For the past two weeks, many NEHGS staff members celebrated birthdays, bringing to mind my birthday celebration last year. At the restaurant, our waiter announced my birthday to the entire restaurant and led them in singing to me. While that was embarrassing, it was fine until he asked my age. I answered with the old adage, “You know, it’s not polite to ask a lady her age.” As a genealogist, however, that answer left me feeling disappointed in myself. Where would we be today if our ancestors always responded to that question in such a way?
Besides our names, perhaps the most identifying pieces of information about us involves our age and/or birth date, which is why most forms and official questionnaires ask participants for just that information. This becomes useful to us as researchers. We search these documents for the Andrew and Mary Smith in Pittsburgh who were born about 1878 or 1879, and weed out others born earlier or later.
Knowing a person’s age at any given time provides us with clues about what he or she might have been doing then. Was the person old enough to marry, buy land, serve in the military, or was that person too old to be having children? Andrew Smith and Mary Dornburg would have turned 18 in 1896 and 1897, respectively. That gave me a better idea of when to look for their marriage, which turned out to have occurred over the border in Ohio in 1898.
We also use a person’s age to work backwards to find the birth date. This can lead to identifying that person’s parents and other useful information. Although Mary’s marriage record did not list her parents’ names, it confirmed that she was 19 in 1898. Looking for Mary Dornburg, aged about one, in the 1880 federal census led to an eleven-month-old Mary, daughter of Frank and Saville Dunbaugh. Mary Smith had a daughter, who could have been named for this mother. Sure enough, upon tracing “Saville Dunbaugh,” I found the obituary for “Sebilla (Herzog) Dornburg” naming one of her surviving daughters as Mary Smith.
At some point, each of us has been frustrated by that elusive ancestor who either didn’t know his or her own age or lied about it. We have been thwarted by these inconsistencies and even the magical de-aging of women (in particular). Sometimes, the trouble comes from the record-keepers. In my experience, Americans in the nineteenth century were more fluid in regards to recording ages in census records, while Scandinavian censuses featured consistently accurate ages. With a surname like Smith, I actually lucked out with the regularity in recording ages for Andrew and Mary.
Since I do not wish to lose my identity when researchers many years from now try to follow my life journey, I will be as precise as I can be about my age on any and all future documentation. Time will tell if I answer differently next time someone casually asks my age. For now, I leave this hint: shortly before 2100, like Bilbo Baggins, I hope to exclaim proudly, "Today is my one hundred and eleventh birthday!"
 Jefferson County, Ohio, Marriage records, 14: 496 [Family History Library film 0900,077].
 1880 U.S. Census, Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, roll 1092, ED 125, p. 19.
 “Death Notices,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thursday, 5 March 1936, p. 9.
About Kyle Hurst
Kyle, Genealogist of the Newbury Street Press, holds a B.A. in both history and anthropology from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and has a master’s certificate in Museum Studies from Tufts University. With experience at the National Archives and Record Administration in Waltham, Kyle has worked on a wide variety of research projects as part of the Research Services team at NEHGS and, with Newbury Street Press, has contributed to a number of family histories. She has been credited for her contributions to The Root, TheRoot.com, and she has also written for American Ancestors magazine.View all posts by Kyle Hurst →