The History of Birth Certificates

The history of birth certificates might not seem like much but it marks a vitally important milestone in the country’s development and growth.

Birth certificates are with you from the first day of your life. However, despite this seeming longevity, the life story of birth certificates only began quite recently.

To explore how this came to be and how they grew to become an essential vital record in America, this article looks back over the history of birth certificates to explain why birth certificates are important today.

How Did Birth Registration Work Before Birth Certificates?

Birth records have been kept by governments around the world for thousands of years. This was primarily done to ensure authorities had a clear idea about their production output and taxable population.

However, whilst birth records and other vital records like marriages and deaths have been collected by governments for a long time, birth certificates are still a relatively new phenomenon.

Before birth certificates were made the norm, information on births was kept in church records. However, this was not a formalized process and there were no laws mandating when and how exactly a person should be legally recorded.

Matters were also complicated by the nature of giving birth in older times. Unlike today most children weren’t born in hospitals and unfortunately many didn’t survive infancy. This meant that some records for people born at the time simply weren’t kept at all.

When Were Birth Certificates First Used?

Considering how far back birth records go, it’s a surprise that birth certificates only start appearing around the middle of the 19th Century.

In 1853 the United Kingdom centralized and formalized its birth record keeping. It was the first country to do so and eventually, other nations would start adopting similar methods.

There were a few reasons having standardized birth records became beneficial for countries, including:

  • Documenting large waves of European immigration across the Atlantic from the 19th Century onwards
  • Getting a better understanding of population demographics
  • Monitoring national public health needs

The US, however, was a bit different. Instead of a central system for collecting birth information, individual states collected their own records. There was no federal requirement for them to do so, however, and no standard way of recording births.

It wasn’t until 1902 however that the United States introduced a nationally regulated process at a federal level. This was overseen at first by the Bureau of the Census.

At this point, a standard form was produced for registering births in each state, although state governments still had overall control over the issuance of birth certificates. This is still true today.

1902 - 1946 Increasing Government Oversight of Birth Data

During the first part of the 20th Century, the federal government took on a much greater role in collecting birth records.

However, the documents issued back then didn’t quite look like birth certificates you’d recognize today. A lot of data you’d normally find on a modern document such as a standardized birth certificate number simply didn’t appear.

These older files were only used to collect rudimentary information about the child and their parents. Many families still had births at home instead of in hospitals too and as a result some children simply weren’t correctly recorded.

1946: Birth Certificates Are Regularized in America

The issue of patchily recorded birth data would finally come to a head in World War II.

At this time, ammunition factories and other defense projects were creating thousands of new jobs for citizens. However, to take advantage of this you had to be able to prove you were a US citizen.

This presented a problem to around 43 million Americans who had no way of proving their citizenship status, despite being born in the USA. Whilst news media encouraged holdouts to get registered, the demands of WWII slowed this process.

Finally, in 1946 as part of a drive to improve national Health policies and the welfare state the Office of Vital Statistics became responsible for birth certificates. This would have oversight on how birth data should be recorded, whilst the states would be responsible for record-keeping as before.

How Birth Certificates Are Issued Today

When a baby is born anywhere in the country today, a certificate of live birth application form is completed.

If the birth takes place in a hospital, administrative staff will help you handle this. However, if you have a home birth, you may need to take additional steps to ensure your newborn is properly registered.

Once the certificate of live birth and birth certificate application forms are filled in, you will need to send the files to your state or county’s office of vital records to get your baby’s birth certificate. This can usually be done by mail or in person.

In some states, you will also receive a birth certificate registration card after applying.

You will then need to wait a number of weeks for the vital records office to process the request. The time this takes depends on what state you are in.

The history of birth certificates may be relatively short in the scheme of things. However, it demonstrates the pace of growth and development of record-keeping in the country over the last century.

Everyone born in the United States needs a birth certificate. It is essential for many important purposes such as getting vital IDs and passports. It also proves you have the right to US citizenship.

If yours gets lost it is essential to apply for a replacement copy as soon as possible to ensure you can always prove your identity and other vital information.

Read more: Brumberg, H., Dozor, D. & Golombek, S. History of the birth certificate: from inception to the future of electronic data. J Perinatol 32, 407–411 (2012).

Cover image: New York 1913 birth certificate. Image: The Library of Congress