History of Physical Characteristics in Passports

When was the last time you examined your passport more closely? I’m not referring to the visas and border stamps you acquired while traveling, but rather the information that characterizes you physically – the history of your physical characteristics.

Sudan passport 2005
Sudan passport 2005

The “charming” passport photo is another example. Why do they constantly resemble a criminal record mugshot? What does the border patrol officer see in your passport photo about you? How are you, the person who is in front of them, identifiable to them?

Officers typically have 20 seconds to complete verification. Yes, there are also e-Gates and “Automated Border Control” (ABC). Your face and fingerprints, along with your biometric passport, are the only two features an e-Gate needs to recognize you.

A passport could have up to twelve physical characteristics describing its bearer until halfway through the nineteenth century. Your passport may even include information about your religion and occupation. Assume this is still the case today.

Instead of asking for your fingerprints, a border control officer would say, “Show me your teeth,” or inquire about your religion or job, which still happens on occasion today. History Physical Characteristics

Kingdom of Wuerttemberg 1858 with plenty of characteristics
Kingdom of Württemberg, 1858 with plenty of characteristics

Offensive And Unfitting History Physical Characteristics

My point is: how relevant are “personal characteristics” today at border control?

Both ABCs and biometric passports are not available to everyone. Around 80% of all nations now issue biometric passports. Physical traits are still crucial for confirming someone’s identification. But why are they absent from our travel documents now? Well, it’s true that describing someone based on their appearance, religion, or line of work is now frequently viewed as inappropriate and disrespectful.

In 1835, Belgian authorities required British visitors to show a passport that included the bearer’s credentials. The British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, deemed the decision so abhorrent that he refused to carry it out. An English aristocrat was denied admission to Belgium after a brawl. Palmerston countered with the affirmation that, History Physical Characteristics

“if they would damage their tourist trade by excluding all British subjects from Belgium, they were perfectly entitled to do so, but that no British passport would contain any particulars except the holders’ name.”

In the end, the Belgians backed down. In fact, until 1914 British passports never contained physical characteristics, but only stated: “British Subject traveling to the continent.” 

From 1915 until the early 1980s the bearer’s height, eye, and hair color featured, and since the 1970s of those particulars only the height remained.

A True Likeness

Nowadays, standardized passport photos have replaced most of those descriptions. See picture. But what happens if your appearance changes? Get a new haircut, change your hair color, or grow a beard or mustache, and the ABC gates will no longer work for you. Even if you are checked by a border control officer, you may still face a second-line check.

Personal characteristics remain important, at least for a quick check, a comparison between the passport photo and the bearer of the document. Are the nose, ears, mouth, and lips similar? Does the person have approximately the same height? Is the eye color blue, like in the photo?

Would border control officers have an easier job with more characteristics at their disposal? Should we incorporate some of them into our passports’ bio data page again? 

I have a passport from 1854 in my collection that belonged to a young lady, and it states: “Face: beautiful”. Well, it’s all in the eye of the beholder…

And what about the occupation? History Physical Characteristics

Old passports used to contain job descriptions such as “Billiard Table Fitter”. Certain modern job titles would at least amuse the border guards: Chief Dream Officer (CDO), Chief Visionary Officer (CVO), or what about Director of First Impressions (Receptionist)?

So, best let the machines do all the verification work using face, iris, fingerprint, and vein pattern scans. About 150 countries have adopted biometric passports now. At least the machines are objective, never moody, and (usually) do not make mistakes. 

And if you travel to any other of the 43 countries? Well, you still have the pleasure of convincing a border control officer that you are who you say you are…

Example of a Lord Palmerston passport


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FAQ Passport History pasaporte passeport паспорт 护照 パスポート جواز سفر पासपोर्ट

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...

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