The passport might be a small booklet, but it has a lengthy back story, as detailed by Craig Robertson, Cambridge resident and Northeastern University associate professor of media and screen studies, in his book “The Passport in America: The History of a Document” (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Q. When were Americans first required to carry passports for foreign travel?
A. There’s a moment in the Civil War when passports are required, but World War I is when the system close to what we have today — where passports are required not only in the US but globally as well — emerges. The passport system was brought in around the world as an emergency measure, and it’s never gone away.
Q. So if they weren’t required for visiting foreign countries, what was the purpose of passports issued by the State Department before World War I?
A. Passports existed from the 1700s on, and they functioned largely as letters of introduction that were usually presented to a US consul or a US ambassador to get you into society, to get you invited to parties, to get you access to museums or private galleries, or to allow you to pick up your mail if it was being sent to a foreign post office. There’s also some element of protection, so you would have this document in case something went awry.
Q. What did early American passports look like?
A. They were single sheets of paper about 12 inches by 18 inches. Stamps or signatures of foreign officials would be placed on the back. It was a really common practice for travelers, when they returned home, to frame their passports and hang them on their walls as souvenirs. They were grand documents with eagles and other ornamentations meant to signify the greatness of the United States.
Q. Nineteenth-century passports actually featured written descriptions of their holders, correct?
A. Yes. Early passports had no descriptions and did not even bear the passport holder’s signature. By 1825, though, there are standardized categories that include facial descriptions — such as eyes, forehead, and nose — and things like complexion, height, and age. Everyone seemed to call their features average, although some people occasionally called their noses Roman if they wanted to convey some status of authority. The sense I got was that the descriptions weren’t particularly useful as a form of identification. People applying for passports were often offended by the need to describe themselves in these clinical, factual ways.
Q. So what was the reaction among the American public when photographs were introduced to passports?
A. The photographs were actually considered even more unflattering than the descriptions. The photos drew instant comparisons to mug shots because they were front-on images. You were forced to stare at the camera. You weren’t allowed to wear a hat or dress up, so the passport photograph was viewed as really different from the portraiture convention of the time, which was almost always done in a three-quarters pose. Even though these photographs were designed to be accurate, they distorted someone’s sense of who they were. Obviously people still have that response today, but it was there from the beginning.
Q. In the days before birth certificates became commonplace, how did the government verify an applicant’s identity?
A. The assumption behind the system set up after World War I was that you needed an identity document. Of course, this is a time when very few people had driver’s licenses, so the birth certificate was the key document. The US didn’t achieve universal birth registration until 1933, however, and in 1942 the Census Bureau estimated that 40 percent of Americans still lacked birth certificates. So the State Department required those without birth certificates to get sworn statements from one of three people who was deemed to have been able to witness the birth: the mother, a doctor, or a midwife. And if none of those three were available, a friend who was a US citizen had to vouch for your citizenship. So you were no longer seen as a reliable source of your own identity. You needed someone else to verify it.
Q. What future changes to the passport do you foresee?
A. My guess is that in about 20 years passports will be cards with biometric data because that is increasingly the way that someone is identified. In fact, 10 percent of passports issued annually now are passport cards, which you can use to cross the Mexican and Canadian borders.
Q. In your research, you probably looked at hundreds of passports. Did you find a single good passport photo?
A. I think it’s fair to say no. Most of them were really unflattering photos of people looking like deer in headlights, clearly very uncomfortable that their photographs were being taken.
Interview was edited and condensed. Christopher Klein can be reached at www.christopherklein.com.