In 1868 America you had to pay your bills in America just like you do now. If you were the tidy type, you might have this collapsible pocket bill organizer on your desk.
This unusual survival —an expandable pocket bill organizer— was manufactured from gilt-stamped and lettered black cloth (closely matching book cloth seen on publisher's trade bindings for the period) and stiff cardstock.
Commercially produced and patented in 1868, think of this as a Victorian office's pre-iPhone utility app.
Simply constructed (without any design input from Sir Jonathan Ive), this item functioned as an expanding and collapsible document holder.
Each of the bill holder’s pockets are indexed for two letters of the alphabet. The index tabs are arranged in pairs. The final pocket, however, held all of those bills indexed for W, X, Y, and Z. (The dreaded bills from Messrs. Z.!) The vertical, top-loading format held bills, receipts, payment vouchers, miscellaneous documents, etc., all secure in each “pocket.”
Two cloth bands at the bottom allowed the folder to hinge open while at the same time preventing the holder’s contents from spilling out. Another elastic cloth band mounted at the top (not seen here) kept the folder securely closed. Perhaps, this secure closure was optimistically intended to delay bill payment as long as possible.
The self-proclaimed Expansive Pocket Bill Holder is gilt-stamped “Novbr. 1868.” The annual report U. S. Commissioner of Patents for 1868¹ notes a patent (No. 85,367) for a “Bill holder…in the form of a cylinder when standing…” issued to J. A. M. Collins of Keokuk, Iowa on December 29, 1868.
We identify Mr. Collins as serving in the Second Iowa Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War and later as treasurer for The Sunset Consolidated Mines Company, a Colorado corporation primarily controlled by Iowans.
Mr. Collins undoubtedly had a need for such a bill payment organizer. Presciently realizing the local Staples wouldn’t be in existence for another hundred or so plus years, Mr. Collins took matters into his own hands and invented this contraption.
While we typically shy away from historical objects, per se, this functional and collapsible organizer caught our attention. Booksellers always have bills to pay (who doesn't?) and the book-like fashion of this item's gilt-stamped cloth made us think of... well ...books.
The idea of tri-folding our own current bills into this object's divided containers, securing the cloth clasps, and hiding the whole of it under our always-endless pile of paperwork was a 30-second, and pleasant, daydream.
1. 40th Congress, 3d Session, House Ex. Doc. No. 52] Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the Year 1868. Volume II. (Washington [D. C.], 1870), p731 (United States Congressional serial set, Volume 1376).
“Paying Your Bills in 1868 America — Expansively” first appeared in the blog Collecting American History via Ian Brabner, Rare Americana, January 9, 2015. It has been slightly altered in its present form.