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Seeing Age in Early American Sources; or Considering a Visual Culture of Age

Seeing Age in Early American Sources; or Considering a Visual Culture of Age

Welcome to the SHCY Featured Commentary series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.

Seeing Age in Early American Sources; or Considering a Visual Culture of Age

By Holly N.S. White

Like race and gender, age is a fluid category of being; meaning that the significance age holds in a society is defined by community, family, and self.1 For example, parents might perceive age differently than their children, judges and lawyers differently from laypeople, elites differently from the poor. Consequently, age can mean something but it can also mean nothing depending on the circumstances of time and place. Age is also a performed aspect of identity that has social and cultural expectations attached to it that, at different periods of time and in different capacities, are transmitted into law. Finally, age, also like race and gender, is perceived to be rooted in biology which results in an assumption that it can be identified visually. It’s easy enough to label someone old or young or middle-age, an infant or a toddler, a child or a teenager. But what do precise ages look like? What does the age of 17 looklike as opposed to 16 or 18? This may seem like a nitpicky question but it’s one I find myself asking as my source material continually prompts me to do so.

My research focuses on the definition and negotiability of age in early American law and society. I’ve found that age appears everywhere in early American sources, whether you’re looking for it or not. From marriage records and divorce petitions to court cases pertaining to murder, rape, fraud, and dependence, age was regularly used as a form of evidence in order to justify or undermine legal arguments. Age also appears in personal papers such as letters and diaries. Early American writers regularly referenced their own as well as other’s ages and stages in life. These informal sources provide insight into the pressures individuals felt from their families, communities, and peers regarding age and status as well as how early Americans made sense of and occasionally challenged the arbitrariness of legal definitions of age. In spite of the fact that the institutional recording of births did not occur until the late nineteenth century, early Americans were an age conscious people.2

Corinne Field rightly argues that age in early America was “a kind of property owned by some but unavailable to others."3 Those who could prove their age with family records had an easier time meeting legally defined age qualifications for important opportunities such as citizenship and voting, testifying in court, and consenting to contracts including marriage and labor. Who “owned” age in early America? No surprise here: elite whites.

As Field notes, “the most common technology for recording birth dates in early America was a private one: notations in the family bible.”4 Joanna Rogers testimonyIn other words, you and your family needed literacy, enough wealth to purchase and own a bible and writing instruments, and the time and foresight to record and preserve the birthdate of a member— things certainly not accessible to all or even most early Americans. Consequently, for those who did not know and/or could not prove their age (usually lower-class whites and people of color), age was assigned.

Sometimes authority figures considered testimony from others in the community who remembered the person’s birth. More often, however, judges and officials assigned ages to these individuals based on their own judgements and assumptions about appearance. Height, weight, and references to “evidence” of sexual maturity (such as facial hair for men or breasts for women) appear regularly in court records that assigned age to both victims and offenders at trial.5

Testimony given by Joanna Rogers about the age of Richard Atwell based on her memory of his birth. New Loudon Court Records, Connecticut State Library Archives. (1730).

Court officials did recognize that age and physical appearance did not always correlate. Just as a Law dictionary definition of age, image 1person could “pass” for a different race or gender, a person’s age could be misidentified as well. For example, in an 1850 South Carolina seduction suit, the court record noted the appearance and perceived physical maturity of Lucy Jane Crankfield.6 “At trial she was in height and weight equal to many grown women, but her countenance, figure, and whole appearance denoted her very tender year.” In other words, Lucy was “big” for her age. In addition to her physical description, the Crankfield’s family offered Lucy’s exact birthdate—September 10th, 1836—as legal evidence of her infancy. Lucy’s age (according to Crankfield family, fourteen) and appearance were of interest to the court because her parents were accusing her new husband, Isaac Tidwell, of seducing, abducting, and marrying her without their consent. The case revolved around Lucy’s actual minority. Although she might have looked to be a woman, and so old enough to marry, legally, because of her age, she was not.Law dictionary entry on age, image 2

Entry for “Age” that includes a discussion of puberty and age from John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of the American Union and of the Several States of the American Union, 2 Volumes, Volume 1, (Philadelphia: T. and J.W. Johnson, 1839), 65. Continued below. 

