Make Sense of the Census (USA, 1940)

One morning recently my eyes caught a blurb in a magazine article mentioning June 14th being the anniversary of the “birth”  of the Univac I computer (61 years on) – famously used to calculate data from the 1950 US Census. As I sipped my coffee I began to reflect on my experience as an Address Canvasser working for the 2010 US Census – a major part of this job involved going from door to door in several cities in Mercer County using a hand-held GPS device to mark dwelling locations on an electronic touch screen (the data was uploaded through wireless technology to servers used by the US Census). I pondered how much technology has truly changed since 1951 (the UNIVAC 1 operated via vacuum tubes and magnetic tape and probably ran very hot!). My thoughts then naturally gravitated to the recent news about a new US Census milestone  - the 1940 US Census records are available online to download for free (since April 2, 2012). As a librarian and a former US Census worker I felt compelled to learn how to help others find information in these records. The following paragraphs describe how I was able to find my families' 1940 Census info; the intent is to help teach you how to find yours. The 1940 US Census records are made available by the The National Archives and Records Administration. You can begin searching records here.

But let me tell you how I began. I got in touch with my parents and asked them where their parents were living in 1940 (my parents were born in 1941 and 1942 respectively). I was informed that the homes they'd always referred to as where they grew up were not where their parents and older siblings were living in 1940. And my parents – my mother mentioned 3 different house numbers – did not seem so sure ( who could blame them?) of the address info they could provide me. I wrote down the street names/house numbers they mentioned (both dwellings were in Trenton) and began wading into the search interface here.

I must point out that the 1940 Census records – at this time – are not indexed by name. Thousands of volunteers are working to create the name index (they register online, download the indexing software, and train by watching video tutorials). This makes finding Census records from a 1940 address – for the time being - a true hunting process (hopefully a rewarding one).  Currently there are two ways to begin searching. You can search by something called an enumeration district number which appears on every Census file record you can browse through – a number designated to a particular location block.  So how would you know what the enumeration district number is? Well, you wouldn't unless you had that number in the first place – having already found it or from having gotten it from viewing 1930 Census records. The second way to search is through using a menu to enter the state, the county, the city and the street name information – which is what I did. You can then enter the nearest cross street (which I found using Google Maps).

My search returned two enumeration district number files as links and I searched through both of them (I was looking for my maternal grandparents’  home). At this point the search process became something vaguely like searching for a needle in a proverbial haystack. Clicking on either of the EDN (enumeration district number ) files loaded a series of image files of photographed 1940 Census forms to look through - one by one. The Census data is aligned in rows, columns and cells – the generic questions are the headers of the columns. A list of all of the questions asked in the 1940 Census are viewable here. There are buttons to zoom in or out and you can drag the image “by hand” or scroll up or down using the computer mouse.

In column 2 from the left under the “Location” heading is the indication for house number. I began focusing my eyes on these house numbers as I scrolled downward to find any of the ones my parents had mentioned as the possible address. I kept looking...looking...and looking at house numbers. And  I began to notice that the house numbers often do not continue in a sequence that makes much sense at first. This is because typically some residents were not home (and skipped over and returned to) when the Census data was collected:

(Note in this example house number 559 is followed by 222 abruptly)

In the end, I was able to find the two addresses I was looking for - once I gave up on fixating on the household numbers. That is, while glancing over any numbers that were reasonably close to what my parents gave me, I paid closer attention to the names of household members. And bingo! I found my mother's siblings –  they were in a house number a few points off from the ones my mother mentioned as possibilities. And before long I also found the info about my paternal grandparents the same way. I was able to download both image files and email them to my siblings and parents immediately. I noticed a few interesting things – for instance that my mother's father (who died long before I was born) had listed his occupation as “jewelery salesman” (I was never sure what he did for a living). And interestingly, no person on his block listed having completed a school grade beyond 8th (which was clearly typical of the time and place).

So, have fun and explore those 1940 US Census records. It might seem tricky at first, and the images can be a little blurry in many cases, but you may be surprised what you can find within about an hour –  maybe later, hopefully sooner. And once again it's free - and belongs to all of us!

- J. Oliver
Photo credits:
Middle, Bottom - National Archives


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