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6 Things You May Not Know About the Passport

By Craig Robertson


1) The passport in its modern form is a product of World War I.  During the war most countries introduced emergency passport requirements that became permanent in the 1920s under the guidance of the League of Nations. Prior to World War I in the absence of required passports and visas immigration and government officials along the U.S. border used people’s physical appearance to determine if they were entitled to enter the country. Inspectors were confident they knew what an “American” looked liked, along with their ability to “recognize” non-citizens who where banned such as prostitutes, imbeciles, and those too sick to work.

2) Middle-class and the more well-to-do resisted the implementation of passport requirements creating what was labeled the “passport nuisance” in the 1920s. With little experience of the need to prove identity through documents the passport became the site where people objected to perceived affront of a government not trusting its citizens. Identity documents were for people who could not be trusted such as criminals and the insane. They were not for people who simply wanted to travel.

3) The federal government did not claim universal birth registration until 1930; in the early 1940s the Census Bureau estimated that 40% of the population did not have a birth certificate. This example of the limited administrative reach of the federal government hindered attempts to create a rigorous application process for the passport.

4) Prior to the 14th Amendment free African Americans used passport applications to support their citizenship claims. These applications for optional passports exploited the tension between federal and state citizenship and inconsistencies in State Department passport policy.

5) The State Department frequently used the passport promote good behavior and to discourage behavior that could be considered inappropriate especially in regard to the family: in an era of optional passports the State Department encouraged the issuance of one passport for married couple or an entire household in the name of the husband; in the late 1880s the State Department refused to issue passports to Mormons traveling abroad on the grounds they were assumed to be recruiting people for polygamy; in the early 1920s the State Department fought with some success a demand that married women be able to get passports issued in their maiden names.

6) From 1928 until 1977 two women ran the Passport Division, both of who were ultimately forced out of their positions. Appointed in 1928, Ruth Shipley the first woman to head a division in the State Department became notorious, publicly represented as “Ma Shipley” the individual who read and decided on all passport applications. For opponents Shipley’s Passport Division was “government by a woman, rather than by law.” She was removed when her refusals, often done without recording reasons in files, became part of   controversy over the denial of passports to suspected communists in the early 1950s. She was replaced in 1953 by Francis Knight who quickly earned the title “the J. Edgar Hoover of the State Department” but oversaw passports for a quarter of a century before being removed.

Craig Robertson is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University. His new book, The Passport in America: The History of A Document, examines how “proof of identity” became so crucial in America. Through addressing questions of identification and surveillance, the history of the passport is revealed.

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