Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Availability of PA Vital Records

I thought it might be useful, particularly for some beginners but also for those like me who always forget, to list when and where vital records from Pennsylvania tend to be available. So here's a quick reference list.

Births and Deaths

  • 1852 - 1854. This was a failed attempt of PA counties to record births and deaths statewide and they are usually available from the county Register of Wills (go to the county's government website) or archives. Sometimes, they may be available online, or an index of them will be.
  • 1873/1893 - 1905. This was a more successful attempt of counties to record births and deaths, most began in 1893 but a few (including Philadelphia, Chester, Cumberland, and Fulton) began in 1873. Some collections may go beyond 1905, for example, Philadelphia goes to 1915. These are also usually available at county level, from either the county Register of Wills (go to the county's government website) or archives. Sometimes, they may be available online (check with but also, sometimes counties will make the index available online, for example Berks County Register of Wills Index).
  • 1906 - 1963 Deaths and 1906 - 1908 Births. This was when the state took over the recording of births and deaths and actually began issuing official certificates. Up to this point, birth and death collections are merely registers or recordings, not certificates. Non-certified copies of certificates are available to order for a small fee from the PA State Archives by mail but will soon be available on (with a subscription).
  • For births or deaths preceding 1852 or between 1854 and 1873/1893, check at county or especially city level. Big cities were more likely to start recording sooner. For example, the Philadelphia City Archives has Philadelphia deaths from 1803, a collection from various city sources (hospital records, cemetery returns, etc) - the index for it is available at And Pittsburgh started recording births and deaths in 1870. But mostly, you will be looking for baptism/christening or death/burial records from churches, obituaries, cemetery records/gravestones, and probate records (such as wills) instead. Some births which occurred before 1906 were issued a delayed registration certificate beginning in 1941 and are usually found at the county seat.
  • Death certificates after 1963 and births certificates after 1908 have not been released to the public. The Pennsylvania Department of Health, who issues the birth and death certificates, releases death certificates 50 years after they were issued and birth certificates 105 years after they were issued (so the most recent years will increase as time goes on, if I forget to update this, be aware that more recent years might be available). To order a certified copy of a birth or death certificate which has not yet been released to the public from the Department of Health, you must be able to provide identification proving you are ordering your own birth certificate, or that you are immediate family, legal representative, or power of attorney. Certified copies of death certificates can also be ordered by extended family members but only those who have a "direct relationship with the decedent". Alternatively, the Social Security Death Index is available on from 1935 to present (though keep in mind not all deaths are listed here, only those with social security numbers whose deaths were reported, usually for benefits) and other options include obituaries, church records, or cemetery records/gravestones.

  • 1885 - present. Counties statewide began recording marriages/issuing marriage certificates in 1885 and continue to do so today so government recordings of marriages from this period will be found at county level, usually from the county clerk of orphans' court (see the county's government website). Some may be available online - has Pennsylvania County Marriages from 1885 - 1950, however, not all counties in this collection cover this entire period.
  • Marriage recordings prior to 1885 can sometimes be found from the county or city so check on a more local level to see what might be available - either the county or city government website. But usually, you will have to look for church records or newspaper announcements. 

For more details about this topic, see's wiki page of Pennsylvania Vital Records. This is just a quick reference guide.

Also check out's Pennsylvania BMD records in their card catalog (you can narrow it down to county level too) and's Pennsylvania collections.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Spinster's Chance in Hell of Marrying

Think an "old" spinster in history didn't have a chance in hell of ever marrying? Often I see people with this misconception, that in history, once a woman was passed a certain age, she had little to no hope of ever marrying and would be considered an old maid. The specified age varies, some people seem to think it was as low as 18! Others are a little more realistic and put it around early to mid 20s.

In my experience, the average age at first marriage for women was actually in the early to mid-20s and therefore an unmarried woman of this age would not necessarily be considered an old maid, doomed to a barren, solitary life. Though there are plenty of examples of women who married for the first time aged 30+, this is closer to the age group I would label "old maid" or "spinster" since this is the smallest age group of women marrying for the first time. But it was certainly not unheard of. Consider the fact that childbirth took many female lives and left widowers with young children and no mother to take care of them. Often, a man might be pleased to take an older, never before married second wife to look after his children. It would mean he wouldn't have to take in her fatherless children from a previous marriage and since he already had children by his first wife, he would not have been as concerned about whether his second wife was still young enough to bare children or not. Of course, plenty of women then and now are able to start having children well into their 30s and even 40s but it does become less and less likely as time goes on.

