Agnes Schneider – From Clerk to US Consul

“From Pirates to Passports: A Timeless Commitment to Service” was an exhibition at the U.S. Diplomacy Center in Washington D.C. in May 2019, in which I assisted with some passports and received a recognition award for my contribution from the U.S. Department of State during a meeting with Consul-General Timothy Scheerer at the embassy in Bangkok. Agnes Schneider US Consul

Since then, I have had several interactions with consular officers on history projects. Recently, Lindsay Henderson, a consular officer, and founding member of the Consular Affairs History Project, contacted me again for assistance on a specific consul she was researching. A name I had never heard before, but after doing some queries, it was clear that this name stood for a vivid and exceptional story.

Anges “Spider” Schneider

Lindsay was researching and unfolding a story of an extraordinary woman of her time and during her service for the state department. Agnes Schneider served as the consul for passport services in Paris from October 1944 until her retirement in 1960.

She was highly known throughout the expatriate community in France, hosting frequent salons at her house at Paris’ Hôtel de Crillon for everyone who was anyone (among her visitors were General Dwight Eisenhower and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor).

Ms. Schneider gained notoriety for using a flimsy pretext to summon Americans she suspected of harboring communist inclinations to the consular division of the American Embassy in Paris, where she seized their passports. She also had a critical perception of anyone wanting to renounce their American citizenship, and as a result, she was named in several lawsuits at the time. She was known as Spider Schneider throughout the neighborhood. Behaved in a manner reminiscent of the notorious Passport Office Director Frances Knight, a close ally of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), who ensured that people at home with alleged communist affiliations would not acquire a passport at all. Agnes Schneider US Consul

Even if we would find Agnes Schneider’s acts repulsive now, her background is far more nuanced than one might anticipate. Agnes was a talented soprano soloist who was sent to Berlin at the age of 17 to prepare for the opera. She was raised in the little Pennsylvanian town of Shamokin as the fifth of eight children in her parents’ colossal boarding house. The wealthy Israel family adopted her in Berlin, patrons of the arts and proprietors of one of the city’s largest and oldest department shops, who nurtured her as a family member for the rest of her life.

She accepted a job at Embassy Berlin as a clerk in the consular section after the start of World War I put an end to her opera dreams, and she worked there for the majority of the following two decades. She was one of the last Americans employed at the embassy when the United States entered World War II. She remained there until the Nazis detained her and other American diplomats, interning them in Bad Nauheim. She remained in custody until they were traded for German prisoners in May 1942.

Ms. Schneider did not travel to New York with the rest of her colleagues; instead, she sailed for London, where she started working at the American embassy and reconnected with the Israel family. The family had moved to London after their eldest son, Wilfrid Israel (an Albert Einstein friend), organized and assisted in funding the Kindertransport, which transported German Jewish children to the U.K. from 1938–1940. Wilfrid Israel was developing strategies to save Jewish children in Vichy France when his plane was tragically shot down in March 1943 off the coast of Portugal. Agnes Schneider was the last person he was known to have spoken to in London the evening before his final departure. Agnes Schneider US Consul

Although not yet found any evidence, it seems possible that Ms. Schneider played a part in aiding the Kindertransport attempt, given their close relationship. Additionally, according to her obituary, she assisted other Jewish families in leaving Germany. Research has shown that she was pretty human, and her legacy is far more nuanced than the nickname “Spider Schneider” from 1950s Paris would imply.

Agnes Schneider US Consul
US passport 1953, Paris issued by Agnes Schneider
FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...