Incomplete Birth Certificates Create a Bureaucratic Morass in Many Places

I had to smile a bit today when reading an article in the Boston Globe about the “problem” of incomplete birth records. It seems the city of Boston has many birth records from years ago where the baby’s name is simply recorded as “baby girl” or “baby boy.” The reporter wrote, “A generation ago — when more families had six or more children — babies without official first names were surprisingly common. Overwhelmed new parents would leave the hospital without completing birth certificate paperwork.”

You can read more in the article by Andrew Ryan in the Boston Globe at: http://bit.ly/2pedZ7w. The same article tells how to amend a record and add a first name by providing documentation.

Actually, the “problem” is not unique to Boston nor to any particular area of the United States. An experienced genealogist probably can tell you of numerous similar examples. I have seen it many times, especially in the case of my mother and her siblings.

My mother’s birth record at the town clerk’s office in Ashland, Maine, records her first name as “baby girl.” All of her older brothers and sisters were recorded as “baby girl” or “baby boy.” However, the younger siblings (of the 16 children) are recorded with their correct first names. The same is true for many, many other families in the same town, recorded in the same records.

When my mother had to get a Social Security card in later years, it was a minor problem. Since there was no birth record showing her true first name, she had to get affidavits from several people who remembered the event. That wasn’t hard for her since her mother (my grandmother) was still alive at the time and she gladly submitted an affidavit saying that she remembered the event well! Apparently, all of my mother’s older brothers and sisters had to do the same when they applied for Social Security cards.

I have heard a number of different stories about why this practice was common, and some of those stories contradict the other stories. As a result, I don’t know what the truth is except that, after reading the town clerk’s records and the records of other town clerks in the area, I do know it was a common practice in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Northern Maine was not the only area to create birth records with no first names. Boston officials estimated that, in the 1950s, roughly 1 of every 25 birth certificates lacked a first name.

I will disagree with one statement in Andrew Ryan’s article in the Boston Globe: “Overwhelmed new parents would leave the hospital without completing birth certificate paperwork.” In the case of my mother, her siblings, and my grandmother, there was no hospital involved. The nearest hospital was more than 20 miles away, a difficult trip at any time of the year and impossible during the winters in northern Maine, where 3 or 4 feet of snow was common and the (dirt) roads were never plowed in the winter.

My grandmother gave birth to all 16 of her children at home. I suspect some of your ancestors did the same.

My thanks to newsletter reader W. David Samuelsen for telling me about the article in the Boston Globe.

26 Comments

In Boston and New York City in the 1920’s it was common for births to take place in the home, sometimes in the home of a relative. Both my parents, all of my aunts and uncles and all of their cousins born from the mid teens through the mid 1930’s were born at home. My father recalled as a ten year old in 1930 Brooklyn, being sent to fetch the doctor in 1930 when his aunt went into labor prematurely. I wonder if anyone knows when hospital births became the norm?

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    My mother’s parents lived in a small village about 10 miles from Concord NH. My mother’s sister and brother born in 1905 and 1908 were born at home but my mother (born in 1914) were born in a hospital in Concord N H. I never asked her how her mother got to the hospital. The options would have been the train, a neighbor’s car or their horse and wagon. I do know that my mother remembers when they got a car for the first time.

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Traditionally, Jews do not name sons until the circumcision ceremony (the eighth day is the norm). Girls are named in the synagogue which is earlier – often on the Sabbath, but not necessarily.

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I had a schoolmate whose parents had no name for him at birth, so “Boy” was written on his birth certificate. After several months the parents were still undecided about his first name, so they simply solved their problem by adding a “d” to his birth name, and he became “Boyd.”

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My brother was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1940. He died in 1993, and when I looked for his birth certificate in the Birth Certificate Index (1940), he was listed as “Male.” When I sent for his birth certificate (with his death certificate including his full name, attached), I wrote a letter explaining that his name was …….. and asking that the birth certificate please be changed. When I received the birth certificate, it had his correct first and middle names. Thank you, Department of Health, Vital Records, New York City for being sensible and efficient.

