In this new series of articles, Tom Topol—passport expert, collector, and author of Let Pass or Die—chronicles the fascinating history of the U.S. Passport. The series began by describing the earliest origins of the U.S. passport. Next you will learn about key milestones in the continuing evolution of the document, including an unusual passport issued by President George Washington, and the first passport found in the records of the passport division.
Milestones of the U.S. Passport
The U.S. passport system continued to evolve through the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, marked by various significant events. Here are some of the most notable milestones in the history of U.S. passports:
- On the ninth day of January 1793: A momentous event occurred in the annals of United States history. President George Washington, in an unprecedented act of generosity and hospitality, issued a passport to an alien for use within the confines of the nation. This singular document was bestowed upon none other than the renowned French balloonist, Jean Pierre Blanchard, and was granted in recognition of his historic feat of making the first free balloon ascent in the United States, which took place in the city of Philadelphia.
- Fast forward to July 8, 1796: Another significant event in the history of passports was recorded. It was on this date that the first passport was found in the archives of the Passport Division, marking a pivotal moment in the history of travel documentation. The passport was presented on a printed form and there is reason to believe that similar documents were being issued by the department since the inception of the government. The records reveal that the passports issued by the legations in Paris and London were limited in duration, ranging from three months to a year, with a few being granted for an indefinite period.This early passport serves as a testament to the importance placed on the regulation and management of travel and immigration, even in the fledgling years of the United States. It is a fascinating glimpse into the rich history of this important document and the role it continues to play in the lives of individuals and nations.
- In the year 1811: A milestone was achieved in the evolution of the passport as a document of travel and identification. For the first time, a passport was issued in Washington, D.C., known to bear a comprehensive description of the bearer, affixed with the signature of James Monroe. This marked a significant departure from earlier iterations of the passport, which were often limited in scope and detail.
U.S. Passport 1814, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, signed by Governor Caleb Strong
The format of the passport underwent several transformations over the years, but the 1811 issue represented a major turning point. It was presented in paragraph form,
with blank spaces provided after each of the descriptive categories, allowing for a more thorough and nuanced account of the individual. This was a crucial step forward in ensuring the security and authenticity of travel documents.As the years progressed, the ornate embellishments on passports became increasingly elaborate. By the 1810s, a small representation of the United States coat of arms was added as the first ornamentation to appear on passports issued in the country, further elevating its status as a symbol of national identity.
- In 1818: The production of all credentials and certificates, including passports, was assigned to the responsibility of a junior clerk. Despite this, the issuance of passports remained a relatively infrequent occurrence, with fewer than one hundred being issued each year. Nevertheless, this was a time of growth and development for the passport, as it gradually evolved into the sophisticated and secure document we know today.
Up next: In the next article in this series, you’ll learn about the first special passport, the introduction of physical descriptions, and defining a passport policy.
The American Passport – Its History 1898, Washington Government Printing Office
The United States passport: past, present, future 1976 –US Dept. of State – Passport Office
The Passport In America – The history of a document, Craig Robertson, Oxford University Press Inc., 2010
U.S. Diplomacy & Passport History – A guideline for passport collectors by Tom Topol
Tom Topol is a renowned passport expert, author, and editor of passport-collector.com . He consults with museums, foundations, media, and collectors globally, offering expertise on passport history, current passport topics, border security, biometrics, and travel. He provides expert writing services and can be reached through his website, which features a comprehensive reference list.