Isabella Bird and her travels

isabella birdIsabella Bird (1831-1904)

was one of the 19th century’s most remarkable women travelers. Her intrepid global travels and subsequent travel books made her famous at home and abroad.

Isabella was born in Yorkshire County, England, in 1831. She was a sickly girl but had a forward-thinking doctor who prescribed travel as an antidote to insomnia and blues she suffered after an 1850 operation. She traveled by steamer to the eastern United States and Canada, and upon returning, published her first book, The Englishwoman in America. She hated the title, but the gig—travel, then write—felt like a fit.

In 1875, after living in Hawaii for a time, she published Six Months in the Sandwich Islands. Her third book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains in which she details her time in the American West—and in Estes Park—in a series of notes to her younger sister Henrietta, was an international bestseller that let her spend the rest of her life exploring and reporting.

Between then and her death in 1904, she traveled to and wrote about the people, cultures, and mysteries of countries spanning from India and Tibet to Kurdistan and Turkey.

Overcoming poor health and the restrictions of a male-dominated society, Bird traveled extensively into her old age. She visited America, Hawaii, India, Kurdistan, the Persian Gulf, Iran, Tibet, Malaysia, Korea, Japan, and China.

These travels were full of danger and wonder. Bird climbed mountains and volcanoes. She saw palaces and slums. She made great friendships with the people she met but occasionally attacked and chased. An accomplished rider, she rode thousands of miles on horseback – and even a few miles on an elephant.

Bird recorded these adventures in her famous books. Her letters to Henrietta and John Murray IV are eloquent, insightful, detailed, and long. One written from the Malay Peninsula is a remarkable 116 pages long. Her later works were beautifully illustrated with her photographs of the landscapes, buildings, and people she encountered.

Isabella Bird Bishop’s Korean passport c.1894

Traveling in different countries often required Bird Bishop to have various passports and official travel documents. These were particularly necessary for Korea, where there was a lot of civil unrest when Isabella traveled there.

Korean passport 1894

Source: The John Murray Archive, National Library of Scotland

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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...