Monday, March 12, 2012

What I learned about the 1940 U.S. Census

I, along with about 150 other genealogists, enjoyed Joel Weintraub's presentation "Here Comes the 1940 U.S. Census" on Saturday, 10 March at the San Diego Genealogical Society meeting.

Joel's presentation style is unique - combining walking all around the room while showing hilarious, but corny, slides, plus providing excellent detailed information about his topic.  The audience was enthralled, entertained and informed for two hours.  Oh, he brought along original papers and books of census forms, enumerator handbooks, and more; he passed many of them around.

This old dog can still learn new things, and I learned a bunch, including (from my notes done the old fashioned way - handwritten on a sheet of paper - all errors are mine!):

*  The 1940 U.S. census had seven schedules.  The housing form schedules were destroyed before microfilming (unfortunate, since those forms had lots of interesting information about the buildings involved).

*  All 20th century census schedules were destroyed after being microfilmed.  That's why we cannot "go back" and view the "original" - we're stuck with the NARA microfilms (Gee, I hope we can still read the 1990 microfilms in 2062!).

*  The 1940 population schedule actually used five different forms, with two sides.  Each form had two sampling lines.  The form that we have seen, with the sampling on lines 14 and 29 on the A side, has lines 55 and 68 sampled on the B side.  This form was used for 80% of the Enumeration Districts (ED).  The other four forms had different sampling lines than the one with lines 14 and 29 on the A side.  Each ED used only one specific form.

*  The enumerators were supposed to write on the forms inside a folded case so that the persons being enumerated could not see what had been, or would be, written.  These folded cases were large and unwieldy.  You can see one on the Norman Rockwell painting of the census taker.

*  There was an enumerators handbook with detailed instructions on filling out the forms.  You can see the directions here.  Each enumerator had to turn in a daily report of the number of residences contacted and number of pages filled out.

*  There were 120,000 enumerators hired by the government.  For a population of 132 million, that works out to  about 1,100 names per enumerator on average or 27.5 pages (40 lines per page),

*  The enumerators were paid 4 cents per name, so the average wage was thus $44 for being an enumerator.

*  There was a trial run in two Indiana counties to determine how many persons would object to the questions.   About 2% resisted providing answers.

*  The purpose of the census was to count every person alive at 12:01 AM on 1 April 1940 at their usual place of residence.  If you were born after that time and day you should not have been counted.  Follow-up visits were made over the next two weeks to residences that did not respond on 2 April.

*  The person who gave the family information to the enumerator was marked with an X.  If someone else gave the information, their name should be in the left-hand margin.

*  The birth place of each foreign-born person was to be listed as the country as it existed on 1 January 1937 in order to circumvent the Nazi occupation of many European countries.  A state and city without a country was acceptable.

*  No address for the residence in 1935 was provided - only city, county, state, or R = Rural.  If a person resided in the same house in both 1935 and 1940, the enumerator was instructed to write "same place" (and therefore we know the address since it is provided on the 1940 enumeration).

*  There were special census days for transients (8 April) and hotels (9 April).  Page numbers for the follow-up visits start with 61A, and page numbers for the transients and hotels start on page 81A in each ED.

*  The enumerators did not add the numerical codes (used to tabulate the information) in the code columns - that was done after the enumeration at the National Archives.

*  The entries in the Income columns were supposed to be accurate for incomes up to $5,000, but above $5,000 the entries should read $5,000+.  Joel said that Congressmen objected to listing higher incomes.  A person could fill out a form and submit a sealed envelope with the income information.  However, the enumerator marked the ED, sheet and line number on it and the information was added to the forms later   About 2.3% of workers left the income section blank.

*  They estimated the "Undercount" in the 1940 census by comparing the enumerations with the Selective Service registration of all men (up to age 45?) in 1941.  They found that 13% of black males, and 3% of white males, were not enumerated in the 1940 census (a net of about 5% undercount).

*  The 1940 census was used to determine which blocks had Japanese-born individuals after the start of World War II, even though the government claimed they did not do that at the time.

*  The 1950 U.S. census had 20% sampling - six lines on a 30 page form.

All of that was in the first hour of the presentation.  In the second hour, Joel discussed how to use the Location tools on the Steve Morse One-Step website to find the Enumeration District (ED) number when you know an address - go to

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Copyright (c) 2012, Randall J. Seaver

Updated 7 p.m.:  Modified one paragraph to conform to what Joel wrote in his comment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not bad Randy, for taking notes the old fashion way. The only thing I would correct is the statement: "Follow-up visits were made on 8 April to residences that did not respond on 1 April." The census day was April 1st, but the enumeration actually started on the 2nd. Those residences where no one was home or that required followup visits were done later. The April 8th date was reserved for the transient population. In urban areas the enumerators were given up to 2 weeks to finish their tasks. We sure did cover a lot of material, and even more, and more technical in the second half of the talk. I hope that made the task of locational searches for 1940 easier for the group.

Joel Weintraub
Dana Point, CA