U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Age Ought to be a Fact”: Intellectual History in the Bureaucratic Trenches

Today’s guest post arrives courtesy of Susan J. Pearson, associate professor of history at Northwestern University. In the context of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, she studies the cultural politics of reform, rights discourse, the development of American liberalism, the history of childhood, and the history of human-animal relations. Pearson’s first book, The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America (University of Chicago Press, 2011), examined the institutional and cultural linkages between animal and child protection organizations. It earned Pearson the OAH’s 2012 Merle Curti Award in Intellectual History.

In 1900, approximately only fifty percent of births in the United States were registered. And most of these births were in the Northeast; babies born in the south or west were much more likely than not to have their births go unregistered. But by 1950, this percentage had increased to 97.8%. Among other things, this tremendous increase in birth registration meant that when asked to verify her nationality, race, age, parentage, birth status (legitimate or illegitimate), in 1950 a person would very likely be able to present a birth certificate as unassailable proof of these facts of identity. The story of how birth registration became universal and compulsory is the subject of my current book project, and a piece of that story is the subject of an article I recently published in the Journal of American History. That article, entitled “Age Ought to be a Fact,” argues that the enforcement of child labor law played an important role not only in spreading the practice of birth registration, but also in transforming the birth certificate into the epistemological foundation of individual identity in the United States. In what follows, I would like to reflect on how research into the administrative processes and bureaucratic procedures of labor law led me to think of my project as an intellectual history.

The Standard Certificate of Birth created by the U.S. Census Bureau for use by the states. Source: Cressy L. Wilbur, The Federal Registration Service (Washington, D.C.: G.P.O., 1916)

The Standard Certificate of Birth created by the U.S. Census Bureau for use by the states. Source: Cressy L. Wilbur, The Federal Registration Service (Washington, D.C.: G.P.O., 1916)

In 1916, the United States Congress passed the Keating-Owen Act, the first federal law to regulate child labor. The law forbade interstate commerce in products manufactured by children under the age of fourteen in factories or by children under sixteen in mines or quarries. As the law went into effect on September 1, 1917, the staff of the United States Children’s Bureau – who were tasked with enforcing the law – faced an administrative crisis that had epistemological roots. “Age ought to be a fact,” wrote one bureau official, “but as vital statistics have not been kept in a large part of the United States, much time must be spend in the search for proof of age, and in many instances unimpeachable evidence can not be obtained.” As the staff of the bureau quickly learned, it was one thing to pass a law that made access to the labor market dependent on precise, chronological age; but it was another thing entirely to discern the actual age of an individual.

The problem was one of knowledge. The enforcement provisions of the Keating-Owen act specified that children must present “documentary” proof of age in order to obtain an employment certificate. When bureau agents fanned out into states to issue the federal employment certificates that would entitle young people to legally work, they encountered a dizzying array of evidence. lined up and presented baptismal certificates, family bibles, passports from foreign countries, immigration records, insurance policies, and school attendance records. But who could say whether a given document was a trustworthy source of information? Was a church record real or fraudulent? Sometimes, complained one Children’s Bureau agent, baptismal records “are on official paper and sometimes they are not.” Family bibles were even more unreliable. Bureau agents told stories of being presented with Bibles with pages cut out, dates erased and rewritten, or with entries written where “the ink was hardly dry.” Obvious fraud aside, officials simply had no way of determining if Bible records were honest and reliable. There was too often, one agent wrote, “no internal evidence whatever” to guide an agent’s decision about whether or not a particular Bible was reliable. The lack of unreliable information was an administrative problemit made it difficult to determine the ages of persons who were subject to an age-specific legal boundarybut that administrative problem was rooted in epistemology.

In contrast to unstable and possibly unreliable of proofs of age that families volunteered to Children’s Bureau field agents stood the birth certificate, which bureau officials considered a gold standard. Though 1917, only states registered more than 90% of births (and this would not have necessarily included those of the children of working age), child labor reformers wrote both state and federal laws that privileged the birth certificate. Unlike family bibles, baptismal registrations, or school records, birth certificates were considered prima facie proof of the facts they contained and required, by law, no corroboration. Reformers prized birth certificates because the documents were, they believed, disinterested, created by agencies outside a child’s family and, just as important, because they recorded and presented information uniformly, making the knowledge they contained stable and easy to authenticate. Ostensibly marking singular individuality and unique identity, birth certificates also became mechanisms for managing populations as faceless masses. “The public birth record,” wrote the Children’s Bureau in 1916, “affords absolutely unimpeachable and uniform proof. There can be no falsification why may defraud the child of years of school, and the official record of one State is accepted, or course, in all others.”

By privileging birth certificates as proof of age above all the other kinds of age documents that families brought forward, officials of the Children’s Bureau were solving an administrative problem. Uniform documents made the law easier to enforce and, ostensibly, this made the law more just and more effective. But they were also effecting an epistemological transformation by specifying the proper sources and precise forms that made information into knowledge.

We do not ordinarily think of reformers such as those who filled the ranks of the early twentieth century Children’s Bureau as intellectuals; nor do we usually consider forms such as the birth certificate as tools of transformation in the production of knowledge. But as Daniel Wickberg, has written, “every historical document of whatever form instantiates ideas,” and “every document is a source for intellectual history.”

This is true even for the most quotidian of documents. Though historians have long used state and ecclesiastical documents (such as birth, death, and marriage certificates, censuses, and passports) as sources of information about populations and individuals, they have too often viewed them as transparent windows onto the past. Recently, however, Kathryn Burns has argued that we need to “look at our archives, not just through them”—to interrogate the production and meaning of documents, to recover the logics and concrete practices that lie behind them, and to consider the critical role that such information-gathering played in statecraft.

Deep in the bureaucratic trenches, deep in discussions of how to process applications for employment certificates and enforce the administrative provisions of labor laws, important assumption and discussions about how knowledge is made and transmitted. The form that most of us use to prove we are who we arethe birth certificateis a testament to that.