Jul 23, 2021

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 certificates. 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 an older article by Andrew Ryan in the Boston Globe at: 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 other, 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 in the family 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 obtain her first Social Security card, 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 as 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. 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 mother was born in late March when show in northern Maine was still 3 or 4 feet deep on the unplowed roads.)

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