Editor’s note: Yes, since originally publishing this, I have edited it for my math errors. Or logic errors rather. Notice that I’m not majoring in either field…
Over the past six months or so I accepted the challenge to donate some of my time each day to a good cause–the creation of an digital index for old census, immigration, military, marriage, birth and death records from our country’s past. You find all sorts of interesting information. And not just things like the fact that somewhere in Alabama in 1933 a 25 year old woman married a 57 year old man, or that people really did bestow on their little girls names like Henry.
I’m talking about the fact that it cost the couple in Alabama $200 to purchase their marriage license. Two hundred dollars in 1933 had the same buying power as $3,346.24 today! These people were poor black laborers, hardly educated enough to sign their own names: his was barely legible and hers was a shaky X. He worked as a factory sweeper and she worked as a domestic, and yet somehow they saved up enough money to get married. Unbelievable.
How much do you think a domestic made in 1933?
I found online that there was an attempt made at establishing a national minimum wage of $0.25/hour in 1933. The law was defeated, of course, because industry balked at such a steep price tag. But let’s say that these two people were hired by goodhearted people who wanted to pay out that minimum amount to colored domestic labor. In small town Alabama. In 1933.
How long would it take to earn that much money? For one person: 800 hours. That’s 20 forty hour weeks. To buy a marriage license! That’s assuming that the purchaser never took a day off and had no other expenses over those twenty weeks and put every penny toward the license. I don’t know about you, but strictly survival related expenses at my house account for most of my income already.
I’ve indexed hundreds of these marriage records over the past week or so, and they are all similar in content. Poor, poor people–factory workers and waitresses and farm laborers who made an incredible sacrifice in ensuring their relationships were lawful in the eyes of God and man.
It’s a fascinating project if you’ve got some time on your hands. Come on… how much time have you spent surfing useless websites this week? What? Only an hour or so? Well, with a little practice, you could index a hundred names in that amount of time. And in return you could find out that your great-great grandfather maybe was a slave on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation or something. Seriously. These records are made into searchable databases–searchable by anyone, for no cost.
You can choose what sort of records you want to index, and there are no requirements besides an internet connection and your willingness to follow directions. It’s very simple–you download images of old records from the server and then type the information from the records into the computer and upload them. Somebody somewhere else has done the same thing for that record, and if you both didn’t type the exactly same information, the records are sent to a third person–an arbitrator–who makes the final call. If you’re interested, go ahead and check it out.