The 1940 U.S. Census

If you happen to be a social historian or genealogist, this is old news. But if you haven’t heard yet: the U.S. National Archives released the records of the 1940 U.S. Census earlier this month. Demand was so high in the first day or two that the site crashed, but it’s up and running smoothly now.

Poster for the 1940 Census
Library of Congress

The 1940 Census is a remarkable trove of information about American society as it came out of the Great Depression and entered World War II and the peak of the so-called “American Century.” As the Star Tribune reported recently, the University of Minnesota’s renowned Minnesota Population Center — which already has the world’s largest collection of census data, spanning centuries and continents — will be partnering with genealogy site Ancestry.com to make all the 1940 data searchable.

But for now, you can still find family members (and famous people, perhaps) if you know where they lived in 1940. If you’ve got a street address, that’s ideal. If not, you’ll be stuck looking through “enumeration districts.” (The phrase “needle in a haystack” comes to mind.)

Now, even if you don’t know the city and street where your ancestor lived, you might still be able to find them by searching the 1930 census (linked at the 1940 site above), which has already been coded so that researchers can search by name. So long as your relative didn’t move between 1930 and 1940, you should be able to narrow down to the district they lived in.

Then you’ll have the chance to look at scanned images of the actual schedules that census-takers used to record data, including:

  • Name/gender/age/relationship within the household
  • Place of birth
  • Whether the family owned or rented their residence (and how much it was worth or how much it cost to rent)
  • Level of education
  • Employment and salary information

And for two individuals on each schedule page, there were supplementary questions that asked about parents’ place of origin (remember, 1940 wasn’t so far removed from the peak of immigration at the turn of the century) and participation (if any) in the new Social Security program.

As an example of how this data (when supplemented by earlier genealogical research) can both reveal family history and exemplify some themes in U.S. history (e.g., gender, immigration and assimilation, education, social mobility)… I just completed a series of posts at my personal blog reflecting on the census records I found for three of my grandparents.

– Chris Gehrz

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