Read The Passport in America: The History of a Document Online

Authors: Craig Robertson

Tags: #Law, #Emigration & Immigration, #Legal History

The Passport in America: The History of a Document (8 page)

BOOK: The Passport in America: The History of a Document
11.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The increased use of identification documents, and the novelty of required passports that came with it, is apparent not only in the concern over ongoing
passport fraud but also in the Passport Division’s sensitivity to any attempt to replicate the U.S. passport. The official awareness of the importance of the relationship between the image of a document and its authority is highlighted in the attempt of Ruth Shipley, the head of the Passport Division, to prevent the use of passport images in advertising in the late 1920s. Shipley proved to be surprisingly successful in this campaign, considering that no federal law prohibited the reproduction of the passport, in part or whole, for nonfraudulent use.
“Offenders” used the image of a passport in print advertisements and window displays. Shipley was particularly concerned when replicas of the passport cover, introduced with the 1926 version, began to appear on the cover of booklets or folders. This commonly occurred as a cover for booklets designed to contain affidavits or other official documents issued by law firms or financial institutions. However, a 1933
advertising campaign based around a replica of the entire passport created more than the usual degree of concern (
figure 1.9
Described by a State Department special agent as “the most daring we have yet seen,” and rather less dramatically by the assistant secretary of state as “an ingenious bit of advertising,”
the mass-mailing campaign used an envelope with the word “Passport” on the outside, and a document resembling a U.S. passport labeled “Passport to the World of News.”
This “passport” contained a “description of the bearer”—”I am News-Week the most comprehensive, yet lowest prices of all news-magazines”—and subsequent pages headed “Visas” that contained information about the content of the magazine (
figure 1.10
). In response to letters from Shipley and a visit from a State Department special agent, the publishers removed the word “passport” from the envelope and agreed to change the color of its passport from the red used by the State Department, but they did not stop the campaign.
Shipley’s comments, endorsed by some letters from confused members of the public, stressed that the word “passport” had only one meaning, and that was the government-issued document.

The use of “passports” in advertising, particularly in an indiscriminate mailing, “cheapened… the high plane to which a passport had been raised.”
The assistant secretary of state did not agree, suggesting to Shipley “to call attention to the fact that this Department looks with disapproval upon the preparation of booklets simulating an American passport might possibly do more harm than good.”
The implication that people recognized a clear distinction between the two documents suggests an excessive sensitivity on the part of Shipley in her interpretation of the passport and the sole authority her division possessed to issue them. There is definitely a touch of fastidiousness in the expression of Shipley’s concerns; however, the attempt to establish

Figure 1.9. A “passport” used in a 1933 News-Week advertising campaign (National Archives, College Park, MD).

Figure 1.10. The “description of the bearer” from a “passport” used in a 1933 News-Week advertising campaign (National Archives, College Park, MD).

the legitimacy of the U.S. passport depended on the explicit articulation of its authority and authenticity. The Passport Division’s monopoly on the production of passports had only recently been challenged in any significant way through fraud. Therefore, only in the 1920s were attempts first made to secure its authority through a more rigorous standardization in the production of the passport. The articulation of standardization, centralization, authority, and authenticity was not limited to the appearance of the passport. It is also the context for the contested application of identification technologies to the passport, the subject of the remaining chapters in the first part of this book.


In 1885 an attorney wrote to the State Department arguing his client should not need to get a new naturalization certificate issued to support his passport application. The department had rejected the application because the name on the naturalization certificate was spelled differently than the name on the application and other accompanying documents. The attorney argued that “there are so many ways of spelling names that this mistake can easily occur, each one thinks his way is the proper one, the Clerk thinks John Schaffer is right I think John Schaffeur [?] is right and still others may have their way of spelling this name and all believe they are right.”
Irrespective of his motivation, the attorney’s argument for discounting the misspelling of his client’s name on a naturalization certificate is only plausible in an environment in which a person’s written name is not standardized and where an individual is not identified consistently in and through documents. John S__ apparently lived in a world where his documented interactions with a distant centralized authority were so limited that a consistent representation of his name was not seen as a necessary nor even acceptable requirement. In this localized world confusion over identity could presumably be resolved through face-to-face interaction; the recording of legal transactions or events on documents could still potentially be trumped by extratextual knowledge. A person was known and recognized through the dependability of his or her presence and appearance. Consistent with such identification practices, John S__’s attorney tried to use his local knowledge as evidence to support the passport application. He stated that he was present in the courtroom at
the time of his client’s naturalization. Apparently he believed his presence further verified that the man applying for a passport was the person named in both the naturalization certificate and the application; no doubt as an attorney he believed his professional standing heightened the authority of his individual presence at such an event. While there is no record of a response to this letter, it is doubtful either of these arguments brought the attorney or his client any success.

