Q & A with Craig Robertson on The Passport in America

Craig Robertson, by Christopher Klein at the Boston Globe

The assumption behind the system set up after World War I was that you needed an identity document. Of course, this is a time when very few people had driver’s licenses, so the birth certificate was the key document. The US didn’t achieve universal birth registration until 1933, however, and in 1942 the Census Bureau estimated that 40 percent of Americans still lacked birth certificates. So the State Department required those without birth certificates to get sworn statements from one of three people who was deemed to have been able to witness the birth: the mother, a doctor, or a midwife. And if none of those three were available, a friend who was a US citizen had to vouch for your citizenship. So you were no longer seen as a reliable source of your own identity. You needed someone else to verify it.

United States Passport for Fred Soper, 1920 (via National Library of Medicine)
United States Passport for American epidemiologist, Fred Soper, 1920 (via National Library of Medicine)