United States Pilgrimage Passport

On Mar 2, 1929, President Calvin Coolidge signed P.L. 70-952. That law authorized the War Department to arrange trips with a United States Pilgrimage passport, by the mothers and widows to the overseas graves of soldiers, sailors, and Marines who died between April 5, 1917, and July 21, 1921. Congress later expanded eligibility to include the mothers and widows of men buried at seas or whose place of burial was unknown. Rare U.S. Pilgrimage Passport

After World War I, more than 30,000 American dead from that conflict remained overseas, buried in U.S. cemeteries. The law’s passage resulted from the work of the mothers and widows (The “American Gold Star Mothers,” founded in 1928 by Grace Darling Seibold of Washington.) of those servicemen and their supporters. They pushed for the Pilgrimage to the gravesites at government expense. International travel was not as every day as it is now, and the cost of such travel was beyond the means of the families of many of the dead. Rare U.S. Pilgrimage Passport

The War Department prepared and submitted to Congress a list of the mothers and widows it identified as falling under the provisions of the law. The report was arranged by state and thereunder by county. In addition to the name of the mother or widow, the list indicates the relationship to the deceased service member, the name of the decedent along with rank and service organization, the cemetery, and an indication of whether the mother or widow desired to make a pilgrimage in 1930 or later. The House of Representatives published the report as an official House Document. Rare U.S. Pilgrimage Passport

Travel outside the United States requires a passport. To facilitate travel by the mothers and widows, the Department of State established the “Special Pilgrimage Passport.” Those documents were valid only during the mother or widow’s trip. The Department charged no fee for those passports. The resulting travels took place between 1930 and 1933. This Pilgrimage is also known as the “WWI Gold Stars Mothers Pilgrimage.”

Rare US Pilgrimage Passport
Special Pilgrimage Passport for American citizens

Since the Department of State issued passports only to American citizens and numerous mothers and widows did not hold that status, the Department established the particular “Pilgrimage Travel Document” for use by those women who owed allegiance to the U.S. The Department charged no fee for the travel documents.

The War Department asked the Department of State to collect information on the racial background of the travelers. The War Department wanted to know if the women were “of the Caucasian, Oriental, African, etc. races.” This was done to “obviate the possibility of embarrassment and confusion because of placing persons of different races together.” This segregationist move led to later controversy and some actions by the African American community to boycott the pilgrimages. Rare U.S. Pilgrimage Passport

Rare US Pilgrimage Passport
Pilgrimage Travel Document for non-Americans

The Department of State sent the pilgrimage passports and travel documents to the War Department, which delivered them to the travelers. At the end of the trip, the War Department collected the documents for transmission to the Department of State for cancellation. The Department of State also facilitated contacts with the governments of the countries visited on such matters as securing the necessary visas and the formal ceremonial aspects of the visits. Rare U.S. Pilgrimage Passport

Conclusion: Such Pilgrimage passports are very rare, and the folio-type for non-Americans are even extremely rare, as they must have been returned after the trip. Hence, finding a Pilgrimage passport of any type is a massive challenge for passport collectors.

Issued only for pilgrimages to the European cemeteries “for mothers and widows of members of the military and naval forces of the United States who died in the service at any time between April 5, 1917, and July 1, 1921, and whose remains are now interred in such cemeteries.” Congress later extended eligibility for pilgrimages to mothers and widows of men who died and were buried at sea or who died at sea or overseas and whose places of burial were unknown. The Office of the Quartermaster General determined that 17,389 women were eligible. By October 31, 1933, when the project ended, 6,693 women had made the Pilgrimage. Once the quartermaster decided a woman was qualified, she was sent a questionnaire. Rare U.S. Pilgrimage Passport

Remark: There must have also been special passports with limited validity issued to widows and other close relatives of men who lost their lives in the “D-Day” landings in Normandy during WWII to attend memorial services in Bayeaux, France, in June 1955. However, I have never seen any pictures of such a document.

Stay tuned for a follow-up article of a woman who made the trip in 1930.

I have in my collection a “Vimy Pilgrimage Passport” from Canada, which had the same purpose for Canadians. Those are even rarer as only about 6000 have been issued!

Rare U.S. Pilgrimage Passport

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...