Detailed Chronology of Social Insurance & Social Security: Part 1: 1600s — 1800s

th-1NOTE: The following pages present a detailed historical chronology of the development of social insurance, with particular emphasis on Social Security. Items are included in this compilation on the basis of their significance for Social Security generally, their importance as precedents, their value in reflecting trends or issues, or their significance in Social Security Administration’s administrative history. The information includes legislative events in Social Security and related programs. Our expectation is that this Chronology can be used as a reference tool and finding aid for important dates and events in Social Security’s long history.

 (SPECIAL NOTE: The bulk of this Chronology was compiled over nearly 20 years by Dr. Abe Bortz, the    first Social Security Administration Historian. We owe a special debt of gratitude to Abe Bortz for this sustained effort.)


1600s – 1800s

1636 Harvard College founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1647 Massachusetts Bay Colony required an elementary school in towns of 50 families.

1765 The Pennsylvania Hospital (in Philadelphia) first institution in the U.S. exclusively for the care of the sick. Funded by voluntary subscriptions.

1785 First Federal grant made: land was allocated for establishing public schools in the Northwest Territory.

1787 The Northwest Ordnance endowed States and territorial universities with land grants.

1789 The Federal Government accepted the responsibility of providing pensions to disabled veterans of the Revolutionary War.

1793 The first local health department with a permanent board of health was formed in Baltimore, Maryland.

1795 Thomas Paine wrote his pamphlet, “Agrarian Justice,” (published in English in 1797) in which he proposed a social insurance program for the nations of Europe and potentially for the young American Republic.

1796 The founding of the Boston Dispensary, Boston, Massachusetts, was the first organized medical care service in New England. This was the recognized forerunner of present day home care programs.

July 16, 1798 The Marine Hospital Service was established by an act of Congress, to provide for the temporary relief and maintenance of sick and disabled seamen. This was the first prepaid medical care program in the United States, financed through compulsory employer tax and federally administered. This service later became the Public Health and Marine Hospital Service, predecessor to the Public Health Service of today.

March 2, 1799 States were given Federal help in quarantine law enforcement. The Marine Hospital Service extended to Navy men.

May 3, 1803 The first permanent Marine hospital was authorized to be built in Boston, Massachusetts.

1831 First trade union unemployment insurance plan in the United States was adopted.

1847 The American Medical Association was founded and began the formation of State and local societies.

1855 The Government Hospital for the Insane was established (later became St. Elizabeth’s Hospital of Washington, D.C.)

1857 The first municipal pension fund was established providing disability and death benefits for New York City police.

1857 The Columbia Institution for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind was founded (later became Gallaudet College).

1860 The United States Census reported 849,000 persons 65 and over (2.7% of the United States population).

1867 Federal Department of Education was established.

1868 The first major industrial medical care prepayment program, the hospital department of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, was organized in Sacramento, California.

1869 The first State Board of Health in the United States was formed in Massachusetts.

1872 The American Public Health Association was organized. During its early years this organization was composed largely of administrative health officers who were concerned with public health in cities, States, and with the responsibilities of the Federal Government in this field.

1875 The first private pension plan in American industry was adopted by American Express. It provided benefits for employees 60 years of age or over who had 20 years service with the company and were incapacitated for further performance of duty.

1881 Germany’s Emperor, William the First, in a ground-breaking letter to the German Parliament, proposed the adoption of old-age social insurance.

1882 The first major employee-sponsored mutual benefit association was established by the Northern Pacific Railway Beneficial Association which developed a program of complete medical care and other benefits financed by employer-employee payments.

1883 Germany enacted a pioneer law on national compulsory health and maternity insurance for industrial workers and their families.

1888 Austria adopted compulsory health insurance legislation.

1889 Germany became the first nation in the world to adopt an old-age social insurance program. Designed by Germany’s Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, the idea was first put forward, at Bismarck’s behest, in 1881.

1889 The International Congress of Industrial Accidents assembled in Paris. This was the forerunner to the International Social Security Association (ISSA). The Congress established the Permanent International Committee on Social Insurance.

1891 Hungary adopted compulsory health insurance legislation.

1894 The first statutory retirement system for teachers was adopted in New York City.

1894 A school health program was inaugurated in Boston as a means of controlling communicable diseases.

1895 Finland adopted an accident compensation law.

1896 The first statewide legislation for teachers’ pensions was enacted in New Jersey.

1896 Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company became the first American life insurance organization to provide disability benefits.

1897 The first State law to provide medical and surgical aid for crippled children was enacted by Minnesota.

1897 Great Britain adopted accident compensation laws.

1898 Denmark and Italy adopted accident compensation laws.

1898 A workmen’s compensation bill was defeated in the New York State legislature.

1898 The National Voluntary Old Age Insurance Institution was organized in Italy.

1898 The first State law in the USA providing pensions for the blind was enacted in Ohio.

Editor’s Note:  Part II: 1900 — 1920s

Source: Social Security Administration:


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