Socially Speaking

 Socially Speaking

By Peter Galvin, MD

Recently, I read an article that I thought was interesting, so I decided to share its content with you. It deals with the history of Social Security numbers (I did write about Social Security disability not too long ago). While most people are familiar with government acronyms like the IRS and FBI, not many would immediately recognize SSA, which is the Social Security Administration. Social Security began in 1936 during the Roosevelt administration. It was then that all U.S. citizens were first issued a Social Security number, or SSN. You might think that someone must have had the first number, or 000-00-0001, but it didn’t work that way. First of all, the SSA, at that time, did not have field offices like they have today, so they used post offices to assign numbers and issue cards. At that time, there were 45,000 post offices around the country, and 1,074 of them were designated as “typing centers”, where the cards were prepared.

The first SSNs were issued in mid-November 1936, and thousands were issued the first day from these typing centers, so no one knows who got the first number. SSNs were grouped by the first three numbers (called the area number) and were assigned geographically starting from the Northeast. Instead of starting with Maine receiving a “001” area number, that number was given to New Hampshire, because the plan was to give the number 001-01-0001 to John C. Winant, who was a former governor of the state and was, at the time, the chairman of the Social Security Board (forerunner of the SSA). Only he turned down the offer. So, they then offered that number to the head of the agency’s regional Northeast office. Only he, too, turned it down. After several other bigwigs refused the number, they gave up and randomly assigned the number to Grace D, Owen, a resident of Concord, New Hampshire, who applied for her number on November 24, 1936.

But that number is not the most well-known SSN. That honor belongs to 078-05-1120. In 1938, a wallet manufacturer in New York decided to promote its product by showing how well the new card would fit into their wallets. So, the president of the company had the bright idea to insert a sample SSN card in each wallet. His next genius move was to put a real SSN on each card. The number he used, 078-05-1120, belonged to his secretary, Hilda Witcher. The wallets were sold by Woolworth all over the country. Even though the sample SSN card was smaller, was printed in red ink, and had “specimen” written on it, many wallet purchasers decided to use that number as their own. In the peak year of 1943, 5,755 people were using Hilda’s SSN. The SSA acted to eliminate the problem by voiding the number and publicized that it was incorrect to use it (Witcher was given a new number), yet the number continued to be used for many years. In all, over 40,000 people used what became known as the “Woolworth number” as their own, even as late as 1997.

In case you are wondering, these SSNs and others are flagged by the SSA and anyone who tries to use them would be instantly investigated.


Rockaway Stuff

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