Guest Post: “young appearance”: Assessing Age through Appearance in Early America

Holly+Headshot_2bw[2]Today’s guest post comes from Holly N.S. White (Ph.D., College of William & Mary) who is an assistant editor of Publications and Digital Projects at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and an assistant producer of Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast about Early American History. She specializes in the history of age, childhood, and youth as well as the histories of gender, family, and law in the early America. Her research focuses on the definition and negotiability of age in early American law and society, which is the subject of her forthcoming first book, Negotiating American Youth: Age, Law, and Culture in the Early Nineteenth Century.

Children and adolescents are regularly described as big for their age, small for their age, or mature for their age– but what purpose does it serve to judge a person’s age against their appearance? Today, with birth certificates to prove our age it doesn’t actually mean much. But in early America, where no such formalized, institutionally supported forms of record keeping existed, appearing young or old relative to one’s age could have significant ramifications on a person’s life.

life_and_age_of_womanFollowing the American Revolution, state legislators enacted a number of new age-based laws to legally define adulthood and citizenship at the age of eighteen or twenty-one years old.[i] These laws were passed despite the fact that forms of civil registration, such as government issued birth certificates, were not established until the late nineteenth century.[ii] Age was a logical way to designate rights because it operated as an equalizer. Regardless of one’s background, the age of twenty-one, for example, was a status everyone could eventually attain.[iii] This reality of early American life—of either not knowing one’s exact age or having no definitive way to prove it—both hindered and benefited citizens as they navigated the privileges that had been assigned age-minimums through law. One important effect of age appearing more regularly in early republican legislation, then, was that Americans had more incentive to lie about their stage in life than ever before. To get around legal restrictions surrounding consent, young people frequently lied about their age in order to marry, enlist in the military, or enter into labor contracts. Legal adults also falsified their age in attempts to reduce their culpability in criminal suits or liability for contracts.[iv]

One illustrative example of this can be founded in the 1850 North Carolina murder trial, State v. Elijah Arnold. According to court records, Elijah “appeared… to be a small boy,” but his exact age could not be ascertained. The defense appealed the case to the state Supreme Court and argued that Elijah was “under the age of presumed capacity” and that it should be up to the State to “prove that he was over the age, or, if under it, that he had such knowledge of right and wrong, as would render him responsible for the homicide.”[v] However, justices “held the onus of proof lie on the prisoner as to his age.” Unable to prove he was under the age of fourteen, Elijah was convicted of the murder and sentenced as an adult would be. While Elijah’s actual age is not known, State v. Elijah Arnold illustrates how individuals could use the ambiguity of chronological age to in efforts to take advantage of culpability laws meant to protect minors.

So how was age proven in the early republic? Baptismal records, family bibles, informal community and family recollections as well as legal affidavits all appear in the early American historical record as having served the purpose of “proving” an individual’s age.[vi] But more often than you’d think, authority figures assigned an age based on how a person looked.  Especially when that person did not have access to any of the above to formally “prove” their age. Consequently, descriptions of appearance in relation to suspected or asserted age come up repeatedly in both institutional and court records.[vii]

the_life_and_age_of_man-stages_of_man27s_life2c_from_the_cradle_to_the_grave_by_james_baillieReverend Nicholas Collin, the overseer of Gloria Dei, early Republican Philadelphia’s most popular church for weddings, was one minister who took age laws and the authority to assign age seriously.[viii] Pennsylvania, like most states, required written parental approval for all marriage applicants younger than twenty-one-years of age. Ministers who married individuals younger than twenty-one could be sued by parents for marrying their children without their permission.[ix] Between 1794 and 1806, Collin kept detailed records of those he married and those he refused in order to protect himself from any potential legal action. Within those records were numerous references to the “young appearance”s and corresponding ages Collin assigned to the men and women who hoped to be married by him without a formal record of parental consent. Collin’s careful notes on how old individuals looked also suggests the frequency with which young people attempted to lie about their age or circumstances in order to marry and circumvent parental permission.