Over at The Junto, I’ve written a bit about Reverend Nicholas Collin’s notations on age and appearance in his personal records explaining why he denied certain marriages.7 In an effort to avoid the legal consequences of Portrait of Reverend Nicholas Collinmarrying minors, Collin would turn away those he thought looked too young. With nothing to go on other than the individual’s word (which Collin rarely trusted), Collin would assign an age based on his own visual perception of an individual. It makes sense that Collin noted relative age as a way to remind himself that he denied a marriage because he thought a person looked under twenty-one, the legal age of marriage in Philadelphia at the time.

But why he decided to include highly specific numeric ages or age ranges —which he assigned based on his own visual assessments — is less clear. For example, 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.”8So here is that question again: what does 17 look like as opposed to 16 or 18? Or even 20-- which Collin clearly thought that “young girl” who knocked on his chapel door with a “middle-aged” Irish groom was not. 

Collin was not unique in assigning highly specific ages based wholly on appearance. Twenty-year-old Laura Henrietta Wirt, an avid letter writer and member of the early republican elite youth culture of Washington DC, also described individuals by how old they appeared to be. For example, Laura explained in a letter to her close friend twenty-five-year-old Louisa Cabell that “altho [Catherine Bacoamin] is twenty-seven... I should never have supposed she was more than twenty, unless she had told me herself.”9 A few months later, Laura wrote again about a Miss Goodwin: “she cannot be more than twenty-six or twenty-seven I should think, and does not look older than twenty-three.”10 Again, what does “twenty-six”, “twenty-three,” or “twenty” look like? Why offer such specificity? 

Portrait of Reverend Nicholas Collin, portrait sketch, ca. 1810, University of Pennsylvania Archives.

In asking these questions, I’ve begun to conclude that for elite whites, specific age was a central component of a person’s identity in early America. The fact that specific numeric ages appear regularly and in a variety of records in relation to a person’s physical description suggests that this particular group of early Americans thought that they shared a common interpretation of age in relation to one’s appearance. Twenty-year-old Elizabeth Ruffin’s diary offers another example that hints at what I have labeled “a shared visual culture of age.” On August 17th, 1832, Elizabeth noted that “People's eyes here must be strangely constructed to see differently about the same matter [age], Some add twenty years, others subtract ten.”11 Elizabeth was writing about her thirty-three-year-old brother Edmund who was causing quite a stir at the Virginia Springs, an elite vacation destination of the early-nineteenth-century American South. Elite Southerners were most likely interested in Edmund because he appeared to be an eligible bachelor. Age would have been one factor among many that elite families would have taken into consideration when determining his suitability for their daughters.12 Elizabeth’s mention of “people’s eyes… see[ing] differently” in regards to Edmund’s age suggests that, at least before this experience, she expected age to be seen the same way.

Advertisements about runaway slaves and servants (written by elite, white masters) offer one final example that suggests other elite whites shared Elizabeth’s assumption that Americans had a collective visual culture of age.13 One of the most common visual identifiers of a missing person was their age- both qualitative and numeric.14  Runaway slave entry in South Carolina GazetteSharon Block’s research on colonial runaway ads offers quantitative evidence that suggests that early Americans shared, or at least thought they shared, a common understanding of how appearance corresponded to age. Block dismisses the inclusion of specific numeric age as a significant visual identifier, writing that “an exact numerical age was probably an unnecessarily specific descriptor for a visual identification—someone being twenty-two rather than twenty-six years old, for example, would not make a consistent difference in their appearance.”15 

Advertisement of a runaway slave that lists the specific age of 32 alongside a physical description of the runaway. South-Carolina Gazette (September 19, 1768). 

Logically, this makes sense. And yet, in elite, white early American sources I keep seeing specific numeric age being used to describe how a person looked. From private records only meant to be read by one or two others to newspaper runaway ads meant to be seen by thousands, it seems that elite, white early Americans thought they saw numeric age the same way. If not, why assign an exact age in the visual descriptions they shared of others.

