Birthdays Prior to 1945

Recently, I had cause to think on the idea of birthdays.  Until the end of WWII, they weren’t very well tracked and most people only had estimates of when they were born.  And vital records weren’t necessarily helpful.

Some twenty-five years ago or so, one of my maternal aunts decided to do a family tree.  During which my maternal grandmother handed over the vital records she had in her possession, primarily birth and death certificates.  My maternal grandfather died when my mom was only 3 or 4 years old in an accident.

Within those papers were two birth certificates for my maternal grandfather.  That in itself, is not uncommon.  And they often don’t agree.  Usually the day or month is different.  Once in a great while, the year will be one higher birth certificate than the other, usually by only a year.

There were 11 years difference between the two birth certificates of my grandfather, which is a staggering amount.  They were issued by two different counties in Missouri.  One is obviously wrong and while the most common cause of such discrepancies is that people didn’t rightly remember the exact date of birth.  

But 11 years?  Could my great grandmother really have made such an error?  It is unlikely.  The most likely explanation is that one was completely fake.  They shared the exact same day and month, but differed by 11 years… That is highly unlikely.  Now for a touch of 1900s scandal…

My grandfather was already married when he met my grandmother and there was at least ten years age difference between them.  It was the 1920s and life was full of gaiety…. The War to End All Wars had ended, creating a boom era of personal freedom and inhibitions.  Women were getting jobs (remember over one million US soldiers died in WWI), dance halls, and “progressive women” (Flappers) were asserting their rights to also be carefree and independent.

My grandfather divorced his first wife and married my grandmother.  He was either in his twenties or in his thirties at that time… depending on which birth certificate you look at. 

According to his vital records, my grandfather was either born in 1890 or 1901.  There are two reasons my grandfather may have dummied up a fake birth certificate.  If he was born in 1890, he would have been old enough to be drafted for service in 1914 (the start of WWI), because he would have been 24.  However, if he were born in 1901, he would have been 13 and therefore not eligible for it.  

Or it could have been done to gain the approval of my grandmother’s parents.  She was 16 when they married in the 1920s.  He would have been more than double her age if he were born in 1890.  

It isn’t until after the end of WWI that people began to decide that birth dates were terribly important and that was a side effect of Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation when precise birth dates were needed for social security numbers…


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