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The Passport: The History Of Man's Most Travelled Document

by Patsy Baudoin

Editor's note: We are pleased to feature a book essay reviewing "The Passport: The History of Man's Most Travelled Document. To purchase Martin Lloyd's book, see here.

One can't steal what isn't there. Modern-day identity theft would not be possible without the proliferation of documents and records (passports, ID cards, credit cards, etc.) that bear standard, replicable sorts of information about us. Described as a means of enabling safe and unobstructed passage in earlier times, or easing our ability to move about for work and leisure today, the passport has always also been a technology to manage our mobility, a means of tracking the flow of individuals across borders internationally as well as within countries, and a tool of state control. Current discussions of the Real ID in the United States raise questions of privacy versus security and of individual rights versus a defensible polis—and make The Passport a topical work.

Martin Lloyd elegantly narrates a scattered and restless story that resists linear telling: the history of the passport is made up of many rivulets emerging from societies all over the world and taking different courses. The passport and its precursors evolved in countries whose boundaries shifted with war and other territorial redesigns, and The Passport takes us back to its earliest incarnations in Egypt and the Roman Empire. Until recently, passports took the form of letters of introduction, military leave passes that urged easy, unobstructed passage, sometimes commending their bearers to far-away hosts. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, indeed well into the eighteenth century, agendas for issuing passports varied depending on the needs of the traveler as well as the issuer's whim and power. Many individuals, whether endowed with authority or wealth (e.g., kings, lords, landowners), issued laissez-passer of their own definition and design. Granting free passage was easy, but travelers always ran the risk that their grantor's authority might not be recognized at any point in their travels. Lloyd attends to the types of passports that emerged with different purposes in mind: a country at war resisted allowing its nationals (e.g., British "subjects") to leave its soil; passports were more readily issued to improve commerce, for example, in times of peace. Passports early on were typically issued to ships or garrisons and, only later, to individuals. Passports have been issued by states to their subjects or by the very states where the traveler wishes to move freely. Lloyd provides abundant examples of these themes.

But just as passports document our identities and our nationalities, they also record our travels across borders (in some instances, within borders). As a record of our identities, nationalities, and travel, passports function both practically and symbolically. One of the delights of Lloyd's treatment of passports is the effective use he makes of tales of forgery and fakery, an approach that yields layers of irony at the heart of using falsified documents. In that vein, we learn, for example, that Queen Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI were traveling as the maid and valet of a certain Baroness de Korff, as they sought to escape the wrath of the French people, trying to reach the Austrian Netherlands' border. They might have met a different fate had the king not (in a moment of carelessness or uncontrollable curiosity?) poked his head out of his carriage. A retired soldier, recognized the king and chased the royal cortege on horseback to Varennes, near the border, where this story of identity theft and attempted escape ended. Unfortunately left untold is the part of the story that created havoc at Varennes—and that interests the student of records and documents—how does one recognize a passport as authentic and valid if what it must contain is unknown, erratic, or idiosyncratic? There were few standards at the end of the eighteenth century; and, in this case, the king's obligatory signature was, rightly and ironically, deemed insufficient proof of authenticity. What else might have warranted positive authentication?

Since that time, we recognize a pattern in the emergence of the issuance of passports as both symbolic and symptomatic of newly independent nations. Lloyd offers a story: in designing the passport that the first United States legation in Paris (established in 1777) would issue, Benjamin Franklin, then the minister plenipotentiary in France, resorted to imitating the existing French passport and "printed [passports] upon his own press at his house in Passy, Paris" (p. 72). Early U.S. passports resembled contemporaneous ones. They were printed on single sheets of paper large enough (some 12 inches by 18 inches) to have to be folded, and they bore engravings and "descriptions of their holders and a stated duration of validity, usually three or six months" (p. 71). Newly independent African countries in the 1960s rushed to design and issue passports, as did long-standing nations that had previously had no use for them; Japan began issuing passports with the advent of the Meiji Restoration (1868), enabling travelers to venture more easily in and out of its doors.

The passport as a travel technology grew apace of the industrial revolution into its modern incarnation during the nineteenth century. The West's imperial trade goals meant a surge of both business and leisure travel, resulting in sharp increases in the numbers of passports issued. By the 1880s, the visa, too, in its contemporary guise as permission for foreign nationals to travel within the authorizing country, , had emerged in the United Kingdom. Attention to the passport and its attendant technologies—authenticity markings and stamps, photographs, embossings and watermarks, security papers and covers, and so on—generated evermore refinements in the manufacture of passports.

