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As one could imagine, the types of materials available to an individual wishing to prove their identity in late 1800’s to early 1900’s America depended upon whether or not they were an immigrant coming from another country, born in America but with immigrant parents, or were born to a family that had been in America for several generations.
In the late 1800’s to early 1900’s an immigrant coming to the U.S. would more than likely have an Inspection Card, the back of which would serve as a Vaccination Card, and a Landing Card. Other items could have been a Certificate of Naturalization or a Certificate of Identity. The late 1800’s saw the passage of immigration laws such as the Geary Act that required some foreign born citizens to have Certificate of Residence cards. Some examples of these documents can be found while researching our Immigration and Case Files, and a guide to researching these documents can be found here: https://www.archives.gov/files/research/immigration/aliens/pdf/rg-85-how-to-inquire.pdf
During the turn of the century a natural born American whose parents were also born in the U.S. might have a birth certificate, a letter of baptism from a church, a letter from an employer, a letter from a school, a letter from a doctor, a Census record, or in some cases, even a family bible could be used as proof of identity. More information can be found on these types of records via our Genealogical section at: Genealogy Resources | National Archives
It wasn’t until after WW I with the establishment of child labor and compulsory education laws that the birth certificate became a standardized method of proving ones identity in the U.S. As late as 1940 it was estimated that as many as 55 Million Americans did NOT have a birth certificate and the outbreak of WW II served as the inspiration for the U.S. Government to begin a uniform issuance of birth certificates. The Division of Vital Statistics worked with other State and Federal agencies to create a Manual of Uniform Procedures for the Delayed Registration of Births issued by the Bureau of the Census in July 16, 1941.
An excellent history of the compilation of vital statistics in America and thus a discussion over the rise of more accurate ways of creating forms of identification can be found in the e-book Vital Statistics of the United States 1950 Volume 1, created by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. A free e-book copy of this work can be found here: Https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=5mhqAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.PR1