First World War Draft Cards
February 12, 2008 6:57 AM   Subscribe

Famous, infamous, and interesting World War I draft cards, including The Bambino, Groucho, Moe, Satchmo, Scarface, and Sergeant York.

A little background on the Selective Service Act of 1917 and World War I draft registration cards. Via Great War Fiction.
posted by steef (20 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I like that Houdini registered himself as "Harry Handcuff Houdini." His real name (after immigration, of course) was Erich Weiss, so I wonder how he got away with that.
posted by cerebus19 at 7:26 AM on February 12, 2008

Somehow Moe's handwriting looked exactly as I imagined it.
posted by piratebowling at 7:30 AM on February 12, 2008

Why am I not surprised that Al Capone has the nicest handwriting (tied perhaps with Louis Armstrong) after Houdini?

(Damn, Houdini has nice cursive.)
posted by bettafish at 7:36 AM on February 12, 2008

"If person is of African descent, tear off this corner."

The logistics of segregation.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:42 AM on February 12, 2008

Wow, Sgt. York claimed a draft exemption- "Don't want to fight". I had no idea he was a conscientious objector. Nice find!
posted by jenkinsEar at 7:49 AM on February 12, 2008

"strike out words not applicable"
seems annoying, but has filling out forms changed much since WWI?
posted by rainman84 at 7:56 AM on February 12, 2008

Casey Stengel employed by the Brooklyn Ball Club. He was a Dodger, but no draft dodger.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:25 AM on February 12, 2008

Great find!
posted by languagehat at 8:30 AM on February 12, 2008

^ yeah, York was an America-hating traitor. Who knew?
posted by panamax at 8:40 AM on February 12, 2008

"If person is of African descent, tear off this corner."

What was the purpose of that? The reason is clear, but what exactly did the missing corner do?
posted by crapmatic at 8:40 AM on February 12, 2008

I'm guessing it was to make sure that the card didn't get mixed in with those of white folks, perhaps causing the wrong person to be summoned to the wrong place and creating an encounter embarrassing to all concerned. But if someone can turn up a link about it, I'd love to read it.
posted by languagehat at 9:22 AM on February 12, 2008

I just looked at Marx's and Armstrong's cards, and instantly have a bunch of questions:

1) Why are the cards different formats? I would expect them to have been produced centrally by the GPO.

2) Was Armstong really born on July 4, 1900, or was that just the date of record?

As to tearing the corner off the card, it makes it easy to spot them in a stack of cards: there's a gap. It's also easy to split a deck of registration cards at the one with the torn off card by touch. Off course, in those neighbourhoods where whites were rare, their cards would literally stand out of a deck, as well.
posted by djfiander at 9:39 AM on February 12, 2008

Was Armstong really born on July 4, 1900, or was that just the date of record?

He wasn't sure when he was born, so that was the date he used because he liked it. It turns out he was actually born August 4, 1901.
posted by cerebus19 at 10:09 AM on February 12, 2008

It's just a guess, but clipping the corner off of the card certainly makes it a whole lot easier to build a very simple mechanical sorting machine for them.
posted by atbash at 10:12 AM on February 12, 2008

Some good info on the corner-tearing can be found here. An excerpt:
When it came to the draft, however, there was a reversal in usual discriminatory policy. Draft boards were comprised entirely of white men. Although there were no specific segregation provisions outlined in the draft legislation, blacks were told to tear off one corner of their registration cards so they could easily be identified and inducted separately. Now instead of turning blacks away, the draft boards were doing all they could to bring them into service, southern draft boards in particular. One Georgia county exemption board discharged forty-four percent of white registrants on physical grounds and exempted only three percent of black registrants based on the same requirements. It was fairly common for southern postal workers to deliberately withhold the registration cards of eligible black men and have them arrested for being draft dodgers. African American men who owned their own farms and had families were often drafted before single white employees of large planters. Although comprising just ten percent of the entire United States population, blacks supplied thirteen percent of inductees.
posted by cerebus19 at 10:15 AM on February 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

What I'm enjoying is the thought of all these people being put into the same infantry unit, and the surrealness of being a German solider and seeing this cavalcade of celebrities come charging over a hill at you.

Let me tell you, if I saw Moe or Groucho on the hunt for my blood, I'd just surrender right there.
posted by quin at 10:38 AM on February 12, 2008

That's funny, quin! I'm picturing T.S. Eliot, bank clerk, charging a machine gun emplacement: 'Your application for a short-term loan of death has been "Approved"!'
posted by steef at 11:20 AM on February 12, 2008

Alvin York was born 1887, drafted 1917 -- was sufficient manpower that much of an issue that the Army was drafting 30-year-olds? I've been told that in the Second Big Mistake, there were 17-year-olds serving alongside men twice their age, but I never knew that the First Big Mistake had that many Americans under arms in such a short time.
posted by pax digita at 11:39 AM on February 12, 2008

To answer djfiander's #1: there were three separate registrations, on June 5th, 1917; June 5th, 1918; and September 12th, 1918. That's why the cards have different formats. They updated them to get better or more information (see the background link, above).
posted by steef at 2:00 PM on February 12, 2008

The self-categorizing "slender, medium, or stout" on the back of the cards is what's funny to me. Imagine how well that would go over today.

Also, why do they need to know if you're bald? Would that really prevent them from drafting you?
posted by Quidam at 2:44 PM on February 12, 2008

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