Lewis Meriam to Hastings Hart, July 28, 1915

The view that illegitimacy was a significant threat to the health and welfare of newborns was pervasive among Progressive reformers, who believed that the answer to this problem rested with research and state action. They recommended birth registration procedures and more accurate statistical data. This letter from Lewis Meriam, Assistant Chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau, was directed to Hastings Hart of the Russell Sage Foundation, a well known figure in the world of child welfare during the early twentieth century. Meriam’s opinion that birth certificates should record parents’ marital status, but that legitimacy status should be kept confidential, “except where it is essential,” anticipated record-keeping practices that sealed original birth certificates and substituted new ones after adoptions were finalized. What they had in common was appreciation for the stigma that illegitimate and adopted children faced and advocacy of government policies that would simultaneously increase knowledge about these children and protect them from harm.

My dear Dr. Hart,

. . . . The registration records should, I believe, indicate the fact that the parents of the child are not married. Birth registration has two principal values: it notifies the authorities of the birth of a child, enabling them to bring to bear, in those cases where it seems necessary, such community forces as are at their disposal for promoting the welfare of the infant, and it furnishes the basis for the infant mortality rate which is a barometer indicating social and economic conditions.

The fact that the baby is born to an unmarried mother is, in itself, an indication that the baby is subject to a risk of death far greater than that to which a baby born to a married mother is subject. The record of illegitimacy is a red flag to the infant welfare worker, indicating peculiar need for such assistance as the community is in a position to give. In time, too, it may be possible to develop a system whereby the registration of an illegitimate birth may be made the act that puts in motion suitable legal machinery to enforce the responsibility of both mother and father so that there may be as little difference as possible between the economic and social position of the legitimate and the illegitimate offsprings of the same general classes.

Statistics of illegitimacy by city districts and by rural districts may be made of great service in disclosing areas of peculiarly bad social conditions. The figures contrasting the alley districts and the street districts of Washington are striking. If it can be demonstrated that a large percentage of the illegitimacy of a community is contributed by a comparatively small number of districts, the practical remedies for the conditions in these areas can be found by intensive studies. For practical social engineering, then, the figures regarding illegitimacy would have great value.

I believe it is practicable to secure the registration of illegitimate births, though it is no doubt difficult. If the proper authorities prosecute all physicians, midwives, and other attendants who fail to register births, and utilize all the means that they have for detecting such failures, practically all births would be registered,—illegitimate as well as legitimate. . . .

The certificates of birth can well be the same for legitimate and illegitimate children with an arrangement whereby legitimate or illegitimate may be checked as the case may be. What data should be recorded regarding the putative father of an illegitimate child is one that has roused a good deal of discussion and has not yet brought any general agreement. . . .

Provision should, I think, be made whereby the fact of legitimacy or illegitimacy shall not be disclosed except where it is essential. Copies of the original certificate for use in connection with school attendance or child labor laws should not disclose the record regarding legitimacy. . . .

Very sincerely yours,

Lewis Meriam


Source: Lewis Meriam to Hastings Hart, July 28, 1915, U.S. Children’s Bureau Papers, Box 60, Folder 7351, National Archives II.

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