On August 14, 1935, Social Security was born. And as with any newborn, it changed lives. “Sailors, stevedores, and sideshow freaks no longer have a corner on the tattoo market,” an Associated Press story reported in April 1937.
Respectable people—even women—overwhelmed by the need to remember their new Social Security numbers were flocking to tattoo parlors to have their numbers, embedded in elaborate flag and eagle designs, inscribed on their arms, chests, and backs. (Lest we think these reports were merely satirical, later stories in papers such as the New York Times described cases in which Social Security tattoos helped identify murder victims.)
Tattoos were not the only creative solution overburdened Americans devised—other newspapers repeated the story of the New Jersey man who solved his memory problems by etching his Social Security number on the upper plate of his dentures.
Remembering those crucial eight digits was not the only aspect of the new numbers that had Americans somewhat baffled. Confusion reigned over how many Social Security numbers an individual needed—a new one for each job? Could family members share a number? And responding to the seemingly widespread notion that more cards meant more benefits, gamblers allegedly turned to rolling the dice for opponents’ cards instead of money.
But somewhere along the line, things changed, and innocent befuddlement and get-rich schemes began to be replaced by suspicion and paranoia. By the early 1970s, Social Security numbers were so widely used in a variety of transactions that fear over the number becoming a national ID helped fuel the passage of the 1974 Privacy Act.
But many state and federal assistance programs continued to require Social Security numbers for all applicants, and these requirements flushed out into the open obscure religious beliefs that the Social Security number was the mark of the beast (as described in Revelations 13:17—“and that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name”) and possession of one would bar a child from Heaven. By the 1990s, this small group of religious objectors had been joined by radical individualists who wanted to conduct their lives “off the grid” (in a 2005 newspaper interview, one such objector described his refusal to use a Social Security number as a “good versus evil thing”). And the rise of identify theft fueled fears not just about what the number might signify or how the government could track you with it, but over any request to use the number as identification.
We now regard our Social Security number as one of our most closely regarded secrets even as we know we are continually tracked. And now that SSNs have become de facto national identity numbers, the number itself can be evidence for wild theories. Take President Obama’s Social Security number, for example. Or his 25 numbers, as some of the Internet’s most dedicated conspiracy theorists would have it.
Using a mixture of public records and the Social Security Death Index, this group claims Obama has used multiple Social Security numbers over the course of his life and favors a number that, when closely analyzed, should belong to someone born in 1890 from Connecticut. Although the methodology used by this group is highly suspect, their claims have bounced all over the Internet. It’s clear we’ve come a long way from the innocent days of an eagle tattoo.