The Social Security Number, A Biography: Part 2

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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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October 16, 2012 - 7:00am
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