It is highly unlikely (and would be impossible to prove) that every early American visualized age in exactly the same way. If we look at Elizabeth Ruffin’s comments about her brother as a miniature case study, then we have hard evidence that elite, white early Americans differed in their perception of thirty-three-year-old Edmund Ruffin by ten to thirty years. And yet, the frequency in which an exact age was given when describing a person based wholly on appearance is indicative of an assumed shared visual culture of age. 

In reality, there were most likely multiple and overlapping visual cultures of age in early America. Would the slaves who appeared in the runaway advertisements have agreed with the numeric age assigned to them, especially when these individuals systematically had their birthdates withheld from them? Those who were turned down by Reverend Collin, always lower-class youth, clearly disagreed with his assessment of their ages otherwise they would not have tried to get married by him in the first place. So why does this matter for historians who study childhood and youth? Age intersects with race and gender in more ways than we as historians are recognizing. There is a visual component to age that is being overlooked (no pun intended).

Just as historians have analyzed how historical actors saw race and gender, we need to think about how people saw (and see) age.

About the Author

Holly N.S. WhiteHolly N.S. White (Ph.D., College of William & Mary) 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 tentatively titled “Negotiating American Youth: Age, Law, and Culture in the Early Nineteenth Century.”


1. Historians of childhood and youth have increasingly recognized age as a category of analysis on par with race and gender, especially in their studies on early America. For a few recent examples see Corinne T Field, Struggle for Equal Adulthood; Nicholas L. Syrett, The American Child Bride; Field and Syrett, Age in America; and Jon Grinspan’s The Virgin Vote.

2. 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: The Colonial Era to the Present, ed. Nicholas L. Syrett and Corinne T. Field, (New York: New York University Press, 2015) and Susan J. Pearson, “’Age Ought to Be a Fact’: The Campaign against Child Labor and the Rise of the Birth Certificate” in The Journal of American History, March 2015.

3. Corinne T. Field, “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Age in Early America?”, Common-Place.org, Vol. 17 No. 2, (2017)

4. Furthermore, Field explains that “by the 1830s, lithographers such as Nathaniel Currier and James Baillie pictured idealized bourgeois families celebrating births, consummating marriages, and mourning deaths. These ostentatious prints, paintings, and embroideries increasingly linked family record keeping with financial success.” See Field, “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Age in Early America?”

5. According to the first American legal dictionary, published by John Bouvier in 1839, “Males… at 14 enter the age of puberty… Females… at 12 enter puberty.” Although these ages are of course arbitrary (because the human body enters into the state of puberty at wildly different times), they established a guidepost from which to judge crimes committed by and against children. In other words, if a child had not undergone puberty and thus did not inhabit an “adult” body, how could they be expected to have the reasoning ability of an adult? See John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of the American Union and of the Several States of the American Union, 2 Volumes, Volume 1, (Philadelphia: T. and J.W. Johnson, 1839), 65. 

6. State v. Isaac M. Tidewell and Samuel Lawhorn, 36 S.C.L. 1 (1850).

7. Holly N.S. White, “‘young appearance’: Assessing Age through Appearance in Early America,” The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, September 18th, 2018: https://earlyamericanists.com/2018/09/18/guest-post-young-appearance-assessing-age-through-appearance-in-early-america/

8. 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.

9. Laura Henrietta Wirt to Louisa E Cabell, 20 August 1823, Laura Henrietta Wirt Randall Papers, Virginia Historical Society.  

10. LHW to LEC, 26 February, 1824.

11. Elizabeth Ruffin Cocke Diary, 17 August 1827 in An Evening When Alone: Four Journals of Single Women in the South,1827-1867, ed. Michael O’Brien (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993), 85.

12. For more information on the importance of age at marriage in early America see: Nicholas L. Syrett, American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), Ellen Rothman, Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), Anya Jabour, Scarlett's Sisters: Young Women in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); and Anya Jabour, Marriage in the Early Republic: Elizabeth and William Wirt and the Companionate Ideal (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998).

13. It’s important to note that these ads tell us more about the writers’ assumptions about a shared visual culture of age than about those who would have read it.

14. Sharon M. Block, Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth Century America, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2018), 37.

15. Block, 38.

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