It’s likely stashed in a filing cabinet along with other important documents or tucked in a safety deposit box, a testament to the significance of what might otherwise be mistaken for a simple piece of paper. But people didn’t always need birth certificates, or even a record of their own birth—and the history of birth certificates is much shorter than you might think.
Births and deaths were documented in church records, not government ones. And early attempts in America to get the government involved in recording births stalled. In 1632, Virginia’s General Assembly passed a law that required all ministers to keep track of christenings, marriages and burials, but the practice died almost immediately because it was so foreign to church officials. Massachusetts passed a 1639 law requiring towns to do the same thing, but records remained patchy and inaccurate.
Part of the reason was the messy process of childbirth itself:
Women birthed children at home or in friends’ houses, and many did not survive infancy or childhood. If a child did not live to be baptized, was enslaved or moved from place to place, its birth might not be recorded at all—or its memory might live on only in a family Bible or its mother’s memory.
But during the Progressive Era
Reformers decided it was time for a change. Their interest in all kinds of data—especially facts and figures about births and deaths—arose during the height of European immigration to the United States. Thirty million Europeans poured into the country between 1815 and 1915, and urban areas struggled to keep up with the influx. They crowded into tenements and poor neighborhoods, straining the few resources cities had.
Many of them affluent women, set to work tackling the “immigrant problem.” They hoped that by counting and characterizing the people who lived in cities, they could illustrate the extent of the problem and figure out ways to tackle it. Statistics, they thought, could also illustrate more modern ways to solve public health problems and optimize city life.
And so the Progressive craze for counting began
Reformers made maps of ethnicities, lists of the unemployed. But when it came to public health, they lacked data. They began to pressure the U.S. Bureau of the Census to register all births.
The Day You Were Born Song
The Day You Were Born Song
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