From Pirates to Passports: A Timeless Commitment to Service

From May 2019 – July 2019, the United States Diplomacy Center is hosting the Bureau of Consular Affairs exhibit, “From Pirates to Passports: A Timeless Commitment to Service.” On May 28th, Secretary Mike Pompeo spoke in the Diplomacy Center at the opening of an exhibit by the Bureau of Consular Affairs. He highlighted that the exhibition “tells the story of our timeless commitment to serving the American people. Consular Affairs’ mission spans across the globe and the centuries, dating from before the signing of the U.S. Constitution down to today.”

This exhibit celebrates the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Bureau of Consular Affairs and the long history of consular service to the American people.  The exhibition, includes photos, stories, and historical artifacts showcasing the evolution of consular affairs from its inception to its global presence today. Later this year, a digital version of the exhibit with expanded interactive content will be available to the public.

On display are the stories of consuls from the earliest days of the republic to the present, and of the citizens they helped, including in crisis.  U.S. passports trace the transformation of the iconic document from a written memo requesting safe passage to the state-of-the-art, secure passport book produced today.  Similarly, the exhibit follows the evolution of visa regulations over centuries to adapt to an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

Specific artifacts within the exhibition include passports of famous persons; a logbook from U.S. Consulate General Marseille documenting the consulate’s passport services to hundreds of U.S. citizens, including Gertrude Stein and Varian Fry, fleeing Nazi-controlled Europe during World War II; and historic “tools of the trade” used to produce visas, including a visa machine, visa plates, and wax seals. (Source: Bureau of Consular Affairs Press Unit)

From Pirates to Passports: A Timeless Commitment to Service
Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State and Carl. C. Risch, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs looking at some of the passports provided by me for the Consular Affairs exhibition “From Pirates to Passports” in Washington, D.C.

For me, it was a fantastic experience to be part of this event by assisting the exhibition with my knowledge and pictures from my collection. I am looking very much forward to seeing the upcoming online exhibition. And, not often, you get a Thank-you letter from the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs. Much appreciated!

The United States Diplomacy Center tells the story of the history, practice, and challenges of American diplomacy. Through exhibitions and programs, we inspire the American public to discover diplomacy and how it impacts their lives every day. The United States Diplomacy Center is a museum at the U.S. Department of State currently under development. The glass pavilion at the 21st Street entrance to the Department is the beginning of what will become a dynamic space fully open to the public with permanent and guest exhibitions and education programs. The museum is scheduled to be fully accessible in 2022. Our preview exhibit opens this November.

Tom, you have been a great partner for the State Department team all through the preparation of this exhibit. I wish you could have attended the reception! Stay tuned for the online version of the exhibit.
-Karin Lang, Director, Bureau of Consular Affairs, US State Dept-

I also had the chance to visit the United States Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, to meet with Consul General Timothy Scherer and Aja Stefanon (ACS). We had a brief discussion about the consular service and passport history. I told the story of William Palfrey. In early consular service days, becoming a Consul could be quite dangerous. William Palfrey was lost at sea on his way to post. So, on October 2, 1781, Thomas Barclay of Pennsylvania was appointed Consul to France and sent instead. No American consuls began their service until 1781. Aja Stefanon gave me a brief look into the passport processing at the embassy from the customers’ perspective. All very interesting. A big -Thank You- to Karin, who made all this possible!

Allyson Berri from the Diplomatic Courier made another great article on the exhibition.











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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...