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Hi – late in my dad’s life he had a need to get a copy of his birth certificate. His name was Ward Ellsworth (yes I married a man with my dad’s lst name). Anyway on his birth certificate someone put a loop on his name and the state had his name as Warde. I agreed to get it changed because it was important to my dad. I could not believe how many hoops I had to go threw to get this done because my dad was in his 80’s and he outlived all of the rest of his family. Luckily in some of his papers, we found a written statement where his father had stated his full name and date of birth. But what a hassle it was to get his name corrected.

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It was common in the UK for people to get a ‘short form’ certificate, which I believe was free, simply stating that a boy or girl had been​ born at a certain day and a certain place. I didn’t have a full birth certificate until I needed one​ for admission to grammar school.

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Baby surnames and no first names are relatively common in MN records. In doing index searches online, I have to catch them by surname, year of birth (when known), county of birth, and try to guess how the mother’s ‘maiden name’ is listed (surname, first name, misspellings of either, left blank).
After MHS put their birth record index online, I got microfilm copies of original birth info of many family members, wrote to the state historical society that has them, got the index info changed. An aunt-by-marriage, born in 1928 (she had verbally given me her birth info many years ago) was listed in the index under her father’s name. They revised it to the last name, left the first name blank, as it was on the original, altho I also sent them her true name (she’s still alive).
In a separate case, my maternal aunt’s name was misspelled (she had an unusual name), and I wrote to let them know that if they enlarged the image or used a magnifying glass they could see the ending letter was s, not the a the transcriber had. They changed it accordingly.
Two of my dad’s siblings, born in the 19-teens, had names listed on their birth certificates, but each legally changed their names later, and the old listing had a line through the name with the new name and date written above that to indicate the changes and date changed.
All the births noted above took place at home and the forms were filled out by hand, not typed; my father’s mother was a midwife (she helped deliver some of her grandchildren), but on the birth certificates for some of the children she gave birth to, my grandfather is listed as the one who assisted at some of the births – the later births, but not the earliest.
As the years progressed from early to mid-20th century, the forms went from a little 3X5 card to a larger format. Regardless, after finding out some certified copy info I had did not include info on original records (like the cause of death for one of my gr-grandmothers who died in 1896; the original info was in a ledger book, not a card or piece of paper, and not listed on the certified copy), or had added info not on the original forms (the marriage record for a different set of gr-grandparents with a big note that she chose to use her married name, when nothing of the sort was indicated in 1901 records; I got a copy of the original record), I’ve taken to asking for copies of the original records, not certified copies, even if I have to pay certified copy fees. One courthouse out-of-state where I got a marriage record for one of my maternal gr-grandparents, they certified the copy of the original since they’d have to charge me for the certified copy fee anyway. That was acceptable to me!
Getting the birth certificates is worth it as far as I am concerned, even if it’s expensive to get so many because they had large families a hundred years ago. Once the index info was online and I found additional births no one knew about, etc., I ordered all of them for my parents and their siblings. On my dad’s youngest sister’s BC was the only record I’ve ever seen of my Swedish grandfather’s location of birth other than the generic Sweden (and only slightly misspelled, thankfully). I knew the location name of where he wrote to his sister in Sweden, but that’s not where they were born; she and the youngest brother moved there many years after my grandfather and his eldest brother emigrated. Armed with a location name, less than half an hour after I wrote to a Sweden list for assistance, I had his birth info, that of his siblings, his parents, Swedish emigration info, etc. It broke the 45-year-old (and last) brick wall I had in my genealogy records.
All of that was many years after I’d had to get a birth certificate for my daughter changed and the courthouse asked for documentation. Part of the conversation in the delivery room was immediately after I gave birth when I looked at the clock over the doctor’s shoulder, spoke the time, and asked if that meant my baby was born. He said yes, if that was the time. He put down a different time nine minutes later when he filled out the birth certificate. I related the conversation when I asked the time to be changed, and it was done.
Sometimes one just has to speak up…, and get copies of original documents! 🙂

