In the United States, before driver's licenses became a nearly universal means of identification (i.e., before autos), what form of identification was routinely used? For example if one was arrested, how did they know who you were (or weren't)? And all the other things we use them for? (A big one being proof of age for drinking, but I assume there were no age limits for drinking back then.)

Obviously, passports were around before 1900, but I would think that most people, even if they did have a passport, wouldn't be carrying one with them all the time as an ID.


After first asking this question, I realized that another form of identification, birth records, have been around for centuries. People use them to trace their family tree. 125 years ago, could you get a certified birth certificate from the county you were born like you can today? I know they are needed to apply for a passport, and can be used to get a marriage license. Anything else? As a means of ID, they are not that useful, since they don't list any physical characteristics except for gender. And obviously you wouldn't be routinely carrying one around with you.

And of course in addition to driver's license, today you have social security numbers (since 1935A) and credit cards (in general use since the late 1950's-early 1960's). Sometimes when one is asked for ID, they are asked for a driver's license and one or two credit cards as a means of identification. Neither of these existed 100 years ago.

  • 6
    There wasn't a whole lot of uses for identification prior to the early 20th century. While there were drinking age limits, in practice it was enforced only by non-legal social mechanisms. For most places in most of history, social means suffice for most idenfitication needs in small communities.
    – Semaphore
    Aug 31, 2015 at 8:51
  • 1
    @Semaphore sounds like a good answer to me :-)
    – IanF1
    Aug 31, 2015 at 12:32
  • 1
    Bear in mind that photography is from not much earlier than the car. There wouldn't have been photo-ids anyway.
    – Carmi
    Sep 1, 2015 at 16:42

2 Answers 2


The United States has traditionally been a free country, not requiring people to carry identifying documents. Even today, there are only some states that have stop and identify statutes requiring people to identify themselves when stopped on "suspicion" or for other non-criminal reasons. Even those states mostly require a person only give their name, not provide actual documentation.

Before recent times (about 1970) people in the United States were mostly known from employment records. When a person was employed a detailed investigation of their identity was generally done. This would involve questioning their "credentials" which might include letters of recommendation and a birth certificate, for example. When this was complete and satisfactory, an employee identification card was issued. Here is an example from 1906:

employee id card

This card would be given to the employee and a copy would be kept by the company with their full record. For reputable companies often it would be required that a prospective employee provide multiple references from "known", responsible people essentially vouching for the person. Such documents were important to make sure that the right person was paid. Without them, a fraudster could show up on payday and try to collect someone else's paycheck.

  • I wasn't aware of these. I got my first full-time job in 1969, so I guess I just missed their widespread use.
    – tcrosley
    Aug 31, 2015 at 18:46
  • @Tyler Durden: Until 1970? By employment record? What about Social Security number? Does not it exist since 1935?
    – Alex
    Aug 31, 2015 at 20:47
  • @Alex Social security numbers were not used for identity very much before about 1972, although it was required information for employment, and later for a bank account (not sure what year that was). In any case, the OP is asking about pre-driver's license times, which would be before WW2. Aug 31, 2015 at 21:04

A key identifier (before personal IDs) was the character witness and guarantor -- someone who knew you and vouched for you. It could be done in person, or documented in an affidavit. Many documents, even today, include witnesses, attesting not only that a particular event took place (marriage, death, official acts like wills, etc), but that the parties were indeed who they said they were.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.