About the Author: Priscilla Linn is the Curator at the U.S. Diplomacy Center.
Forget your walking shoes when you travel abroad and you might get blisters, but forget your passport and you’ll be walking back the way you came. Passports are the most widely accepted travel document in the world today. Everyone flying in or out of the United States must have a passport or other acceptable document. In less than a year, on June 1, 2009, most Americans will need a passport, passport card, or other document for international travel by land and sea, as well.
The United States Diplomacy Center, as befitting a collection of diplomatica (artifacts related to the practice of diplomacy), counts a number of passports in its holdings. Our collection shows how the U.S. passport has changed to reflect government size and organization, population growth, new technologies and concerns with security, among other influences. Two styles reflect the passport’s evolution into single-sheet and booklet formats in the early 20th Century.
Up to the end of World War I in 1917, American travel abroad was relatively light. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing then produced passports on single sheets of heavy paper about 12 by 18 inches in size. Identifying details concerning the owner accompanied diplomatic language requesting safe passage. In 1918, passports became internationally mandatory.
As the volume of American travelers abroad increased, the Passport Office began pasting a large sheet of paper inside a small protective book cover, but this hybrid attempt to improve handling met with little success. Even the U.S. government’s definitive history of the passport states of this first experiment, “…it was still bulky and inconvenient to carry.” The passport on the left in the figure above is a copy of this hybrid format. The photo is of Italian-born Emma Cavicchioli and her two children, Mafalda and Dino.
Only in 1926 did passports become the small booklet we know today, printed on safety paper that resisted water, light and most liquid chemicals. Further security measures over the years incorporated gluing pages to the cover as well as resizing, printing and marking pages to deter fraudulent transfer to other documents.
An all over background design on the pages increased security, as did special knotting in the binding, designed to deter disassembly. In contrast to the earlier folded passport, the passport on the right in the figure above includes the stamped words “CANCELLED,” and the cut-off corners make it clear that the passport had been used and was altered to make it impossible to mistake it for a valid document.
This passport on the right belonged to Lucy Barnard, who married Ellis O. Briggs in 1928. Her diplomatic passport took her to Lima, Peru, where her husband was a diplomat. He spent the next nine years in Peru and went on to serve eight ambassadorships. Her passports would identify her as “the wife of” the ambassador on assignment.
Technological advances have improved the design and construction of today’s passports, but passports themselves still serve the same purpose that they did in the days of Emma Cavicchioli and Lucy Barnard. They verify one’s identify and nationality and allow one to enter or leave countries around the globe. They keep you on the go!
Though passports and international travel rules may change, America’s consular officers remain committed to the safety and security of U.S. citizens traveling abroad. We encourage U.S. citizens who will be traveling abroad to apply for or renew their passports well before the June 1, 2009, deadline! American citizens may apply for a passport at one of over 9,400 passport acceptance facilities located throughout the United States.