The modern passport traces its origins to Louis XIV, the Sun King, of France (reigned 1641–1715). The King issued letters to his favorites in the court, planning on travelling. These letters requested safe passage for the bearer through the ports, in French “passe port.”
By the start of the nineteenth century, virtually every country in Europe had instituted a passport system. Visas were also required from the countries that were to be visited. The development of the railroad system in Europe by mid-century created such an increase in tourist travelling that the passport system experienced a complete breakdown. France abolished their system in 1861, and others followed suit until most of Europe had abolished their passport requirements by the start of World War I.
Passports were issued in the United States during the Revolutionary War. Consular offices continued to issue passports to travellers throughout the nineteenth century, but they were not required until the start of the Civil War. Before 1862, Canadians, as British subjects, were required to obtain passports for travel in Europe from the Foreign Office in London.
During this period, passports were usually a single sheet of paper, folded. Sometimes it would be folded and embedded into a purse for protection. The document would include a physical description of the bearer along with the letter requesting safe passage.
During World War I, national security issues moved to the forefront and passports and visas were once again required. This continued through about 1920, when in the passport requirements were once again dropped in the U.S. This continued until 1941, when World War II once again brought up national security issues. Passports have been required ever since.
International conferences held in 1920, 1926, and 1947 led to the development of the modern passport. It was suggested that all countries adopt a booklet style passport, with pages for visas as well as entry and departure stamps. Another recommendation was that all passports be written in two languages, one of which was to be French. Many Americans don’t realize that French was considered the international language and used in diplomacy and travel. The legacy remains today, with the international distress call. While Anglos use “Mayday! Mayday!” as the international sign of distress, it is actually “M’aider! M’aider!” which is French for “Help me, Help me!”
Until the twenty-first century, Americans did not need a passport to travel in the Caribbean and Canada. The events of September 11, 2001, however, surfaced national security concerns where passports are now required. Those traveling only to Canada, the Caribbean, and Mexico, however, can obtain a U.S. Passport Card. It is not a full passport, but allows for all but air travel in those areas. Today’s passports now contain biometric information encoded on a computer chip within the passport itself.
Passports can give you a great deal of information. You may find them in libraries and among family papers. Government also kept copies at various times, and you may find those copies in various archives.
It is surprising how few Americans have passports in comparison with the citizens of other countries. In 2011 a map of the U.S. was created showing the percentage of U.S. passport owners by state. Mississippi was the lowest (with 19.86% of residents having a passport). The highest was New Jersey (with 68.36% of residents having one). Saturday, March 9, 2013, is Passport Day in the United States. On that day U.S. citizens can apply for or renew their passport at U.S. passport agencies around the country without the advance appointment that is usually required. For more information, visit the State Department website. For more information on the history of passports, see:
Lloyd, Martin. The Passport: The History of Man’s Most Travelled Document (2nd ed.). (Canterbury: Queen Anne’s Fan, 2008)
Torpey, John C. The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State. Cambridge studies in law and society (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Passport information can be very helpful when we are conducting an ancestry search. However, if you aren’t having any luck with passports, try searching for your ancestors in the Social Security Death Index.