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    As a lineage society registrar, I always ask my prospects to obtain a “photocopy of the record for genealogical use” as it will contain all that is recorded not just what a clerk feels is important. They usually have to pay the Certified copy fee unless they are at the location, but it is worth it. Much important information (at least for a genealogist) is omitted in a certified copy.
    The same goes for marriage and death records. Some states issued what is known as “short forms” which really only give the name and date and sometimes parents’ names. These are almost worthless for lineage applications.

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Thanks to St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church in rural Verdigre, Nebraska, I was able to get my mother’s baptismal records when she was 90. The state of Nebraska accepted it to put her first name on her birth certificate from 1910. We needed it for a state ID to obtain a handicapped placard in Florida. Somehow the Social Security card wasn’t a problem since she had worked many years. Nebraska state employees were very helpful and need to be thanked for their attitude. My mom lived to 99 11/12.

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My mother and her older sister were both born at home in a small town in Oklahoma. I’m not sure that Oklahoma in 1913 or 1914 even issued birth certificates, but there was none for my mother or aunt. When they applied for their Social Security cards, they had to provide documentation, and Mother used the “cradle roll” of the church in Jones.

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I used to work with a person who was born in 1935. One of his favorite stories was when he was in basic training there was someone else there who had baby boy on his birth certificate (I think that he had been born in Ohio). He wasn’t allowed to change it until after basic so the sergeant took great glee in calling his “baby boy Smith” instead of his name the entire 6 weeks.

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My mother, born in 1901, went through the same affidavit process for social security. Her older sister and an older first cousin swore to her birth. I, born n 1936, was the first person in my family born in a hospital. My older siblings, 10 and 14 years, were born in our grandparents house which was 100 miles away. My grandmother could not understand how my parents have a child around strangers. When my mother went into labor with my older siblings my father put her in the car and drove those 100 miles

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When my dad was born his parents told them his name was George, Jr., after his father. But when it was written out on his birth certificate they put the Jr. after his first name, George, instead of after his last name. So my dad used Junior as his middle name all of his life. It did cause some problems with other records made during his life, but he was always able to get them corrected. I think he didn’t want to change his name because his father abandoned the family while his mother was pregnant with their 10th child, so he didn’t want to be a George, Jr.

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When my father and his siblings started to apply for Social Security in the last 1930’s they had birth certificates but found they had their actual birth dates wrong. Some refused to become “older” and they ended up within a few months of each other.

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My mom was the last of eight children born at home in 1925. The doctor came to the house (my aunt thought he brought the baby in his big black bag). He was the one to fill out her birth certificate. The family name was Brown but her official certificate showed it as “Bimm” based on the doc’s bad handwriting. Her mother had it changed when my mom was looking for her first job. As an aside: Three years after my mom’s birth her mother had another baby, the first to be born in a hospital. Unfortunately he was still born. Just sad.

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My 99 year old neighbor ( whose father had worked for the Wright brothers) was given a name but the nurse who was registering it did not like the chosen name and wrote in Anna instead. So her name officially was Anna.

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As to the question of when people started having babies in hospitals, it depends upon the wealth and location of the mother in many cases. Generally, births in hospitals coincided with the proliferation of “medical colleges” and permanent hospitals, mostly after the Civil War. There was no specialty of OB-GYN, however, and doctors had little if any training in labor and delivery. Women were often given ether or the like and the use of forceps, etc., was very common. Women stayed in the hospital for several days to a week after the birth and had little contact with the baby during their stay.

Because of these practices, midwives were pushed out of practice in many areas despite significantly more experience and knowledge in labor and delivery. For a long time, women were at more risk delivering in a hospital than at home due to the above-described practices. Medical doctors and the AMA actively worked to keep midwives out of business, which was also contributing, and directly related, to keeping women from becoming MDs.

