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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Census

A Few More Details about the 1940s Census

Census records are kept sealed for 72 years, from the date at which they were taken. So the April 1,1940 records were just opened for the first time last week. The experts at Ancestry.com have done an amazing job of photographing every page and arranging the images, so that genealogists can find the pages by state, county, city (called "inhabited place"), and ward. Indexing by name will take much longer, so for now you can't enter a name and hope to find that person. And until the indexing is finished, finding your ancestors will take some time, since it depends on scrolling through page after page of handwritten data. Still, you can find the people you are looking for if you know where they lived. As a member of Ancestry.com, I was able to register to be notified when the two states I'm most interested in exploring have been indexed and made available.

What was happening in 1940? Well for some of us old-timers, we were busy getting born, learning to crawl, tasting real food for the first time, and keeping our parents up all night. For the rest of you, it was still "the olden days." But chances are really good that you know, or remember, someone whose life is being revealed for the first time. 1940 was the year that most of Europe was already caught up in a major war, but America was still almost 2 years away from entering WWII. For the United States, the crucial issue was recovery from the Great Depression, and you'll find signs of that all through the census questions.

Among the questions asked of everyone were these:
  • Do you own or rent your home?
  • Have you moved in the past year?
  • Do you share that home with others, and if so, what is their relationship to you?
  • Are you employed? If not, are you receiving unemployment pay?
  • Have you changed jobs in the past year?
  • Exactly what kind of work do you do?
  • What kind of company, establishment, or individual employs you?
  • How many hours did you work last week?
  • How many weeks were you employed during the past year?
  • What is your annual salary?

For a few randomly-selected individuals (about 1 in 10-15) additional questions included:
  • Birthplace of father and mother
  • Are you a veteran or a dependent of a veteran?
  • Do you have a Social Security number?
  • Do you have some other form of old-age insurance?
  • What is your usual occupation (what you are trained to do, not necessarily current employment)?

And for women:
  • Have you been married more than once?
  • Age at first marriage?
  • How many children have you given birth to?

Here's one random example, pulled from my own home town. One of the people selected for addition questioning was a 42-year-old unmarried man who lived with his father, an older brother, and an older sister in a rented home. In the main data, he is listed as a laborer, employed by the government in a project to wash City Hall, and his total income for the year was $520.
In the supplementary section, he was not a veteran, had no Social Security or old-age insurance, and considered himself to be a crane operator in the bridge construction business.

The details are fascinating and eye-opening. Prepare to be shocked -- and then grateful for what you have.