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Charmed Life

Social Studies

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 7/4/2001

How did 40,000 people come to impersonate Mrs. Hilda Schrader Whitcher? Why was Otto von Bismarck--the "Iron Chancellor"--an inspiration for President Franklin Roosevelt? Don't have a clue? Well, the answers can be found in Woodlawn, home of the Social Security Administration's History Room.

Baltimore is home to a number of niche museums--quirky repositories celebrating everything from light bulbs to dentistry equipment to circus sideshows. However, though little heralded, since 1963 it has also hosted a museum dedicated to the federal program dubbed "the largest bookkeeping operation in the history of the world." (Stifle that yawn. The place is fascinating. Really.)

Housed on the first floor of the main building within the sprawling Social Security Administration (SSA) campus, the museum is open to the public, albeit by appointment only. (Thanks to the Oklahoma City bombing, it's a little difficult to go blithely traipsing into federal buildings these days.) The place is run by SSA historian Larry DeWitt, who's happy to show folks around; about 1,000 people a year take the tour. First stop is The Pen, which DeWitt calls his "most prized possession." It's the writing instrument Roosevelt used to sign the Social Security Act into law in 1935. Next is a display chronicling the roots of the Social Security concept. It's here that a photo of a bewhiskered, spiked-helmet-clad Bismarck makes an appearance. Seems the German chancellor pioneered the concept of state pensions back in 1884. (Some 34 other countries had launched similar plans by the time the United States got around to it.)

The Depression, with its shuttered factories and bread lines, kick-started the movement here. Or, as exhibit signage puts it: proposals for dramatic social and economic change spread like weeds from the soil of the nation's discontent. This can be translated to mean that a number of wild-eyed demagogues came to the fore to capture millions of followers. Perhaps the most colorful of the demagogues were the pugnacious populist Sen. Huey "Kingfish" Long (father of "Louisiana politics," if you know what I mean and I'll bet you do) and firebrand Father Charles Coughlin, who used the airwaves to promote nationalized banking and anti-Semitism (earning him the title "the father of hate radio"). Champions of "the common man," these and other radicals didn't just want to tax the rich--they wanted to soak 'em good. (Long famously said no American should be allowed to have more than 1 million bucks, but promised each citizen a home, a car, and a radio.) The exhibit includes a video clip of Ina Ray Hutton and Her All-Girl Orchestra performing Long's theme song, "Every Man a King."

"We don't have these types of guys around anymore," DeWitt remarks.

Of course, calmer heads prevailed, and Social Security went from concept to signed law in just 14 months. Oddly enough, according to records, the first Social Security card was issued to John David Sweeney Jr., a wealthy Republican who hadn't voted for FDR. A Cleveland streetcar motorman, who retired the day after the system went into effect, is listed as the first to receive a Social Security check--for a whopping 17 cents.

The museum explains how the SSA came to be orphaned from the rest of the federal bureaucracy and placed here in Baltimore. When SSA was forming in the 1930s, no office buildings in Washington had floors strong enough to hold the gazillions of filing cabinets needed. So the SSA moved into Baltimore's rugged Candler Building (which still looms over the Inner Harbor). The move was supposed to be temporary, but as the agency bloomed--and its payroll swelled--local politicos scrambled to make sure it never left. Operations moved to Woodlawn in 1960.

One of the most recent items on display is SSA's first personal computer, a 256k IBM PC bought in 1983 from a Towson computer store. It has two, count 'em, two floppy drives, but no hard drive. The price tag: $9,600.

Oh, and what of Mrs. Hilda Schrader Whitcher? She was a secretary for a New York wallet manufacturer that, in 1938, started including a faux Social Security card in its wallets for demonstration purposes. In what, in hindsight, can be seen as a corporate blunder, company brass elected to use Whitcher's actual number--078-05-1120--on the phony card. The card was the wrong size, the wrong color, and had the word specimen emblazoned on it. No matter. Over the next 34 years, some 40,000 wallet-buyers claimed Whitcher's digits as their own. The hapless secretary, subsequently given a new number, said of the debacle, "I can't understand how people can be so stupid."

For a virtual tour of the SSA History Room and/or information about going there in person, visit www.ssa.gov/history/history.html.

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