Passports Were Once Considered Offensive - Perhaps They Still Are

A passport is one of the most powerful documents you can possess. It is also one of the more socially and politically contentious.

The little leather-bound booklets serve to identify us, but they do so in stark, non-nuanced ways that don't tell the full story of who we are—or may even distort it. They enable mobility but also restrict it, using something as arbitrary as nationality as the determining factor.

Our relationship with passports has always been complicated. For centuries prior to the introduction of the modern passport during World War I, travel documents were generally simple letters of introduction granting special access to society’s elite. They were required of some places, but not others. For a long time, up until the second half of the 19th century, it was legal for a person of any country to go to the French or Belgian consulate and obtain one of their passports for travel. It was a loosely regulated, seemingly arbitrary system.

By the early 20th century, however, the modern passport was introduced—and soon came to be seen as a document that placed the trustworthiness of an individual in doubt. During World War I, in response to fears about the wrong people crossing the wrong borders, new travel document requirements were introduced to ramp up security and control emigration. This caused consternation among the public. The British became particularly offended when, in 1914, passports demanded written details about their appearance, and soon after, a photograph. These oversimplifications of identity made travelers feel as though they were being treated like criminals, complete with descriptions or mug shots. It was front page news when, in 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilsonneeded to have a passport created so that he could travel to Versailles.

Earlier versions of the passports required that their bearer describe personal features such as height, forehead, and nose (most people listed “average”; a few listed “Roman”). In one case, a man described his face as “intelligent,” only to discover that officials had replaced the adjective with “oval.” This clinical self-categorization was considered a challenge to traditional notions of respectability and privacy. The passport rendered things like reputation irrelevant, deeply unsettling those accustomed to automatic access and privilege. Vocal opponents declared that the passport’s existence implied that the government didn’t trust them, and that the state was taking control over personal identity. The line between identity and identification started to grow blurry....more