Passports: From Paper to High-Tech Booklet by Tom Topol

 Passports High-tech booklet commodity
Hi, my name is Tom Topol, and I have been a passport history expert and author for almost 20 years. My frequent business trips in a global biotech position benefited from traveling the world. In Kyoto, Japan, I found and bought my first old passport. A beautiful travel document from the 1930s Japanese Empire shows a young Japanese girl in her Kimono. Since then, passport history, research, and collecting old passports have become my passion. Today, I own a collection of about 700 old travel documents; the oldest is from 1646.

The word passport was not in existence before the 15th century and originated from the French word, “Passeport” = passer (to pass) a (sea)port.

Identification papers until the 14th century were a privilege; only from the 15th century did passports become somehow obligatory. For the first time, issued to soldiers, especially mercenaries who had returned from war and for whom such a document served as a letter of dismissal.

A Letter of Recommendation

Who was traveling, e.g., in the 16th century? Before tourism (traveling for pleasure, without a real purpose) was common, only the powerful and determined would take to the roads and seas – at least until 1841, when Thomas Cook invented package tourism.

A typical 16th-century passport was a handwritten document on paper, issued by a local lord, administration, or a senior military officer. The primary purpose of the passport was not to identify the bearer but to act as a ‘letter of recommendation,’ a safe conduct to support the traveler on their journey when entering or crossing foreign soil. Issuing passports was not an exclusive right of the state either in the 16th century. Passports High-tech booklet commodity

Once an assistant had written up a ‘passport,’ his master would sign and seal the document. The signature and wax seal served as a sign of the issuer’s authority and as a security measure to avoid falsification. As passports had a purely functional character back then, more detailed descriptions of the bearers got added to the early modern passport, which initially was no more than a sealed certificate for a person named by name. Physical characteristics such as size, hair, skin tone, conspicuous scars, or moles migrated from early passports to modern versions.

But this was only true for the poor; wealthy and high-ranking travelers in Europe were exempt from describing their bodies and registering their ‘special characteristics.’ Their passports contained only names, and the fewer personal details they included, the more effective they were. In his memoirs in the 18th century, Casanova wrote, “a passport gained one respect abroad.”

Abolition Of Passports

Most liberal countries in Western and Central Europe abolished a passport for foreign travel in the last third of the 19th century. Due to the nostalgic idea of traveling across Europe without visas and identity papers. In 1888, English and French railway companies promoted the luxurious journey on the Orient Express from London to Constantinople. There was no need to change trains or present a passport, and wealthy people specifically – first-class passengers, were exempt from passport requirements and compulsory checks.

At the end of the 19th century, something that came up was the vital link between passport and nationality. From the 17th until well into the 19th century, many people traveled with passports issued by their destination country and not by their country of origin: Any official document was proof of identity. By 1914 however, passport and citizenship were closely linked. The passport was thus not only a certificate of identity but also a certificate of affiliation.

Passport Design in History Passports High-tech booklet commodity

Until the end of the 19th century, no one was seriously thinking about the design of passports. A passport had a purely functional character. However, as the function of passports changed, new requirements emerged regarding durability, security, and standardization, which all affected passport design.

Passport booklets as we know them today are only in existence for roughly 150 years.
Passport photos have been in use only since 1915.


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Passports High-tech booklet commodity