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The Social Security Number, A Biography: Part 2

Social Security office in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Last time, we looked at the birth of the Social Security Number, why it was needed and how it was structured. Once the form and function of the number was settled, the Social Security Administration tackled the job of getting their creation assigned to people.

Who got the first Social Security Number?

Without their own field offices, the SSA relied on the Postal Service to be their boots on the ground. Forty-five thousand post offices helped assign and distribute the first batch of SSNs; 1074 of those offices even tasked employees with typing up the Social Security cards that went with the numbers. In November 1936, the post offices started contacting local employers to find out how many employees they had and then distributed SSN applications accordingly. Once these forms were returned, the post offices assigned an SSN to each person, made up a card for them, and copied the assignment to the SSA in Baltimore for the master files. This was supposed to be done on Tuesday the 24th.

Because the completed applications could be brought to a post office in person or returned in the mail, and the numbers and cards distributed at the offices or by letter, and because hundreds of thousands of SSNs were issued on that same day (or earlier, if a post office didn’t follow its instructions), it’s difficult to say who the first person to actually get their number was.

Meanwhile, at the SSA headquarters in Baltimore, the number assignments were being broken down into groups of 1000 for processing into the master files. When the first group was done, the head of the operation pulled the top record off the stack and opened it. It might not have been the first number assigned to a person—though some newspapers reported it as such the next day—or the first card typed, but as far as the SSA was concerned, it was the first official Social Security record, and it was symbolic enough.

The number was 055-09-0001, and it belonged to 23-year-old John D. Sweeney, Jr., of New Rochelle, New York. Sweeney unfortunately did not live long enough to ever receive his Social Security benefits, dying of a heart attack at the age of 61.

Who got the lowest Social Security Number?

The SSA had some control over where numbers were issued because of the early geographic distribution of the area number. The lowest numbers went to the northeast states, and while Maine, the most northeasterly of them, should have gotten the block of numbers starting in 001, that group number actually went to New Hampshire.

This was done so that the lowest possible SSN, 001-01-0001, could be given to Social Security Board Chairman and former New Hampshire governor John G. Winant. He passed on the number, so the SSA then offered it to John Campbell, a Regional Representative of the Federal Bureau of Old Age Benefits. He didn’t want it either. The SSA finally decided to just assign it to the first New Hampshire applicant, Grace D. Owen of Concord.

Who got the first Social Security payment?

In the first few years of Social Security’s existence, benefits were paid out as a single lump sum. The first of these payments went to Ernest Ackerman of Cleveland, Ohio, who had excellent timing and retired just one day after the program was put into action. He had five cents withheld from his last paycheck as a Social Security payment and, upon retiring, received 17 cents in benefits.

In 1940, the program switched to monthly payments, and the first check was sent to Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vermont, for the amount of $22.54. That doesn't seem like much, but Ida made out like a bandit on Social Security over her lifetime. She worked for 3 years under the program and contributed $24.75 before retiring, but lived to age 100 and collected almost $22,000 in benefits.

Tomorrow: How the Social Security Number became a major tool in recordkeeping and identification.

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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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presidents
George Washington’s Incredible Hair Routine

America's Founding Fathers had some truly defining locks, but we tend to think of those well-coiffed white curls—with their black ribbon hair ties and perfectly-managed frizz—as being wigs. Not so in the case of the main man himself, George Washington.

As Robert Krulwich reported at National Geographic, a 2010 biography on our first president—Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow—reveals that the man “never wore a wig.” In fact, his signature style was simply the result of an elaborately constructed coiffure that far surpasses most morning hair routines, and even some “fancy” hair routines.

The style Washington was sporting was actually a tough look for his day. In the late 18th century, such a hairdo would have been worn by military men.

While the hair itself was all real, the color was not. Washington’s true hue was a reddish brown color, which he powdered in a fashion that’s truly delightful to imagine. George would (likely) don a powdering robe, dip a puff made of silk strips into his powder of choice (there are a few options for what he might have used), bend his head over, and shake the puff out over his scalp in a big cloud.

To achieve the actual ‘do, Washington kept his hair long and would then pull it back into a tight braid or simply tie it at the back. This helped to showcase the forehead, which was very in vogue at the time. On occasion, he—or an attendant—would bunch the slack into a black silk bag at the nape of the neck, perhaps to help protect his clothing from the powder. Then he would fluff the hair on each side of his head to make “wings” and secure the look with pomade or good old natural oils.

To get a better sense of the play-by-play, check out the awesome illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton that accompany Krulwich’s post.

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