The Surprising Story of How the Passport Came to Be
Let's talk about every traveler’s most prized possession. No, not your Away Luggage or your subscription to Scott’s Cheap Flights. I’m talking about your passport.
The magical little book that gives you access to over 180 countries, and proudly identifies you as an American. Before COVID-19, the American passport was considered one of the strongest in the world. (Come on folks, let’s get our status back.)
Today, many of us have bruised and battered - but beloved - passports full of stamps, memories, and dreams. Having a passport is such a normal part of our lives that it’s hard to imagine life without them. As it turns out, passports weren't always such a prized possession. Until recently, the majority of Americans had either never heard of one, or had no interest in one.
Before we talk about why someone wouldn't want a passport (hard to imagine, I know!), it's important to understand a little bit of history. The modern passport as we know it has only been around for a century or so. But, the concept goes back to Biblical times.
From Safe Conduct Letters to Passports
The earliest record of a passport-like system occurs around 450 BC in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah is sent to rebuild Jerusalem, and King Artaxeres I of Persia provides a letter granting his safe passage through the Kingdom of Judea.
We see something similar in the Chinese Han Dynasty where, in 206 BC, foreigners are required to present official documents before moving across neighboring territories.
And, in medieval times, the Islamic Caliphate issued bara’a to those who’d paid their taxes, permitting them to travel within the region.
Jump ahead to King Henry V, and this idea of a “safe passage letter” shows up again in Britain in 1414. By 1540, the term “passport” made its way into the vernacular, though the origins of the word are still somewhat contested. (French, English, who can say?)
The United States entered the passport scene in 1780 with the O.G. inventor, Benjamin Franklin. Using his own printing press, Franklin drafted a letter requesting safe passage between France and Holland for Congressman Francis Dana. The single-page letter, signed and sealed by Franklin himself, served as the basis of the US passport until 1926.
A New Means of Control
Until the Industrial Revolution, passports were largely considered formalities; gentlemen’s agreements designed to convey status and approval. Countries had little need for accounting for people moving throughout their territories. More often than not, passports were used to gain access to private museums, or garner invitations to society events. Possessing one demonstrated your favor within society, and as such, were largely indicators of wealth and prominence. For most people, having a passport simply wasn’t necessary.
As people began immigrating, however, governments saw passports as a way to identify and, to some extent, control just who was crossing their borders. By the mid 1800s, most of Western Europe had some sort of government-sanctioned passport office. In 1856, the US Congress granted the State Department with the sole power for issuing passports. However, demand remained small, with only a few hundred issued each year.
All of that changed during World War I, however, as fears about security and foreign infiltration gave way to the desire for even closer control. Historically, passports had always included some sort of physical description, but now photographs were required. Passports had to be applied for in person. The US passed emergency measures requiring a passport for anyone entering the country, and those measures remain in place to this day.
In 1920, the League of Nations began developing standardized passport guidelines, and our now-familiar passport booklet came onto the scene in 1926. While it has undergone a few changes, most would agree our current passport has changed little since the late 1930s. And, it still includes a nod to Franklin’s version, with the message,
The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.
As much as we cherish our passports now, that wasn’t always the case. Initial reactions were extremely controversial. Concerns about dehumanization arose, with people balking at being reduced to a single physical description and impersonal serial number. Applying for a passport was an arduous, and often confusing, process.
Many citizens felt that passports eroded trust between them and their government. Newspapers were filled with editorials about the idea that the government would force upstanding citizens to be documented in the same way as criminals. (Those unflattering mug-shot photos probably didn’t help.)
Inequity was a problem, as women were included on their husbands’ passports, and limited to traveling only with a man. Men, of course, had no such restrictions.
A Symbol of American National Identity
On the flip side, passports also served as a sort of equalizer. For the first time, America’s national identity was something other than white, upper class, Protestant. Blacks could get passports. Immigrants could get passports. For many, the very idea of what it meant to be an American was challenged.
Because of that, passports became empowering. Many experienced a new sense of belonging, no longer a stranger in a strange land. With a passport, people had a home. Somewhere to return, and protection should they need it. Even today, the US passport is our only national identity.
In 1990, only 4% of Americans had a passport. Now, over 40% of us do.
We are a country made up of immigrants, people with the courage to follow their dreams halfway around the world in search of something different. We may not be the same race, creed, gender, or station, but we have that in common. Travel is in our heritage.
So next time you pull out that passport, take a moment and thank all those brave explorers who paved the way for that next stamp. We owe it to them.