German Passport History and Borders (2/4)


If this went wrong, there was a risk of being considered a vagabond and being punished, says Marta Vater. Foreign beggars were shunted from lord to lord because it could be a huge burden on the municipal coffers.

In the vast majority of cases, these vagabonds had no identification. You had to be a subject somewhere or at least have a baptismal certificate. If you didn’t have such papers, you were always at risk of being captured and deported.

In addition to baptismal certificates, marriage certificates, journeyman’s letters, trading licenses or peddler’s licenses, trade books or the type of luggage were also used to legitimize a journey. Finally, one’s own negotiating skills probably also determined whether a journey continued or ended.

Passports that referred to a person, like Martin Luther’s safe conduct pass, hardly existed at that time. The term did, however. It first appeared in France in the 15th century.

King Louis XI had decreed that all royal messengers had to travel with a so-called passport. Literally, this means passing through a port. This refers to permission to go ashore or leave the country.

King Louis XI
King Louis XI

Der Reisepass (passport) History German Passports

In German, this became the passport. From the 16th century onwards, the passport increasingly became the most important travel document. Even though its appearance has changed since then, the essence has remained the same: it certifies the right to travel and confirms the identity of the holder.

Until the 20th century, only official seals, stamps and signatures could prove the authenticity of a document. Passports in Germany did not have a photo, which is now part of every ID card, until the First World War.

Personal Description (Signalement)

Until then, a personal description was sufficient to check whether the passport holder was actually traveling. The so-called signalement contained information on the age, height, religion, hair and eye color as well as the shape of the traveler’s head. History German Passports

There were also passports that stated skin color pale or sickly.

It was very individual what the respective official then entered in the passport. That’s what makes these documents so charming, because every passport tells its own story.

Gradually, the states succeeded in bringing the passport system under their control. The churches, guilds and landlords had to give up their privilege of writing recommendations and issuing travel documents.

Only official institutions were allowed to issue passports History German Passports

In the 18th century, they were part of the everyday documents used by all social groups. The privilege of a travel document had become a duty.

The Austrian historian Valentin Gröbner describes this development as a grand narrative of increasing control, bureaucratic administration and, ultimately, discipline. Passports, regulations and registers were intended to make the confusing goings-on visible and steer them in the direction desired by the state.

The French Revolution brought about important innovations on the way to a standardized passport system. With the declaration of human rights in France, for the first time in Europe a section of the population was granted the general right to freedom of movement. History German Passports

The political upheavals in Europe until the end of the Napoleonic Wars also led to increasing migration movements. The authorities in the German territories had little interest in the new freedoms.

Part 3

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...