Most of us have had to endure the grueling experience of getting a passport photo taken. All those rules and regulations, and despite your best efforts, the unflattering product resembles something more akin to a mugshot. This ritual of depersonalization hasn’t always been the case. The history of the American passport photo is a lot more interesting than you might expect.
The Jacksonville Historical Society has an incredible collection of passport photos, mysteriously housed in a repurposed bench docket for the circuit court of Ocala. These photos represent a pivotal moment in the history of photo identification, and what they tell us is fascinating.
Photo identification has been around for more than a century, but there were hardly any rules back then. An individual was simply asked to submit a photo, no questions asked. In 1876, at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, a photographic ticket was adopted to address admission concerns, but it would still take some time before it became standard practice. Before photos were added, passports simply listed the distinguishing features of the passport holder. Probably not the most accurate way of confirming that the correct individual was standing in front of you.
In the earliest days, there was no real standardization for the process, and applicants were able to submit photos of themselves in groups, dressed however they liked, or engaging in their favorite pastimes. Oftentimes they were photos that they already had to avoid the fee associated with having a new photograph taken. Another reason a group photo was used is that married women were traditionally listed alongside their husbands and did not have passports of their own. Sometimes they were only listed as “wife” and the woman had to be accompanied by her husband in order to use the document. This practice continued as late as the 1930s.
In the 1920s, things changed dramatically and the rules became a lot more rigid with the adoption of a universal individual passport. With strict changes made to immigration laws, steamship companies found themselves shifting their focus and targeting the middle and upper class in hopes of promoting European travel. Society was slow to embrace it.
Among affluent, white Americans, these documents were perceived as being recorded as a suspicious person. Not everyone was pleased about being reduced to that standard. They were accustomed to being taken at their word, and they felt that they shouldn’t have to prove who they were to the authorities as they travelled. This was before any real documentary infrastructure was in place, such as driver’s licenses or social security numbers, and it took some adjusting. These days, it’s nearly impossible to avoid showing identification for one reason or another. Times have certainly changed.