Origins of the United States Passport: Part 1

The early years: 1756-1790

In this engaging series of articles, we embark on an illuminating journey through the captivating history of the U.S. Passport. Our exploration commences with an insightful narrative, diving into the inception and early milestones of this emblem of American sovereignty and diplomatic authority.

Origins of the U.S. Passport

The roots of the U.S. passport extend back to the formative days of the American Republic, when the nation was forging its global presence and delineating its foreign policies. At this juncture, the U.S. Department of State was established, tasked with managing foreign affairs and safeguarding the interests of American citizens abroad.

John Jay. Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1794
John Jay. Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1794

It was John Jay, the inaugural Secretary of State, who recognized the necessity for a systematic approach to issuing travel documents. In 1796, the U.S. Passport was born, marking a significant milestone in the nation’s history. Over the ensuing decades, this vital document underwent a transformative journey, gaining ever-increasing importance.

The Passport’s Role in Historical Context

During the tumultuous era of the Civil War, the passport emerged as a pivotal tool in the Union’s efforts to assert its authority on the international stage. As the United States ascended to global prominence during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the passport assumed an even more substantial role, symbolizing American citizenship.

Subsequent decades witnessed the U.S. passport evolving into an indispensable instrument for American citizens traveling abroad. To this day, it remains a linchpin in U.S. diplomacy and foreign affairs.

Through its storied history, the U.S. passport has come to embody quintessential American values – freedom, democracy, and the rule of law – serving as a steadfast emblem of American identity and purpose in an ever-changing world.


Milestones of the U.S. Passport Origins of the United States Passport

The development of the U.S. passport system can be traced through several significant milestones:

  1. Requirement of a Travel Pass (1756): British authorities mandated the use of travel passes for interprovincial movement, a precursor to modern passports.
  2. Issuance of the First Known Passport (1773): One of the earliest known passports, issued under British colonial rule, was penned by Jonathan Trumbull, the Governor of Connecticut.
  3. Role of U.S. Consuls (1777): U.S. consuls abroad began issuing passports as part of their duties following the establishment of the first legation in France.
  4. Responsibilities of the Department of Foreign Affairs (1782): The Continental Congress entrusted the Department of Foreign Affairs with the authority to issue passports in the name of the United States.

These milestones underscore the remarkable evolution of the U.S. passport system, from its rudimentary origins as a means of verifying identity for travel to its current status as a globally recognized document of identity and citizenship.

Further Advancements Origins of the United States Passport

In 1790, a pivotal moment occurred when the first known U.S. passport issued overseas featured a detailed physical description of the bearer, including age and height. This marked the onset of a more comprehensive and standardized approach to passport issuance.

Additionally, in the same year, Congress passed legislation that imposed penalties for the violation of any “safe-conduct or passport duly obtained and issued under the authority of the United States.” This legal protection ensured the recognition and respect of U.S. passports both domestically and abroad.

What's Next
In the upcoming installment of this series, you will explore the intriguing world of an exceptional passport issued by President George Washington and examine the earliest passport records in the annals of the passport division.


– “The American Passport – Its History 1898, Washington Government Printing Office”
– “The United States passport: past, present, future 1976 –U.S. Dept. of State – Passport Office”
– “The Passport In America – The history of a document, Craig Robertson, Oxford University Press Inc., 2010”
– “U.S. Diplomacy & Passport History – A guideline for passport collectors by Tom Topol”

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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...