Retro USA: 1940 Census Reveals Wealth of Data

Retro Staff |  Comments

The US National Archives released the 1940 Census April 2, 2012, attracting tens of millions of web site visitors within hours, crashing the servers. This is the first time full census reports were posted on the Internet.

Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives said they had anticipated great interest, but found the immediate access frustrating for both researchers and staff. “In the first three hours, we had 22.5 million hits… We’re a victim of our own success.”

The web site boasts records that cover 132.2 million Americans. Officials say nearly 21 million of those people are alive today.

1940 Census Screencap

Currently researchers can review images of scanned handwritten pages.

Why did it take so long for us to be able to review life in the 1940s? The US Government mandates a 72-year waiting period for census records to become public.

This particular reporting has attracted millions of genealogists and historians because it covers such an interesting time. Americans were digging themselves out of the Great Depression while on the brink of World War II. Since the census asked people where they resided five years prior, the records show more than mere numbers. We should be able to trace people as they migrated during the Depression.

Family historians will also sift through records, looking for lost family and seeking to fill gaps in timelines. Information includes names, ages, addresses, marital status, number of children and occupations. Some respondents disclosed earnings.

For many of those alive during the 1940 census, this milestone event is considered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to trace their roots. My father, who was age two during the reporting, hopes to find out just where he was born.

“By age five I was living on Church Street,” he said. “But I was told I was born on Hotel Street. These records will tell me if I was.” Waiting for additional records to load, he’s already gone through several pages, recalling old neighbors and their families.

News-Press in SW Florida

Southwest Florida's News-Press shares past photos to convey what the 1940 census reports for the area - a smaller, simpler life.

The records should also bring to light more photos and personal documents as people track down relatives and work to archive memories. Many newspapers across the US published photos from days gone by, using images to illustrate what the hand-written reports show: That we’d lived by much simpler means in typically smaller, less populated neighborhoods.

The archives are not yet indexed by name, but a volunteer effort to make them so is underway. Those researching specific areas can enter addresses to find the right enumeration district number, which you can use to search for exact records. Each district report includes a description page with population data and a map, followed by several pages of individual reporting.

While for most of us these records will tell stories we might never otherwise hear, some are concerned about privacy. Such reports, for example, will reveal if couples were not actually wed, or if a child was born out of wedlock.

Screenshot of 1940 census

The census also reveals some interesting jobs of days past... A fireman at a bath house and a clerk at a "variety store".

Officials said concerns of identity theft are low since respondents did not disclose birth dates or Social Security numbers. But we might see how much someone made. A column labeled “Income in 1939”, which was completed by a portion of respondents, tells me that in my home town a fireman made less than half that of a house painter or a plumber. It also reveals some job titles and departments long past.

What do you hope to find from the 1940 census? Are you researching your family’s history? Or does your interest end at population and salaries? We’d love to hear your story.

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Last updated: Apr 04, 2012
Filed under: Retro Memories Tagged with: 1940s, WWII