Archive for May, 2020

May 4, 2020

History of the U.S. Passport


It’s a document millions of U.S. travelers carry with them on every international trip. But have you ever looked closely at this ubiquitous little blue booklet? Every page of the U.S. passport has been carefully designed, and the document itself has a rich history that traces the development of international travel and who has—or has not—had access to it. Here’s how the U.S. passport has evolved since its inception.

The first U.S. passports arrive  

When passports were first issued in the U.S. in the late 1700s, they looked almost nothing like the official booklets we carry today, and they were only given to a select few citizens. “The most famous early U.S. passports were issued by Benjamin Franklin when he was U.S. representative in France in the late 1780s,” says Craig Robertson, author of The Passport in America. These early versions were more like reference letters than a mode of identification. “They were letters of introduction that verify the character of the person bearing them.”

Only U.S. officials or prominent citizens—practically all of whom were men—had access to passports during this time period, and while they were indeed called passports, they weren’t considered a form of identification. They didn’t even have photos or list physical traits. “There was no perceived need to try to link the document to the person,” Robertson says. “Because again the assumption is these are fine standing gentlemen—and they were all gentlemen [during this era]—moving within particular social or political circles. Their word is accepted as true and honest.”


By the late 1800s, U.S. passports were becoming more mainstream, but they were still considered more of a travel perk for the holder than a requirement to cross borders. Few people were traveling abroad, and when they did, such documents were not required to cross another country’s border, unless the nation was engaged in war.

“People who are getting them, they might be taking them to present in European cities when they register at a hotel, but often they’re using them to get into private museums,” Robertson says. “If you’re abroad for a while, and you’re staying in Paris for say, three months, [passports were] being used to collect mail from post offices. Generally speaking, it wasn’t a travel document.”

It was in the wake of the First World War that passports became the official government documents we know today. “Suddenly what happens is European countries want to know who’s crossing their borders,” Robertson says. And the U.S. follows suit, requiring passports with a photo in late 1914.

“In the beginning, there were no rules on what a passport photo should look like,” writesTom Topol, a vintage passport collector and blogger. “So, you can find the most exciting photos from this time.” Some examples he’s found of colorful early passport photos include portraits of people sitting on a horse, posing with their dog, or playing the guitar.

The application fee for a passport was $1, but in 1920 that charge was hiked to $10, a change that most people saw as “outrageous,” according to Robertson. Visa fees around the world were also raised in kind around the world to $10. “This made European travel expensive—particularly for those people of lesser means,” Robertson explains. A century later, and applying for a passport still isn’t cheap—$110 for a new booklet, plus an extra $35 execution fee—restricting who is able to access the document once again.

In 1926, as travel abroad on steamer ships became easier and more popular for those who could afford it, passport photos became more regulated, and the modern booklet with pages for stamps was introduced by the U.S. government. That standard passport format was established by the League of Nations at a conference in 1920, when the majority of the world’s countries agreed to require passports and set uniform guidelines for the document.

The battle against gender bias

Although passports had become mainstream by the ‘20s, different sects of society still had difficulties obtaining their own. Married women, for example, were largely seen as a footnote on their husbands’ passports, where they were simply listed as “and wife,”—often no name was even given. “The assumption here is that no woman would travel alone; that no woman would travel unchaperoned,” Robertson says of that era. Single women were legally able to request their own passports, although few did in that time period. A married woman could request an individual passport and be issued one using her married name (i.e. “Mrs. John Doe”), but using her maiden name was not allowed. Women of the era—some of whom had just fought for and won the right to vote—bristled under this requirement.

“The passport becomes another vehicle to try and push for a recognition that a woman is a woman and even a married woman is not just her husband’s appendage,” Robertson says. “And so a way to do that is to say, ‘Not only do we want passports issued to women individually, but also if a woman uses her birth name or maiden name in everyday life, then she should be allowed to use that on her passport.’”

Gender, Robertson notes, was not listed on passports until 1977, for example. “Why in 1977? The U.S. is prodded into it by the body that governs international aviation,” he says. “The concern is that fashion has created androgyny, so that it’s hard to differentiate between men and women because men now have long hair.”

In fact, the gender binary is the most recent social idea surrounding identity to be confronted on the U.S. passport. Since 2010, transgender citizens have been able to apply for a passport reflecting the current by submitting a physician’s certification that they have had clinical treatment for gender reassignment.

Congress introduced a bill in February that would recognize a third, unspecified gender option on U.S passports that would be marked with an “X” instead of an “M” or “F”—an option that is already recognized by the International Civil Aviation Organization, the United Nations’ air regulation arm.

Security tightens – The modern U.S. passport has stayed more or less the same since the 1930s, but one significant change in recent years: a 2007 redesign to the interior pages depicting American landscapes, historic images, and quotes from prominent citizens.  This was done to make it harder to copy or forge the passport

The future of the passport –  There are still innovations happening to the passport today. The most notable? Biometrics.  In recent years, many nations have started to link facial recognition, digital fingerprints, and retina scans to the document via microchip or machine-readable identification page.

Source- Jessica Puckett May 1,2020

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