This post was written by Nina Nazionale, Director of Library Operations.
The Social Security Act, a program through which employers and employees contribute money to an account to be drawn upon in retirement, went into effect in November 1936. During the next seven months, 30 million Americans applied and were issued cards, each printed with a unique set of nine numbers.
Prior to the issuance of social security numbers, the only Americans assigned numbers for identification purposes were those in the military, in the form of dog tags, pieces of metal stamped with a unique set of numbers and worn on a chain around the neck.
On one hand, the Social Security Administration reminded all enrollees to present their cards to new employers. On the other hand, enrollees were urged not to carry cards with them, due to the possibility of wear-and-tear and loss. You could memorize your number. Or you could have it tattooed onto your body. This man opted to place it on his right arm:
I came upon this striking photograph, taken by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), in connection with a recent library acquisition: the hand-lettered and colored sign below by a tattoo artist advertising his designs in 1936. It reads, “Don’t Forget Your Number. Have It Tattooed On Now.” It will be added to the library’s collection of over 19,000 broadsides, a collection that illuminates key details of American life as it transpired, day-to-day and year-after-year.
With millions of Americans looking for ways to remember their newly assigned nine-digit identifiers, tattoo artists were wise to expand their catalogs quickly to meet the needs of such a vast potential market.
In our current age, when identity theft is a very real possibility, would anyone even consider getting a social security number tattoo? I suppose that would depend on its location . . .