Early Malta passport photos rescued & archived


Approximately 25 years ago, sacks-full of documents were discovered lying around Fort St Elmo, the paper content of which was being used to make paper-mâché for the construction of Carnival floats. Someone who recognized the value of these dumped documents called the National Archives in haste and told them to “See what you’re going to do to save these public records.” Malta passport photos rescued

National Archivist and Head of the Malta National Archives Dr. Charles Farrugia recalls how “they were saved by the bell… the police or the army got them to the archives building and the chapel of the National Archive was full of piles.” The sacks contained tons of travel documents of Maltese and Gozitan citizens, amongst which lay evidence of the advent of local passport photographs from as early as 1915. Malta passport photos rescued

The British government introduced passport photographs in February 1915, following the incident in which a German spy, Carl Hans Lody, spied on Britain using a fake US passport. Following this event, it was apparent that passport identification needed to be developed to prevent similar episodes. Passport photographs were introduced into Malta a few months later as Malta, a British colony, followed procedures from the United Kingdom.

Sharp focus, no creases or ink marks, a plain background, no hair obscuring the eyes, mouth closed, normal street attire, no hat, no dark glasses, no heavy-framed glasses, no smiling, no frowning, no raised eyebrows or unusual expressions, no patterned backgrounds, no shadows, no reflections on the face, no digital altering and no retouching are just a few of the dozens of passport photograph rules to which one has to adhere. Malta passport photos rescued.

In the 1910s and 1920s, the lack of regulations made the nature of a single passport photograph more diverse and aesthetically pleasing, with the image submitted for the travel document usually being the only portrait that the individual would ever have taken. It would have been taken by a professional photographer in a studio, using expensive, professional equipment. “Compared to today, the passport photographs show more of an artistic process,” said Dr. Farrugia. “The frequency of people having a photograph taken was very remote. People would generally only have such a photograph taken if they were going abroad, or for some special occasion, and there were no criteria.” Malta passport photos rescued

This lack of regulations surrounding the photograph created the opportunity for creativity in the unlikely context of identification and surveillance. For the first 10 years or so of passport photographs, the image often shows the individual in the company of another person – their child or another relative – or even their pet. It also seems strange that it was acceptable to have portraits where the individual is smoking a cigarette or lifting a naked baby.

Malta passport photos rescued

Before 1915 and the introduction of passport photographs, the details surrounding a person’s appearance were described in the documents. “The type of application was more or less the same in the years running up to 1915,” explained Dr. Farrugia. “The document asked for details of appearance such as height and whether you had any tattoos or any special marks. However, before that, at the beginning of the 1800s, only the bill of health was used as travel documentation, which was very limited, asking for basic details such as your name, address, occupation, and destination.” Malta passport photos rescued

Malta passport photos rescued

In the late 1920s, when the passport template was altered, the rules regarding passport photographs in the United Kingdom became more specific. By then, in its second version, the booklet passport specifically required two duplicate, unmounted photographs showing the full face of the individual, with no hat, and the size of the photograph had to fit specific measurements. These few regulations meant an end to complete passport photograph portraiture freedom.

Malta passport photos rescued

The acquisition of these passport photographs is precious to the Archives because the whole collection “depicts the migratory movements of that time,” as Dr. Farrugia points out. Moreover, the portraits were possible “the only depiction of those people. Malta passport photos rescued.

The photographs in the article are samples held by the National Archives of Malta.


FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...