How our Days Became Numbered: The Development of a Statistical Infrastructure of Risk in the United States, 1873-1935

Dan Bouk

Social Security Records Filing Cabinets in late 1930s Candler Building, from the online SSA History Archives,

How Our Days Became Numbered explores the ways that life insurers in the second half of the nineteenth century struggled to extend their practices of risk—their techniques for understanding the world and its inhabitants—across the United States, crossing boundaries of race, region, and class in the process. By training thousands of doctors and lawyers to read risk written on Americans’ bodies and in their pasts, by contesting ideals of racial equality, and by “smoothing” away the chance inherent to capitalism, insurers created a more thickly numbered nation—a national statistical community defined by centralized databases, widespread networks of professional observers, not a little fatalism, and an abiding faith that fundamental, lasting truths about the past, present, and future could be grasped through probability.

In 1905, scandals rocked the industry, opening up spaces for alternative practices of risk to gain a foothold in and around life insurance, practices that attempted to change risk, that saw risk assessments as a tool for doing more than predicting the future. Turning to these changing practices of risk, the project considers what Irving Fisher called “the Modern Conception” of death—the belief that the use of life insurance statistics and medical networks could make life extendible. It also uncovers new means for valuing lives (in dollars and risk ratings) intended to promote public health, personal savings, or slim figures (and promulgated by so varied a cast as the composer Charles Ives, the biomathematician Alfred Lotka, and the statistician Louis Dublin). But using risk for reform could also re-inscribe old inequities, as it did for African Americans seeking life insurance. Finally, in Social Security, the project finds an old age insurance program that—out of an internal tension between older insurance principles and newer “social” risk practices—numbered every American.