New York City's Vital Records:
The City Registry Act of 1853

By James Pylant


    In 1853, an act requiring a registry of births, marriages and deaths was passed by the New York State Legislature. It applied only to New York City; other areas, it was deemed, could not afford the higher pay and penalties. The New York Times advised doctors and clergymen and others assisting with either marriages or births to “study up their duties” and avoid penalties. The newspaper reported the requirements for record keeping:1

Every person who performs the marriage ceremony is to keep a registry of each marriage he celebrates, containing the name, surname, residence, age and condition, whether widowed or single, of the parties married. Physicians and professional midwives must keep a record of the births that occur under their superintendence, with the time of the birth, sex and color of the child, and the names and residences of the parents. These records are to be reported by the first Monday of each month to the City Inspector. Any failure to perform the duties required under this law, subjects one to a fine of $50, of which one-half goes to reward the complainant, and quicken his apprehensions another time. The clergyman is to get his fee by taking a dollar from the couple he makes happy—which, we suspect, will be in diminution of his own perquisites, after all. Now let the Inspector reconsider and improve the nomenclature of his “death” blanks, and we shall have very soon a body of vital statistics of which we may properly be proud.

Statewide registration of births, marriages and deaths — with the exception of the five boroughs of New York City — began in 1880. Nevertheless, the law was not strictly enforced and registrations for births were an estimated fifty percent incomplete for the next thirty-five years. By comparison, registrations of deaths neared ninety percent completion by 1890. That changed drastically when the state passed a law in 1915 to impose penalties on slacking registrars. The 1880 statewide registration, however, does not cover vital records for Albany, Buffalo and Yonkers, which did not file with the state until 1914. Earlier vital records for those three cities were recorded, but only at local offices.2

  1. “The City Registry Act,” The New York Times, Mon., 4 Jul. 1853, pp. 4.
  2. Elizabeth L. Nichols, “Statewide Civil Vital Registration in the United States,” The Genealogical Helper, Vol. 34 (May-June, 1980), No. 3, pp. 7, 11-12.

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