In his notes, Collin used both qualitative descriptions of age (“middle-aged,” “young”) as well as numeric descriptions of age (“about 19,” “between 20 and 23,” “in appearance 17”). In the 170 denials that took place during his twelve years of records, Collin mentioned age (either relative or specific) in 56 percent (96 out of 170) of his entries. In 42% (60 out of 144) of cases, Collin gave a chronological age, while in 58% (84 out of 144) of cases he gave a relative age, meaning he described a person or a couple as “young,” “mature,” “middle-aged,” etc. Collin listed the perceived and factual chronological ages for sixty individuals, thirty-three women and twenty-seven men. He listed relative age eighty-four times total with a breakdown of twenty-six women, thirty-two men, and twenty-six couples. On the surface, these numbers break down roughly equal between the sexes which suggests that Collin paid equal attention to recording the age of men and women he refused to marry. However, of the thirty-three women Collin ascribed a chronological age to, twenty-five (76%) were under the age of twenty-one while only three (11%) of the twenty-seven men were younger than twenty-one. This significant difference might be accounted for by the fact that it was more socially acceptable for women to marry at a younger age then men.

Collin always attached his assignment of age to his visual assessment of a person’s appearance. He recorded instances in which “the bride looked very young,” a bride had a “good but young appearance,” and a young woman who insisted she was “twenty-one, but looked younger being also small.”[x] On May 13th, 1796, he noted that a groom appeared “Young though possibly of age” and on February 16th, 1806, he conceded that the “Bride might be, as she said, 21.” Still, he refused to grant the marriages for fear he was misjudging their appearances. One couple he “refused for want of better evidence, she seemed to be of age,” he explained, but he was not convinced enough to take the risk of marrying the pair.[xi] On October 28th, 1794, Collin noted that a couple came from “Wilmington, he a middle-aged man, she a girl between 20 and 23, to appearance.” In another entry on April 12th, 1800, he noted that “an Irishman, about 30 years, came with a young girl, in appearance 17 but he said 20.”

Without formal records establishing age, as can be seen by the examples above, church and state officials were tasked with the responsibility of determining the age of those who appeared before them requesting permission or leniency. Collin’s records are fascinating for their discussions of age and appearance. His decision to include qualifying terms like “in appearance,” “looked,” “about,” and “by his own account,” demonstrates the difficulty of ascertaining one’s actual chronological age.[xii] But the consistency in which Collin recorded his assessments based on the appearance of those requesting his services demonstrates that officials felt obligated to assign ages despite these difficulties.

Sources indicate that age was a more central component of a person’s identity in early America than historians have realized. So why does this matter? In my opinion, an examination of how age was assigned as well as negotiated and experienced is critical to making sense of the changing understandings of what it meant to be a child, a youth, and an adult in early America.[xiii] Age, just like race, class, and gender, is a socially constructed concept. We as historians need to pay attention to how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century definitions of age intersected with developing notions of rights, responsibilities, and protections that were so central to the success of a developing democracy and “modern” society. More importantly, the age-based laws we currently use to define legal adulthood and criminal culpability (including crimes committed by “adults” on “minors”) come from the early Republican period (or earlier), so these early definitions of age still have major ramifications on how we define legal and cultural capacity in the United States today. Looking forward, I’m excited to see how our understanding of early America will change as historians increasingly incorporate age as a category of analysis when studying the past.


[i] This is not to say that age based laws were an invention of the American Revolution. English common law incorporated precise ages as benchmarks which colonial judges had regularly deferred to. This is especially true in regards to laws defining the ability to consent to marriage and the ability to take an oath. In many cases, early Republicans simply kept the English common law that had been passed in the colonial era. Still, American state legislators did pass new laws that defined citizenship as well as criminal and legal culpability within a new context of age-defined adulthood. The ability to reason and comprehend the significance of giving one’s consent was of particular interest when drafting age-based laws. In turn, early Republican lawmakers were instrumental in redefining childhood and youth in terms that embraced chronological age. For more information on age and law in colonial America see Holly Brewer, By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority.

