The Power of the Purse
This elegant billfold holds a lot of history. We believe it belonged to John Hancock (1737–93), one of the most prominent founding fathers of the United States of America—you may recognize his standout signature on the Declaration of Independence.
John Hancock’s billfold, c. 1776
Born here in the English colonies, Hancock was a wealthy Boston merchant, who would become part of the country he helped form. He was a political revolutionary who often hosted rallies to keep the fight for American independence on the minds of those up and down the social ranks. Then, like today, the power of the purse—in this case, Hancock’s purse—tremendously affected political change. From the beginning, political sponsorship and lobbying have been hardwired into the American way.
A fragile piece of early American history, Hancock’s billfold became part of the Museum’s collection in 1920, acquired from the estate of candy magnate and collecting virtuoso Charles F. Gunther (he also donated the Lincoln deathbed). The billfold’s flame-stitch pattern echoes textile patterns found in the Bargello Palace in Florence, Italy. The textile trade evolved from a simple handicraft into a major industry between Europe and the United States from the 1770s through the 1840s. Many mysteries about this object remain, however: we don’t know who made it nor how much money it once contained.
Visit the Museum this summer to see the real thing in our lobby and a first printing of the Declaration of Independence, which bears Hancock’s name, in the ongoing exhibition Facing Freedom.