Saturday, January 14, 2012

Yet Another Challenge for Family History

Recently working with a family historian, we opened up the discussion of birth dates and using them to identify specific ancestors. I tried to make the point that in the middle 1800s the precise birth date was not a significant detail in one’s life. A survey I had conducted seemed to bear this out. I had indexed a collection of records from a Civil War veterans’ hospital and found that many veterans listed their birth date as Christmas Day or New Year’s Day. So many were born on these two holidays I suspect they simply chose a date out of their brain because they didn’t know precisely when they were born.

Now, I am reading a book review that seems to bear this out. In the on-line version of the New York Times, Linda Shapiro reviewed the book In Our Prime. It is a historic study of “middle age.” Written by Patricia Cohen, it makes the point that age was not all that important before 1900. To quote the review, that is quoting the book: before 1900 “age was not an essential ingredient of one’s identity.” This is high brow language to say that no one cared how old you were. No one was terribly concerned about their birth date.

According to the review, only with mass industrialization did age become a factor in life. With the rise of large cities, segmenting the population became important and age then became a consideration of life.

This is an interesting concept for genealogists and family historians. What this all means is that before 1900, the ages and birth dates of our ancestors all become suspect. Whenever we read cemetery markers that list date of death and then age, breaking it down to year, month and number of days all become potentially incorrect. This is yet another detail we must closely explore in our research.

Another popular piece of mass culture reinforces this idea. In the movie Crocodile Dundee, the lead character is talking about his birth date. I apologize that I get the quote wrong but it went something like: “I asked my uncle, once, when I was born? He told me the summertime.”

We may have to look very closely at our pre-1900 research and challenge birth dates with even greater scrutiny.