The 1940 Census

Today, April 2, 2012, marks 72 years after the 1940 U.S. Census and the first day that the public will have free online access to the entire census via the National Archives and Records Administration. At 9:00 a.m. EST, the census will be released via a live webcast. You can start watching the webcast at 8:30 a.m.

1940 U.S. Map - all 48 states. Alaska and Hawaii were not states at the time. Click for image source.

If you follow news any of the many archivists, archives or libraries on Twitter or Facebook, you may have heard that the release of 1940 U.S. Census is a big deal. This clip from NPR provides an interesting perspective about the census:

This lifting of the veil takes place every 10 years, but William Maury, chief historian at the U.S. Census Bureau, says this census offers some particularly interesting information. “The 1940 census was very close to the end of the Depression, but it was also right at the beginning of all the uncertainties associated with World War II,” Maury says. “The census itself tells terrific stories about what we were as a people and what we are as a people now.

Why 72 years later? The simple answer is that U.S. Law requires a 72 year privacy mandate. The date for the 1940 census was set at April 1. Since April 1 was a Sunday this year, the release is April 2.

Currently, the census information will not be searchable by names, but you will be able to search by enumeration districts. An enumeration district is essentially an area covered by an enumerator (census worker) in a certain period (two weeks in urban areas of one month in rural areas), and these districts were created for record keeping purposes. And the information you can learn? The 1940 Census asked many more questions than previous censuses. It will also include if people worked for the CCC, WPA or NYA. Additionally, there is a question that asks where the person lived in 1935. That adds a much deeper layer to research. See a blank 1940 census form here or here’s an easier version to read.

AP Photo/Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

According to, the 1940 census will be available (and free) in searchable form in mid April.  Check out a comparison between the 1940 Census and the 2010 Census. Read a good blog post from The History Blog about the history of the census and the importance of the  1940 Census.

If you’re not a genealogist, why should this matter to you? While you may not be researching many people, you’ll be able to find your great-grandparents, grandparents or your parents documented in this census with more information than ever before. Imagine your grandparents and great-grandparents being interviewed by the enumerator walking door to door in the city or walking and driving down dusty dirt roads from farm to farm. Of course, it sounds much more exciting than the boring forms we fill out today. Regardless, all of the information is critical to understanding the composition of the United States.

Obviously, the country looked much different in 1940; the census will augment historical records and research that we  have, and will aid future researchers.

I am excited research my grandparents, all of whom were very young for the 1930 census, but will be at least of working age in 1940. This extra decade of census information will add greater detail to my family’s history, which is important to me as it allows me to understand my place in history and my family. If you’re researching, have fun!  Read this information from the National Archives about how to get started.

Road Trip Report 14

Brief notes on the trip, state by state, with sights, places, and photographs.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Every route takes longer than planned on a road trip, at least in our experience. On our across-Wisconsin day we were a bit behind schedule, but we were trying very hard to get to Milwaukee, WI at a reasonable hour (i.e. daylight, not dusk) on this Sunday afternoon. Always on some form of schedule, we knew that it would be our only chance to visit Milwaukee. So we hopped on the interstate (knowingly violating our rule and found ourselves in Milwaukee in the late evening. Luckily, the day was still golden and sunny.

My grandmother grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and has always spoke of it fondly. I have seen pictures of her house and the views of Lake Michigan. While my grandmother loves being a New Yorker, she holds Milwaukee as one of the best places in the world.  I love looking at photographs of her family house, so I thought that finally being in Wisconsin offered a great chance to see the house for myself. I knew the address and how to get there. My plan was to knock on the front door and politely say my grandmother grew up here, would you mind if I took some pictures of the front of the house and looked in the backyard for the view?

The woman who answered the door obliged, but didn’t say much else. I figured that would be the end of it – I’d take a few pictures and leave. As I snapped a few photographs of the front yard, a man walked out from the backyard. We said hello. Charles was very friendly and cordial and asked who my grandmother was. When I told him her maiden name, he said he knew the family! This man, a stranger to me and most of my family, knows some of my grandmother’s family! He invited Vinny and me into the backyard to take some photographs while he went inside to get something. As fate would have it, Charles’ grandfather was the husband of my great-aunt Mary (my grandmother’s sister). Mary died when she was young, so then her widower remarried. Charles is the grandson of Mary’s widower. Charles bought it only a few years ago. Thus, we’re distantly related. But, still related! I’m not sure of the exact chain-of-title for the house, but it was obviously kept in the family.

Aside from this surprise, the box of photographs and scrapbooks astounded me.  He had photographs that I have, ones that I’ve seen, many that I haven’t seen. Mary was the scrapbooker in the family and kept everything. When she died, her husband saved it all and passed it along. We looked through the photographs and I identified pictures of my grandmother, my father, my uncle, my great-grandmother. Charles shared stories of my great-aunt that I never knew. It was amazing. Charles didn’t know many people in the photographs, but said that he couldn’t get rid of any of them because someone knows who they are.  It is now one of my favorite quotes.

The house looks just as it did in photographs from about 50 years ago. Charles said he had fixed a few things and added a fresh coat of paint, but most of his work went to the beautiful deck and the outdoor living room next to it. Once the room is complete he wants to hang historic pictures of the house and of those who lived there.

I never expected such a meeting at my grandmother’s childhood home. It was surreal to meet a complete stranger who has a distant relation and so many photographs that I have. I’m so glad to have met the person who loves the house like a true family member. It is one of my favorite stories.

My grandmother's childhood home in Milwaukee, WI.

My grandmother’s childhood home in Milwaukee, WI.

The modern view from the backyard. The grass is above an underground water storage tank. It used to that Lake Michigan came all the way to the cliff behind her house.

The modern view of Lake Michigan. The grass covers an underground water storage tank. It used to that Lake Michigan came all the way to the cliff behind her house.