by NPR Staff, National Public Radio
A sort of national treasure is scheduled to be revealed Monday: In April 1940, 120,000 census takers spread out across America to take an inventory of its residents. Now that the legally mandated 72 years have passed, we finally get to see the names, addresses, jobs and salaries of all the people who were counted.
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.”
So what kind of country was this in 1940? As a newsreel from the time explains, America consisted of more than 130 million people, 33 million homes and 7 million farms. Jeanne Bloom of the Chicago Genealogical Society describes the release of all those people’s information as “a huge event.”
“It’s kind of like the Super Bowl for genealogists,” says Bloom, who does detective work for the U.S. Army trying to trace family records. “I locate living family members of soldiers that were missing in action during World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam [and] whose remains were never recovered, identified and returned to the family.”
Once it’s released the 1940 census data could help her track those families down. But she’s also interested in the data for more personal reasons — the 1940 census is the first census her mother would have appeared in.
“She was born after the 1930 census, so I’m going to be able to see her family on the farm in rural Kansas with what her brothers and sisters are doing,” Bloom says.
‘Gold Nuggets’ Of American History
Genealogists, and the millions of Americans for whom genealogy is a hobby, speak of “seeing” people in the census. St. Louis genealogist Ann Fleming puts it this way: “I always think of the census as the border of the family jigsaw puzzle. And you put this border together and then you fill in other information in the center. But a lot of good starting points come from the census records.”
This year, the National Archives will be putting the entire 1940 census online for the first time. That makes life a lot easier for Jamesetta Hammons of The California African American Genealogical Society. She recalls waiting for the release of details from the 1920 census 20 years ago.
“I drove to Laguna Niguel, [Calif.,] where the National Archives [Pacific region] branch is located … and I slept in my car in the rain so that I could be the first in line to have access, [but] someone jumped ahead of me,” she says. “And so for the 1930 census, I was privileged to be the first in line and I was actually offered the opportunity to open the cabinets and pull out the drawers that held these gold nuggets for researchers.”
Hammons says that, personally, she’s curious to see where her parents and grandfather were living in 1940. The census also asked people where they were living on April 1, 1935, and if they lived on a farm, so its results will present a kind of picture in motion.
Not Quite A Gold Standard
But the accuracy of that picture is a whole other matter. With so much self-reported information, Census Bureau historian William Maury says, the census isn’t exactly a gold standard of historical data.
“You can say anything. You can say you’re Chief Sitting Bull’s son or something like that. You can come up with all kinds of things,” Maury says. “When people call us, we just say, ‘Well, this is what’s on the record.'”
In other words, it’s more like a self portrait than an objective picture of the nation.
“But if you take all the discreet parts of it and jumble them together,” Maury says, “it’s probably pretty accurate.”
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
- All Things Considered, March 30, 2012