In the early 20th century many people were still having babies at home, whether by choice or by limited hospital options in rural areas. President Kennedy, obviously of a wealthy family, was born at home, yet President Carter, born in 1925 to a very poor farming family in Plains, Georgia, was our first US President born in a hospital! Go figure.

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Lydia Munson Giancotti April 29, 2017 at 4:18 pm

I have 3 family birth certificates from Washington, DC dated 1895, 1896 & 1899 that do not name the child. “The birth certificates prior to 1909 did not have the name of child as a recorded item. If a child’s name appears it was recorded as an amendment on the birth certificate.” signed chief of vital records and 2 supervisors

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My grandmother was born in 1888 – at home, of course – and she died in 1934. Her birth county started recording births in 1877.

Years later, in the 1960’s, my mother was at the county clerk’s office looking at birth certificates of her ancestors. As an afterthought, she asked to see her mother’s birth certificate and was quite surprised to see that the first name was blank.

My mother was quite surprised that her mother was apparently named “blank Smith” and asked the clerk if she could correct the birth certificate. Fortunately, the law permitted the parents, or the individual, or the children to correct a given name. My mother was allowed to fill out a birth certificate correction form and the clerk notarized it. So my grandmother legally became “Jennievee Eugenia Smith.”

My mother told me about this, since I was a student of our family tree, with the instruction “don’t ever assume the contents of a birth certificate – check it out yourself.” It was fortunate that my mother discovered this omission, since I (as grandson) would not have been allowed to file a birth certificate correction.

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As late as 1940, half of all African American babies were birthed by midwives.and only 26% were born in hospitals. Home births were the norm all over the US until the 1950s and 1960s.
Our genealogical society was going to index records by the Chicago Maternity Clinic. However, none included the names of the babies. We realized in the days before genealogy research, the name of the baby was not important. Midwives and maternity clinics worked for the mother. The mother was the client and paid the bill. It was up to her and the baby’s father to name her baby.
The reason birth certificates were created was not for genealogy and the baby’s name was not important. Birth and death certificates were created to compile statistics to improve infant and maternal health. It was only later these certificates were used for identification and genealogy. It is not dissimilar to only the name of the head of the household being listed on census records prior to 1850.

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    Birth certificates in America were a lot less about improving health and quite a lot more about keeping statistics that defined paternity and, in many cases, race, of each birth for purposes of inheritance, enslavement, and citizenship. The history of the US is riddled with very tight restrictions on participation in civil government and the infamous 3/5 Rule is no small part of this. People traced their ancestry but did so for very different reasons than we do today.

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Here’s a reverse situation. When my father was born in 1898, his first and last name were recorded, but not the name of his parents. I found the record in the Probate office in the county of his birth in Ohio, but apparently, the clerks couldn’t find it later when he needed it because he obtained a delayed birth certificate.

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In connection with the comment about slaves being counted as 3/5 of a person, that was a political stratagem hard won by the politicians of the North so that the South would have a more difficult time winning elections. It had nothing at all to do with the intrinsic worth of a human being, from an historical perspective. I have read comments over the years from African Americans that indicated injured feelings or anger at being accounted historically, before the Civil War, as only 3/5 of a human being, and have wished that they knew the historical reason.

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    Your comment on 3/5’s is partially true. It had nothing to do with the intrinsic worth of a human being. You’re right in that it was a political decision. However, it was not so that the north would make the south have a more difficult time winning elections. It was a political compromise. If the House of Representative was decided one man one vote (actually one white, land owning man one vote) the north had a larger population than the south did. The result would be northern states would always control the House of Representatives. So South Carolina threatened not to join the new United States. Their rebuttal was to count their enslaved people. The north balked at that because the south had ten times as many enslaved people as the north did. The compromise was to count each enslaved person as 3/5s. This would equalize the numbers in the House of Representatives between the south and the north.

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