"Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons." - Woody Allen
Question #92731 posted on 10/27/2019 11:45 p.m.

Dear 100 Hour
What did people use for ID before picture ID's like driver's licenses?

Lost in space


Dear Lost in the Sauce,

Fun genealogical fact! After the Civil War when all of the slaves were freed, there was something called The Freedman's Bank. This bank was used for safekeeping their money. You can log into Ancestry and there's a digital collection called, "U.S., Freedman's Bank Records, 1865-1871" to see what the records looked like. Since picture IDs weren't a thing back then, they asked basic questions about their family and themselves when someone was opening an account.

Things that they asked included:

  • Name of depositor
  • Date of application/deposit
  • Name of employer
  • Name of plantation
  • Age
  • Height
  • Complexion
  • Name of father and/or mother
  • Whether married/Spouses name
  • Place of birth
  • Residence
  • Occupation
  • Names of children
  • Names of brothers and sisters (source)
When someone wanted to access their bank account, the banker would then ask these same security questions and the individual would prove his/her identity. 

This is a great tool for someone who has slavery heritage as these entries might give information on their family and which plantation they lived at. Since siblings could be mentioned, one can build families and seal them together (as long as you're actually related to them). Sometime they even list deceased family members which also helps. 

I found this history website where someone asked a similar question as yourself. A man asked what types of identification were used before drivers licenses, and I agree with the top response that birth certificates and social security cards were used to help prove who you are. But as a genealogist, I knew that sometimes birth certificates (in the U.S. at least) didn't exist until the early 1900s. It really depended on where you lived and if the county had started making birth certificates. (So if you're doing family history and you're getting frustrated that you can't find a birth date for your ancestor, you should check to see if the birth certificates were even made back then.)

But before birth certificates were established, people used others as witnesses for identification. People living centuries ago needed witnesses to get married, witnesses to validate your will, witnesses to confirm who you are so you can collect on your war pension money from the government, etc. For example: My 3rd great grandfather pretty much lied and said that he got injured in the Civil War and wanted money, but he had a really bad reputation and the witnesses invalidated his claim (and they were telling the truth). Therefore, his pension was denied and he received nada. Therefore, it was important to have a good standing with your community in case they needed to vouch for you!

I also found two additional Reddit questions that go a little more in depth here and here.

Thanks for letting me commandeer your question and changing it into a genealogy question!

-Goldie Rose