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  • Paul Stara

The Passport: Humankind’s Most Traveled Book


Photo by Paul Stara

“It’s there somewhere,” I said, nonchalantly. “I think page 23.” The Turkish border agent and I chuckled as the fluorescent tube light flickered wildly overhead. I had just spent $30 cash on a 90-day tourist visa, which I needed in order to enter Turkey. The guy at the visa desk was kind enough to put it in the most obscure location within my U.S. passport.


After lots of flipping and a couple of questions, I finally heard the classic metallic sound of the entry stamp. I wished the border guard a good evening and was on my way. As my friends and I hopped into a taxi headed for our hostel, I began thinking about the intricacies and historical background of that little blue book. I started wondering how passports went from something kings would use to allow messengers into foreign lands without a declaration of war to what has become an international travel necessity—and humankind’s most traveled book. As it turns out, passports, specifically the U.S. passport, encompass much more than what meets the eye.


The year was 1779, and the American Revolution is in full swing. Individuals within the colonies begin to approach colonial consular officials for passports in order to travel and solicit help from European states. Benjamin Franklin, the current minister to France, decides to base the design of the first American passport after that of the French passport. Much unlike the biometric technological masterpieces of today, early passports had no photographs and were much more of a recommendation letter on your behalf from a senior government official than a piece of identification.


These early passports were nothing more than a single piece of paper listing the holder’s name, occupation, reason for travel, height, and facial features. They were often signed by a consular official, and in later years featured a raised seal. It was very low-tech, but then again everything else was low-tech too. According to the earliest records of the United States Department of State, between the years 1810 and 1873, about 130,360 passports were issued.

Early U.S Passport. (Photo from The Indiana State Library)

A notable piece of passport legislation comes with the Passport Act of 1926. Until this point, individual states within the Union had the capability to print passports. Americans traveling abroad ran into several instances where border authorities would not accept a state-issued passport unless it was endorsed by the Secretary of State. This 1926 act gave the sole authority to the Department of State, thereby eliminating the problem.


The word, “holder,” is used very intentionally. It turns out that “We The People” gives a lot of power to the executive branch and federal agencies in determining our travel whereabouts. Contrary to popular belief, your passport is not “your” passport. Federal law stipulates that all U.S. passports are government property, and must be surrendered to any border official on demand. Additionally, according to the Travel Control Act of 1918, the current president has the capability to ban or restrict travel to certain countries during times of war. For example, to maintain U.S. neutrality in the early years of World War II, Secretary of State Cordell Hull restricted all European travel without special approval.


Furthermore, as confirmed in the 1981 Supreme Court case Haig v. Agee, it is totally within the jurisdiction of the Department of State to deny a passport application for reasons of national security or foreign policy. The historical basis here was an application denial of Representative Leo Isaacson, who in 1948 wanted to travel to Paris to observe a meeting of the American Council for a Democratic Greece, which was a well-known communist front organization.


The actual law mandating passports for citizens exiting and entering the United States is actually fairly recent. Until the onslaught of U.S. involvement in World War II, it was only during the American Civil War, World War I, and World War II that the U.S. government required passports for entry and exit. A 1978 amendment to the Citizenship and Immigration Act of 1952 formally mandated that all citizens present a passport when entering or exiting the country even in peacetime.


Passport standardization is also fairly recent. It was only in 1980 that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) set forth the physical measurements and size guidelines for every passport booklet in the world. There had been previous attempts at accomplishing this, however, including a 1920 meeting of the League of Nations regarding passport booklets used for train travel, and a 1963 United Nations meeting on travel and tourism.


The world of passport history is far too vast for one newspaper article. The next time you are waiting in line at customs, take a moment and think about the historical background that made your passport your most essential travel tool.

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