The U.S. Diplomacy Center recently acquired a collection of fascinating historical objects from the Bureau of Consular Affairs, Overseas Citizens Services (CA/OCS). Included in the collection are log books, card boxes, cables, and a seal press which are vivid representations of consular work in the early to mid 20th century. Representing different countries and different decades, the objects remind us that despite technological and political changes over the years the mission of Consular Affairs has remained largely the same: to protect the lives and interests of U.S. citizens abroad and to strengthen the security of United States borders through the vigilant adjudication of visas and passports.
In this collection is a bound book of “Applications for Registration of Native and Naturalized American Citizens” from Ottawa, Canada, used from November 1924 through December 1932. After the publication of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Executive Order 611 of April 8, 1907, consular officers were required to register all American citizens in their respective districts abroad and provide them with a Certificate of Identity and Registration, like this one issued to Alice G. Way in 1925.
Taking a closer look, we see that the issuing officer was a young John Dewey Hickerson, who would later play a role in establishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and serve as ambassador to Finland and the Philippines.
Similarly, this box of Passport and Nationality Registration cards were used at U.S. Embassy Moscow to record local U.S. citizens throughout the 1960s.
Today, Consular Affairs still registers U.S. citizens traveling or living abroad through the STEP website. Registering via STEP allows the Department of State to better assist you in the event of an emergency or with routine information when needed.
The cable pictured above contains a travel warning and was issued on April 4, 1969 for Czechoslovakia – the same month their leader Alexander Dubček was removed from power by his Moscow counterparts. The cable indicates that the political situation at the time was “tense and uncertain” and that tourists “should consider delaying” their trip. U.S. citizens are also “urged to register promptly on arrival.” For many years Travel Warnings were sent via telegram, and disseminated in paper form. Today, much like the registration of U.S. citizens abroad, Travel Warnings are issued on web and mobile platforms.
Consular practice must also adjust to geopolitical changes. This mid-20th century styled seal press stamps an image of the Great Seal of the United States and “U.S. Consulate General Madras.”
After obtaining independence from British imperial rule in 1947, India began the process of renaming their cities. The U.S. Consulate General of Madras altered their equipment accordingly when in 1996 Madras was renamed Chennai.
Consular officers have used different tools over the years in performing the vital function of serving U.S. citizens abroad. As technology continues to advance exponentially in the 21st century, consular work will adjust accordingly, but just as it did throughout the 20th century, the dedication to the mission of Consular Affairs will remain the same.
Thanks to the foresight of our preservation-minded colleagues at these consulates and the Bureau of Consular Affairs, these objects are now part of the larger museum collections of the U.S. Diplomacy Center and will grace future museum exhibits. The USDC collects objects that tell the story of American diplomacy – from its present-day practice and challenges to its storied history. Objects, the “real thing,” are essential in showing how diplomacy is grounded in day-to-day activities performed by real people.