In today's world of constant identification checks, it's difficult to recall that there was ever a time when "proof of identity" was not a part of everyday life. As anyone knows who has ever lost a passport, or let one expire on the eve of international travel, the passport has become an indispensable document. But how and why did this form of identification take on such a crucial role? And how have recent controversies over borders heightened its importance?
Craig Robertson, author of The Passport in America: The History of a Document, traces how this document above all others came to be considered a reliable answer to the question, “Who are you?” Historically, the passport originated as an official letter of introduction addressed to foreign governments on behalf of American travelers. It was not until after World War I that passports were required to cross American borders, and while some people struggled to understand how a passport could accurately identify a person, others took advantage of this new document to advance claims for citizenship.
Robertson discusses how the passport—and travelers’ attitudes toward it—have become entangled in contemporary negotiations over border security, citizenship, and racial and gender identities. He examines how technologies have re-shaped the document, from the signature to the photograph to the 2007 makeover for the U.S. passport, one in which enhanced security features included the introduction of a chip that contains biometric information about the holder.
Robertson is an associate professor in Northeastern University’s program in media and screen studies.
Craig Robertson surveyed the early history of the American passport system for Smithsonian.com, noting that there was opposition to their acceptance by some, based on perceived intrusions into privacy and personal identity.