In the relatively unusual context of interactions with a distant authority such as the federal government, “correct” spelling was fundamental to the bureaucratic standardization that increasingly structured such contact. In official identification this became the belief that to “know” and subsequently “recognize” its citizens the government of the United States needed to fix or stabilize an identity. While a personal name composed of a first or baptismal name and a family name was an established custom in the United States, the bureaucratic demand for consistent spelling to assist in the articulation of identity and information was less accepted. In contrast to the belief that “there are many ways to spell a name” that all have legitimacy, the novel importance of the accurate recording of a personal name for the reliable identification that the passport promised is evident in a revised set of instructions the State Department issued to passport applicants in 1873. These instructions included a new requirement that “the signature to the application and oath of allegiance should conform in orthography to that in the naturalization paper.” The ongoing need for such a directive is evident in the above letter, which arrived in the department twelve years after this instruction appeared.

That the State Department had to issue such an instruction in the last quarter of the nineteenth century may seem odd nowadays when the obvious necessity of the personal name for daily social interactions tends to naturalize its function as an identification technology. However, the successful legal stabilization of personal names is a relatively recent process that occurred in parts of Europe contemporaneously with the development of the passport in the United States.
The customary stabilization of a personal name as first name and inherited surname is older; while in Western Europe a second name began to be added from about the eleventh century the process by which this developed is difficult to reconstruct. Heritable patronymic surnames were more visible in Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but they were adopted unevenly in reaction to developments in economic and property law, the increased use of documents, and changes in the composition of
The earliest official recordings of names in Europe tended to be confessional records kept by individual parishes. By the High Middle Ages the collection of lists of names of delinquents and other criminals had become common, especially in Italian city-states, but neither municipal nor ecclesiastical registers had firmly institutionalized practices—and both subsequently had to deal with the ever-changing ways of spelling late medieval and early modern names.
In France the initial attempt at legal and state intervention occurred at the end of the eighteenth century. This was preceded by the emergence of the baptismal register as the normal legal means of recording identity in the mid-seventeenth century and centuries before that by the customary stabilization of the personal name tied in large part to the power of the family. While the stabilization of the name followed different legal paths in Germany than in France, it did so as part of the ongoing development of registration and identity cards. In contrast, in England the personal name was understood to be a matter of common law, not the domain of written law. Therefore, while there were various legal procedures available to people to change their names, they were not necessary to confer a new name—they merely authenticated the change. This English tradition carried over to the United States, where the legal stabilization of the personal name developed not through specific laws but by way of customs and uses, and through the doctrines implicit in court decisions based on them. The small size and scope of the federal government relative to those of European states also produced a context in which the administrative reach of the federal government remained limited regardless of any official desire to more fully know the population. Therefore, in the United States the stabilization of surnames came later than in most European states. According to one expert on naming this only occurred in any substantive way during the second decade of the twentieth century because of income taxes, the draft and ration books during World War I, and in the 1920s and 1930s as car registration, drivers licenses, life insurance, Social Security, and private pension plans increased the number of occasions when names were publicly recorded.
Naming, therefore, needs to be understood as a culturally and historically specific practice. This affects the nature of the move from the customary stabilization to the legal immutability of names.

BOOK: The Passport in America: The History of a Document
11.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Tracker by Reece, Jordan
Alicia's Folly by C A Vincent
The Watchers Out of Time by H.P. Lovecraft
Clash of Empires by Brian Falkner
The Ride of Her Life by Lorna Seilstad
Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas