Nowa­days, car­rying a pass­port goes hand-​​in-​​hand with trav­eling abroad. But it wasn’t always that way. Craig Robertson, an assis­tant pro­fessor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, explores how the modern pass­port came to be in his new book, The Pass­port in America: The His­tory of a Doc­u­ment. Robertson high­lights the passport’s emer­gence as an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion doc­u­ment — in essence, how a piece of paper came to be accepted as a reli­able and accu­rate answer to the ques­tion, “Who are you?”

How did the modern pass­port take shape?
Early pass­ports issued by the State Depart­ment worked more as let­ters of intro­duc­tion. Ini­tially, there wasn’t even a descrip­tion of the person. For people who could afford to travel, a pass­port rep­re­sented a status symbol, but they weren’t required in order to cross Amer­ican bor­ders.
The pass­port ulti­mately changed to an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion doc­u­ment, and World War I was the cat­a­lyst. During the war, most coun­tries intro­duced emer­gency pass­port require­ments that became per­ma­nent in the 1920s under the guid­ance of the League of Nations. As a large pop­u­la­tion started to travel again, people encoun­tered this demand for an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion document.

How did the public react?
It was the first time people of a well-​​off class encoun­tered a demand to prove their iden­ti­ties. There was shock that their iden­ti­ties were reduced to things like name, height and weight, and, before the pho­to­graph, people had to describe what their faces looked like. The romantic sense of oneself—the char­acter and personality—just doesn’t trans­late to the basic format of a pass­port.
As a result, there was a move­ment in the 1920s labeled “the pass­port nui­sance.” People were con­cerned about the demand to prove their iden­tity through doc­u­ments. The per­cep­tion was that iden­ti­fi­ca­tion doc­u­ments were for crim­i­nals and the insane, people who could not be trusted — not well-​​to-​​do folk. The appli­ca­tion require­ments were also seen as an inva­sion of privacy.

Today pass­ports are often used as proof of cit­i­zen­ship. Was that always the case?
Until 1856, there was no actual law stating that pass­ports had to be issued to cit­i­zens. In the midst of this uncer­tainty, free African Amer­i­cans applied for pass­ports as part of their demand for cit­i­zen­ship. After 1856, the State Depart­ment occa­sion­ally used pass­ports to define “good cit­i­zen­ship.” In the late 1880s, Mor­mons were not issued pass­ports on the assump­tion they were trav­eling to recruit polyg­a­mists. Until the 1920s, mar­ried cou­ples trav­eling abroad were issued joint pass­ports in the name of the hus­band. In the 1950s, sus­pected com­mu­nist sym­pa­thizers were not issued passports.

Your book covers the passport’s his­tory into the 1940s. But in a post-​​9/​11 world, how do you think the role of the pass­port has changed or will evolve?
Post-​​9/​11, for­eigners are dig­i­tally fin­ger­printed when they enter the country. Unlike addi­tional pass­port require­ments, this was met with resis­tance. People made argu­ments rem­i­nis­cent of the 1920s, like, “I’m not a crim­inal.”
The pass­port con­tinues to be a very impor­tant doc­u­ment for national secu­rity. World War I made it so, and I think the U.S. response to 9/​11 has again empha­sized its sig­nif­i­cance. Both were times of war. What is missing this time is the affront of being asked for an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion doc­u­ment itself. We’re used to that demand now.