Genealogy Studies Program

Measuring Age

2016 is a Leap Year and the news is full of people who are turning 100 after celebrating only twenty-five actual birthdays. The passage of time has been measured in many ways and genealogists must adapt and account for traditions, scientific adjustments, and perceptual ways of measuring people’s ages. For instance, before about 1800, most Americans counted how old they were by starting with birth and saying they were then “in my first year.” This is technically correct, but not the way we usually think of age now – a measure of how much time has elapsed, thus retrospective as in “baby is five months old.”

This particular historical practice sometimes causes genealogists to question the identities of same name people. Joseph Donohue’s gravestone says he died in 1790 in his fiftieth year. If a modern-day genealogist assumes Joseph is fifty in 1790, his birth would be in 1740. If the genealogist only seriously considered people of that name with birth dates in 1740, she or he would completely miss the true birth record in 1741, or worse, adopt someone who had the same name and had a birth record or calculated age in 1740.

Another major thing about age perception. People tend to round up, or sometimes round down, when estimating age. Tens and fives in an age can be a sign that someone is not sure of the answer. In cases where you don’t know who is the informant to an age, as in a U.S. census, be cautious in accepting that adults are ‘exactly’ 40 or 45, for example. The informant might just be going by appearances or guesswork. When that answer is 47, you are far more likely to have a dependable answer than an easily rounded number.

Melinde Lutz Byrne