But take, for example, my recent venture into studying the marriages of Butler County, Pennsylvania. I have ancestry there, mostly around the mid 19th century, and for the purpose of my family history writings, I wanted to get an idea of the average age that a woman would marry for the first time in this location during this time period, and also at what age the local law said a woman could marry without a parent's or guardian's consent. Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania County Marriages collection at only have marriage records for Butler County going back to 1885 but it was as close as I was going to get to the mid-1800s. Here are the results, I hope you find the stats as interesting as I do, though please keep in mind that different locations and different time periods may have different results, particularly regarding the age at which one can marry without consent of a parent or guardian needed. However, I would not be surprised if at least most of Pennsylvania had similar results, just based on my general experience doing genealogy research. If I had the time, I would do this for each available county in PA but for now, I sampled 300 records (out of about 630, basically the first half of folder 004811571) of the 1885-1886 records to get these stats.

In Butler County, PA, anyone under the age of 21, male or female, needed consent from a parent or guardian to marry. While this doesn't mean that marrying under 21 was unusual, especially for women, it does go against our idea that children grew up faster and married significantly younger, as teenagers. Needing consent to marry before the age of 21 suggests that people under this age were viewed as too young to make their own decisions without guidance and approval. In fact, the term "filia" was often used to refer to those under 21, which is a legal term for a child or minor. Compared to today's laws where people reach the age of majority and can marry without consent from the age of 18, the laws from the 1880s seem very conservative.

84% of men were marrying for the first time, while 95% of women were marrying for the first time.

The average age of men at their first marriage was 26. Only 4% of men married under the age of 21 and therefore required parent or guardian consent. This is not unusual in a time when a husband was expected to support his wife and children so men were encouraged to wait until they had either steady work, set up their own shop, or established their own farm before they married and began having children. The youngest men married at 18 years old so there were no cases of men marrying under 18 at all. This suggests men were not able to marry under the age of 18 even with consent of a parent. The oldest age at which a man married for the first time was 47.

The average age of women at their first marriages was 23 and 30% of women married under the age of 21, requiring their parent's or guardian's consent. This means the majority of women certainly did not marry as teenagers, but that it wasn't unheard of, with 22% of women marrying under 20. The lowest age at first marriage for a woman was 15, suggesting girls under this age could not at all, even with consent. The highest age at which a woman first married was 49 years. Take that, spinsterhood!

Now let's look at some of the age differences between the bride and groom, since there also seems to be a misconception that it was very common for a teenage girl to be married off to a 30+ year old man. Again, not unheard of but also not the norm. In 88% of cases, the bride and groom were within an age difference of 10 or fewer years. In fact, in 10%, the bride was actually older than the groom! Of the remaining cases in which there was a higher age difference of 11 or more years, 30% of them had a teenage bride (or in other words, 4% out of the total had an age gap of higher than 10 and included a teenage bride). The largest age different was 25 years, the groom being 47 and the bride 22.

Lastly, I did record some data from second (or third) marriages as well. The average age for a man at the time of a second (or third) marriage was 41, with the youngest age being 25 and the oldest 64. For a woman, the average was 40, with the youngest being 23 and the oldest 50. Divorce was certainly taboo but don't kid yourself that it never happened or that it was illegal - there were 4 cases where the groom remarrying had divorced his first wife and one case where the bride had divorced her first husband.

Today, the average age at first marriage for men across the U.S. is 29 and for women, it's 27. So while it's true that people tended to marry younger in the past, it was not so drastic as some people seem to think, with the averages instead being around 26 and 23 respectively (at least for Butler County, PA). I recall once hearing someone say that in the past, if one wasn't married by 18, they were "done", or had no hope of marrying. Hopefully, with these examples, I have helped to dispel these kinds of myths.

Update: I have since compiled another 225 marriage records from 1891, also in Butler County, Pennsylvania, just to be sure the previous year I calculated wasn't some kind of fluke and found the stats were very similar.

  • Average age at first marriage for men: 26
  • Average age at first marriage for women: 22
  • Oldest man marrying for the first time: 49
  • Youngest man marrying for the first time: 19
  • Oldest woman marrying for the first time: 45
  • Youngest woman marrying for the first time: 15
  • 4% of men married under the age of 21 and therefore required parental consent
  • 32% of women married under 21 and required parental consent
  • 89% of men were marrying for the first time
  • 95% of women were marrying for the first time
  • Average age of men marrying for 2nd or 3rd time: 38
  • Average age of women marrying for 2nd or 3rd time: 34
  • 25% of men marrying for the 2nd/3rd time had been divorced
  • 17% of women marrying for the 2nd/3rd time had been divorced