Daniel Ewert

Alumni; Ph.D. 2023

Dissertation Title:
Punitive Paperwork: Fingerprinting and Criminal Background Checks in Modern America

I am a historian of the twentieth-century United States, specializing in political history, labor history, urban history, the carceral state, and the history of information systems and technology. Before entering graduate school, I worked as a public defense investigator in Brooklyn, NY helping indigent defendants get high-quality legal representation in criminal and immigration cases. I am currently an Ambrose Monell Foundation National Fellow in Technology and Democracy at the Jefferson Scholars Institute.

My dissertation, “The Paper Prison: Fingerprinting and Criminal Background Checks in Modern America,” tracks the rise of mass fingerprinting as a means for conducting criminal background checks on tens of millions of Americans in the twentieth century. At a time when new techniques of criminal identification allowed law enforcement to link an arrested suspect's body to a permanent record of their arrests and convictions, employers and administrators in civil government began experimenting with fingerprinting applicants for jobs and civil benefits in order to discover their criminal histories. My dissertation tracks how criminal records and applicant fingerprints moved through the analog and early digital information infrastructure, exposing people with criminal histories to potentially lifelong consequences for a criminal arrest or conviction. Criminal background checks became a way for law enforcement to search for fugitives and so-called "habitual offenders" among applicants for civil benefits, a means by which employers could surveil workers, and a way to manage scarce jobs and welfare resources by denying benefits to people with criminal records. Broadly, my work explores the connective tissue between the carceral state, policing, employment, criminology, and inequality.

My time in graduate school has included significant work in public history at Princeton and beyond. I worked as a museum educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the New-York Historical Society in New York City, and recently completed a 14-month Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in History Education at the Museum of the City of New York, where I also worked as a consulting scholar for an exhibition titled Analog City: NYC B.C. (Before Computers). I am a contributor to the Princeton & Slavery Project, documenting the historical ties between Princeton University and the institution of slavery. Working with Professor Alison Isenberg and a team of undergraduate interns, I helped supervise a project to digitally map unrest in the 1968 urban uprising in Trenton, NJ.

I have worked as an assistant instructor for Professor Kevin Kruse's twentieth-century history course and spent three summers teaching incoming Princeton undergraduates from first-generation, lower-income, and veteran backgrounds at Princeton's Freshman Scholars Institute. I am a Graduate Fellow at the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning and have worked as a Fellow at the Princeton Writing Center.

I have a B.A. from Yale University, which I attended as a first-generation college student.

Degree Year
Year of Study
Area of Interest
African American
Gender & Sexuality
Political History
Social History
Urban History
Home Department & Other Affiliations
20th Century
United States