How Social Security Numbers Work

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 

The First Social Security Numbers

So who got that first number? According to government historians, no one knows for sure. The first card was issued sometime in mid-November 1936 at one of the 1,074 typing centers. Officially, no cards should have been issued before Nov. 16, SSA historians say, provided that the 45,000 local post offices followed procedure, which is unlikely. Even if the first issuance date could be determined, it's likely that hundreds of thousands of citizens across the country received their cards on that day [source: SSA].

The First "Official" Record

Once received in Baltimore, SSN records were grouped in sections of 1,000, and master records (on the earnings and Social Security taxes of each individual) were formulated.


When the first block of records was complete, the head of the SSA's Division of Accounting Operations pulled off the top record — SSN 055-09-0001 — and designated it as the first official card [source: SSA].

That first Social Security record was assigned to a 23-year-old New York man, John David Sweeney, Jr. Ironically, Sweeney died in 1974 at the age of 61 without ever receiving any Social Security benefits (full retirement age was initially set at 65; today, benefits are reduced by five-ninths of 1 percent for each month you are retired before 65, up to a maximum of 20 percent for people who retire the month they reach 62). Sweeney's widow, however, did receive benefits until she died eight years later [source: SSA].

The Low-number Holder

Concord, New Hampshire, resident Grace D. Owen was issued the first card typed in Concord, which because of the numbering scheme happened to be the card with the lowest possible number — 001-01-0001. Owen received the number after it had been offered (as an honor) and declined by both John G. Winant, Social Security board chairman, and John Campbell, Federal Bureau of Old Age Benefits' regional representative for the Boston region [source: SSA].

Who Was the First to Receive Social Security Benefits?

During the Social Security program's startup period between January 1937 and December 1939, the SSA only made one-time, lump-sum payments. According to SSA historians, Ernest Ackerman was the first recipient of Social Security benefits — 17 cents, paid to him in January 1937. The first person to receive monthly benefits was Ida May Fuller from Vermont, who retired in November 1939 and started collecting benefits in January 1940 at age 65. In the three years that Fuller worked under the program, she contributed a total of $24.75. Her first benefit check was for $22.54 and she went on collecting benefits for 35 years, until 1975, when she died at age 100. In this time she collected a total of $22,888.92 [source: SSA].