Ruth Bielaski Shipley – US Passport Office

Ruth Bielaski Shipley (April 20, 1885 – November 3, 1966) was head of the Passport Division of the United States Department of State for 27 years from 1928 to 1955.

Ruth Shipley
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She became head of the Passport Division in 1928, the first woman to hold the position, after twice declining the appointment. She succeeded foreign service officer Parker Wilson Buhrman and initially headed a staff of more than 70.

In 1930, she was a member of the United States delegation to the Hague Conference on the codification of international law.

In 1933, she led a successful campaign over the objections of some at the State Department, to prevent a magazine’s advertising campaign from using the word “passport” to identify its promotional literature. She believed it “cheapened…the high plane to which a passport had been raised.”

In 1937, she altered the Passport Division’s policies and began issuing passports in a married woman’s maiden name alone if she requested it, no longer followed by the phrase “wife of.” She noted that the passports of married men never carried “husband of” as further identification.

Government policy concerning passport issuance changed radically with the course of international relations during her tenure. The Neutrality Act of 1939 restricted travel by American citizens to certain areas and forbade transport on the ships of nations involved in hostilities. Shipley reviewed every application personally, and the number of passports issued fell from 75,000 monthly in 1930 to 2,000. She also oversaw the issuance of new passports to all citizens abroad and the incorporation of new anti-counterfeiting measures into their design. Ruth Bielaski Shipley

According to a 1939 newspaper profile of Shipley, she had the authority “to comply with or to deny applicants, and in the main tends to grant as many as possible under the legal restrictions. When a complex case arises, however, she admits it to a board of advisers who constitute a supreme court of arbitration on the matter.”  In 1945 Fortune called her “redoubtable,” and in 1951 Time described her as “the most invulnerable, most unfirable, most feared and most admired career woman in Government.” That same year Reader’s Digest wrote that: “No American can go abroad without her authorization. She decides whether the applicant is entitled to a passport and also whether he would be a hazard to Uncle Sam’s security or create prejudice against the United States by unbecoming conduct.”

Her authority was widely acknowledged and rarely challenged with success. Decisions of the Passport Division were not subject to judicial review during her years of service, and her administration was described as “limitless discretion.” Bill Donovan of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) first tried to win favor with Shipley by hiring her brother. When she nevertheless insisted on identifying OSS agents by noting “on Official Business” on their passports, Donovan had to get President Roosevelt to reverse her. Her efforts to deny travel privileges to the children of U.S. diplomats were similarly overridden in the years following World War II.

In 1942, she was criticized for issuing a passport to a Polish-American Catholic priest who visited Joseph Stalin to plead for a democratic post-war Poland. President Roosevelt defended her. By the end of World War II, her staff numbered more than 200.

Because of her role in issuing passports, many vital figures corresponded with and met with her to document their reasons for travel abroad, including W. E. B. Du Bois, playwright Lillian Hellman, and Manhattan project physicist Martin David Kamen.

In the 1950s she became the object of controversy when critics accused her of denying passports without due process by politics, while critics defended her actions as attempts to support the fight against Communism. Senator Wayne Morse called her decisions “tyrannical and capricious” for failure to disclose the reasons for the denial of passport applications. Her supporters included Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Senator Pat McCarran.

In September 1952, Secretary of State Dean Acheson called his relations with Shipley’s “Queendom of Passports” “a hard struggle” and said that passport, travel and visa issues were “the most distasteful part of this job.” In 1953, she refused Linus Pauling a passport for travel to accept the Nobel Prize in Chemistry because, using the standard language of her office, it “would not be in the best interests of the United States,” but was overruled.

Upon her retirement, an editorial in the New York Times attributed her reputation for “arbitrary” decision to the fact that she had to enforce newly restrictive government policies. Despite the conflict between individual freedom and government policies, it said, “there was never any doubt that Mrs. Shipley did her duty as she saw it.”

She retired on April 30, 1955, when she reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. She said that she chose her successor, Frances G. Knight, herself. The State Department awarded her its Distinguished Service Medal upon retirement.

The American Jewish League Against Communism, one of whose officers was Roy Cohn, gave her an award for “a lifetime of service to the American people.”

She died in Washington, D.C., on November 3, 1966. She is buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Her brother A. Bruce Bielaski worked for the Bureau of Investigation, later the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in the Department of Justice during World War I.

Ruth Bielaski Shipley

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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...