By World War I, the history of the passport becomes the story of how to keep the document as tamper-proof as possible—how to protect its authenticity as recording identity, nationality, and mobility. As Lloyd's account makes clear, getting to this point in the history of the passport is a jumble of idiosyncratic moves. Following World War I, however, in an anxious and unsettled era, it becomes much clearer that cooperation among nations, at least at the administrative level, was necessary for a passport system to work effectively and efficiently. In 1920, the League of Nations' Provisional Committee on Communications and Transit convened an International Conference on Passports, Customs Formalities and Through Tickets precisely to resume controlled travel and set the world back on a course of economic recovery. A far-reaching resolution emerged from this conference: signatories "should agree on a uniform style of passport issued to identical standards" (p. 121). The international passport's characteristics were, as Lloyd's page-long description begins, "that it should contain thirty-two pages, all numbered. It should be in at least two languages—the national language and French. Its size should be 15.5cm by 10.5cm. It should be bound in cardboard…" And the fully redesigned passports would replace existing passports within some eight months, by July 1921. Countries accepted these standards with varying degrees of goodwill or adverse nationalism. Even today standardization is hardly the norm, strictly speaking, nor are countries any more willing to readily give up the nationalism embodied in their passports' design—witness the amount of negotiation, dissent, and cajoling around the European Union's common passport.

Still, for the system of passports (including tourist and working visas, identity cards, diplomatic passports, etc.) to work internationally, the passport needed to be made inviolable—and, with time, more and more refinements engineered to forestall forgeries and fakes were introduced: color photographs (United States, 1958), perforated passport covers (United States, 1961), and digital photographs (Japan, 1992). With each of these new debates material and symbolic costs and risks must be weighed. Unfortunately, Lloyd does not address these debates in detail.

In December 2004, for example, the European Union called for regulating standards for security features and biometrics in its passports. In May 2005 in the United States, there were three versions of Bill H.R. 418 (The Real ID Act) before the 109th Congress that may ultimately introduce to Americans the most technologically advanced national identity card yet devised. With a greater urgency since 9/11, technological enhancements are redefining the passport's look and feel. Embedding biological information, retinal scans, DNA, fingerprints, and so on will selectively and carefully be introduced in varying ways by different countries, but these technologies, as they make information at once available to machines but invisible to the human eye, threaten to be used to track the movement of their bearers in both predictable and unforeseen ways.

Chapter headings such as "Murder at the Opera," "Without Let or Hindrance?" and "Flog the Peasants Again" betray this book's whimsy and style—and its narrator's pleasure in sharing the surprises buried in the anecdotal details. But The Passport will not satisfy readers seeking a tightly chronological or geographical treatment, and it contains no categorization or taxonomy of types of passports or passport-granting conditions and policies. The Passport is not about policies, international relations, or immigration, although all of these topics and many others are suggestively sprinkled throughout Lloyd's rich tales. His Passport does not reveal the stakes that have always mattered to those who, for whatever reasons, were not entitled to passports; nor does it speculate on the future of the passport after 11 September 2001. For a greater sense of the historical and current impact of the passport on politics and society, readers will need to turn to works such as John C. Torpey's The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State (2000) or even the U.S. Passport's Office own outdated, but valuable, publication, The United States Passport: Past, Present, Future (1976).

Certainly, however, archivists will not fail to recognize in Lloyd's meandering story of the passport how much his professional knowledge (according to the book's back flap "he spent 23 years in H.M. Immigration Service") is infused with a collector's sort of fondness for artifactual detail and a passion for sharing his knowledge. Lloyd takes leave of his reader with a single-sentence paragraph that begins with "and," as if fondly quieting another telling tale: "And despite and because of all their qualities and faults, you know… I rather like passports."

This excerpt originally appeared as "The Passport: The History of Man's Most Travelled Document," by Patsy Baudoin, _American Archivist_ (Vol. 68, No.2, Fall/Winter 2005).


About The Author

Patsy Baudoin is an Adjunct Faculty member of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College, Boston, MA.


The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.


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