[ii] For a discussion of the state creation and implementation of formal birth certificates see Shane Landrum, “From Family Bibles to Birth Certificates: Young People, Proof of Age, and American Political Cultures, 1820-1915,” in Age in America and Susan J. Pearson, “’Age Ought to Be a Fact’: The Campaign against Child Laborand the Rise of the Birth Certificate” in The Journal of American History, March 2015.

[iii] Theoretically, age operated as an equalizer regardless of race and status, too; but as Corinne T. Field demonstrates, “state governments applied age qualifications differently to male and female, black and white, enslaved and free.” Consequently, additional restrictions such as property ownership, gender, and race undercut the inclusivity of age as a marker of adult status. See Corinne T Field, The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America, 6.

[iv] Bianca Premo examined this phenomenon in her work on colonial Lima, Children of the Father King: Youth, Authority, and Legal Minority in Colonial Lima. See specifically chapter four, “Minor Offenses: Youth and Crime in the Eighteenth Century.” Premo argues that both the courts and those tried “manipulated the reporting of ages in order to influence the outcome of a trial.” Premo, 119.

[v] Iredell, James and Walter Clark, North Carolina Reports: Cases at Law Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of North Carolina, From December Term 1851 to August Term 1852, Both Inclusive, “State v. Elijah Arnold,” 176.

[vi] For a more complete discussion of how age was proven before birth certificates, see Corinne T. Field “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Age in Early America?” in, Vol 17, No. 2, Winter 2017. See also Shane Landrum, “From Family Bibles to Birth Certificates: Young People, Proof of Age, and American Political Cultures, 1820-1915”. Richard Franklin Bensel discusses the use of community recollections and legal affidavits to prove voting age in his work, The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, see pages 93-106.

[vii] Descriptions of appearance and age also regularly appear in letters and diaries, especially in intimate, gossipy discussions about courtships and members of local youth cultures. Another place age was discussed in relation to one’s appearance was runaway and missing person ads. See Sharon Block, Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth Century America, 37-43.

[viii] Beginning in January of 1794, Collin set aside a portion of the marriage register for a section he titled “Remarkable Occurrences Concerning Marriage,” where he explained his reasoning for refusing to marry particular couples. For other historians who have used this rich source base, see Richard Godbeer, Sexual Revolution in Early America; Clare A. Lyons, Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830; and Katherine Jorgensen Gray, “Mixed Company: Elite Youth and Heterosociability in Philadelphia, 1750-1815,” Ph.D. Dissertation, John Hopkins University, 2011. For more information on Gloria Dei Church and Reverend Collin, see: Susan Klepp and Billy G. Smith, “The Records of Gloria Dei Church: Marriages and “Remarkable Occurrences,” 1794-1806” in Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 53, No. 2 (April, 1986), pp. 125-151.

[ix] Pennsylvania court records from the early nineteenth century are full of cases of parents suing clergymen for marrying their minor children without their consent. The frequency in which these cases were tried demonstrate not only that parents took their right to withhold consent seriously but also how strictly the state took definitions of consent in relation to chronological age as parents usually won.

[x] Collin, “Remarkable Occurrences,” 13 May 1796; 10 March 1805; 13 March 1805.

[xi] Collin, “Remarkable Occurrences,” 2 November 1795.

[xii] Collin used the term “about” twelve times before listing a specific age.

[xiii] So much so that it’s the subject of my forthcoming book, Negotiating American Youth: Age, Law, and Culture in the Early Nineteenth Century (past peer-review and under revision with University of Virginia Press).

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  1. Pingback: Roundtable: The History of Childhood & Youth: Holly N.S. White « The Junto


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