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Newly released 1940 census lets genealogists dig deeper

SANTA CRUZ — Lani Griffiths, 71, would like to dig a little deeper into her family history.

She wants to know if her parents and grandparents owned a car, whether they attended high school and what kind of salary they earned in 1940.

Griffiths will be poring through the recently released 1940 census data to mine the details of her ancestors, hoping to draw a clear picture of what life was like back then.

“This is the last doorway of opportunity to look back and see what your family was doing,” said Griffiths, a Felton resident who heads the Genealogical Society of Santa Cruz County. “We won’t have that opportunity again.”

Griffiths is among millions of curious Americans attempting to access the 1940 census, which was released to the public online Monday by the National Archives.

The census reveals personal details of 132 million people living in the U.S. in 1940. The census counted the population and asked 65 questions, including who lived where, how much they earned, education level, number of children, which wars they fought in and age at marriage.

The questions were far more reaching than the dozen or so asked of residents today.

Tapping into the material is a bit daunting because information is organized by location. Experts say it will take several months, possibly a year or more, before the data are indexed by name.

The census was taken April1, 1940, reflecting the economic tumult of the Great Depression and President Franklin

D. Roosevelt’s New Deal recovery program of the 1930s.

Griffiths said this is the last census in which the majority of Americans lived and worked on farms. After World War II, people started moving around the country and taking jobs in the industrial sector.

“It’s kind of an end of an era,” she said. “It’s a pivotal census for that reason.”

Scotts Valley resident Marion Pokriots is excited to peek at the information because she was born in 1934, meaning this is the first census in which she will have been counted.

Pokriots tried to tap into the data online Monday, but couldn’t get through, which she guesses was due to the high volume of people doing the same.

“I’m curious to see what they asked my parents and what they said. You never know what they put down,” said Pokriots, 77.

Every 10 years since 1790, the federal census has provided a snapshot of the American public. However, the results are released only every 72 years — once considered the average lifespan — to protect privacy.

The Genealogical Society of Santa Cruz will host census expert Junel Davidson to talk about the 1940 data at its meeting May 3. The meeting begins at 1 p.m. at the Santa Cruz Libraries Central Branch, 224 Church St.

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