer the funds we use to buy things, hold photos of the people dear to us, and have apps that store transportation tickets, membership cards, and other previously paper-based information that wallets traditionally contained. Perhaps future historians will learn about us from the apps on our phones instead of what we carried in our wallets?

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“McKinley’s wallet”… William McKinley’s wallet was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. See

“Cortelyou’s own wallet”… “Items removed from Cortelyou’s wallet at the time of his death,” Box 72, George B. Cortelyou Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“Art Buchwald’s (1925-2007) wallet”… “Wallet at time of death, 2007,” Box 202, Art Buchwald Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

had been in his wallet”… “Wallet, Lost,” Box 84, Douglas Southall Freeman Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“carried in his wallet”… “Cards and invitations,” Box 92, George Middleton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.


  1. Very enjoyable blog!

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