Friday, June 22, 2012

Follow-Up Friday - Reader Comments on the Value of the 1940 US Census

I had many reader comments on my post What is the Value of the 1940 U.S. Census? (18 June 2012).  Here are some of them, with my own comments at the end:

1)  Karen Packard Rhodes noted:  "However, for me, the 1940 census will have value, once the index is complete, in letting me find where in blazes my parents were in 1940, because as of now I have no clue at all. I don't even know which state they were in at the time. My father was Navy, so they moved around a lot. Land records and property records are of no use, because they never owned a house the whole time my father was alive. They always rented. City directories are hit-or-miss. For me, mostly miss. So I am depending on the 1940 census to answer that question for me. I am also hoping to locate in that census collateral kin to fill out the family picture."

2)  Scott Phillips said:  "Yes, the 1940 has some useful information, but it is not the end-all-be-all in genealogy as the industry and many in it would have us believe.   Personally I'll check it out when it is fully indexed (and yes I am volunteering and indexing).  Now I am going back to my 1628 Will that really has priceless information. "

3)  Geneabloggers responded to Scott:  "I don't think the genealogy industry community tried to make the 1940 Census as the "be all, end all" for genealogy records. That may be some folks' reaction to the intense media and social media focus on the 1940 Census.  But look at what such a focus has done: it has not only allowed us to have over 50% of the 1940 Census already indexed (and not even 3 months from its release), but it also has brought more new people into the family history arena.   For that I am grateful not just because it allows me more connections with other researchers, but as a genealogy business owner, it expands the genealogy industry."

4)  Elizabeth commented:  "I have found information in the 1940 census about my husband's family, cousins, etc. which has been very interesting, and that family members had forgotten about.  I also look forward to having it indexed so I can find my paternal grandfather, who was divorced from his first wife. I don't know where he was living in 1940 and if he was living with his second wife or not.  I agree, it's not the "be all, end all" but there are some interesting tidbits to be found that enhance the family story (education level, home value, etc.)."

5)  Rorery Cathcart noted:  "For me personally, I found the first name of a wife to whom my uncle was only married 2 years. No one in our family knew this woman's name. We had no idea which county they married in. It's not much but it is more than what I would have had otherwise.  I'm hoping as Philadelphia becomes indexed to finally track down some of my McDonnell kin which I have otherwise lost.   All they hype has certainly brought more indexers into the fold. Many of these folks will stick around after the census is complete. That is a boon to all of us."

6)  bgwiehle said:  "Like Karen, I'm waiting on the the indexes (especially Ohio & Pennsylvania) because the 1940 census will bridge a lot of gaps in my knowledge - the next generation starting new households, people moving to new states because of the Depression, last chances for immigration before WWII, etc.  But the 1940 census has a lot of more columns for education & employment and fewer for parents' origins and mother tongue - signs of the changes in American life in economics and immigration in the previous decade. And those special enumeration lines are unlikely to help much - the designated line is often blank or that person is a child who does not fit many of the criteria."

7)  Joseph commented:  "Well, Mr. Crowe may wait for his little information until the indexes are complete. Using the Steve Morse process, I located over 125 of my family members in Detroit and over 85 in Bay City, Michigan. Then I found about 40 more in Montana before the index became available. I enjoy the hunt and the discovery, and every family has provided me with new information. I am indexing Michigan, but it does not appear to be a priority yet, because not much is completed. By the time Mr. Crowe gets started with the indexes, I will be looking for the 1950 city directories to get ready for Steve Morse's next database!!"

8)  Pat Richley-Erickson said:  "It is amazing what folks will say or do to get their 15 minutes of fame.  I was particularly pleased with the 1940 census images, and Steve Morse and Joel Weintraub One-Step pages for two reasons:

"1. It got my daughter and two other family members interested in genealogy. My daughter started a blog, and created a custom Google map based on the 1940 enumeration of her great grandparents. The conversations we had facilitated additional sharing of photos and documents.

"2. By looking at the neighbors, I now understand a relationship my maternal grandmother had with the child of the Engsteoms, who owned the corner grocery at the foot of Queen Anne Hill.

"I've also got some other clues from the neighbors in the 1940, though I haven't worked them through yet to be able to submit a report."

9)  Anne Gillespie Mitchell noted:  "It's just darn fun to find your ancestors in any record. Therefore, finding your ancestors in 1940 is fun.  You either get it or you don't :-) Mr. Crowe does not. :-( "

10)  Andria Sprott commented:  "I personally found some rather surprising information about my grandmother in the 1940 census. She was married at seventeen to a man I never knew about. We know that she was married five times in her lifetime, but this is a new surprise for the family to research! I have indeed found some new and fantastic information previously unknown. I will continue to be excited for the 1940 census, as I think anyone interested in their family history should be."

11)  Sonja Hunter said:  "I suppose having access to the 1940 census is a non-event if you know the answers to all of the questions it contains, but I, personally, don't know where some of my people were then. I thought I knew where some of them were, but after using the ED maps (thank you Steve Morse) to learn where to search I came up blank with a few. I actually found the house where my great grand aunt lived for many years before and after 1940 and I expected to find her here in 1940 as well. Nope. Time to wait for Michigan to be posted (and yes, I have been indexing as well).  I'm most curious to see the level of schooling completed and for some, their location in 1935."

12)  Sue notes:  "My mother is still anxiously waiting for me to find her. They had lost their home due to a job lose and she is not sure where they were living. For many of my client projects we have found that the 1940 Census should help to solve family questions. I decided to do indexing after finding a few of our relatives, as it became obvious how important the indexes are. I am grateful to participate in this very beneficial project."

13)  Unknown said:  "I've found 1) the surname of "Aunt Ethel" -- little kids don't always know such things, 2) why a family disappeared shortly after 1940--their only asset was a house and the breadwinner had been unemployed (with no other income) for over a year, 3) really impressed my boss by finding her grandfather, and 4) a descendant, based on a name-change that became apparent in the 1940 census. The first 3 I found using Steve Morse's amazing site (by street, by ed description, and by ed maps). The 4th I found with one of the new indexes. Yes, there was/is "hoopla", but why can't we genealogists let down our hair once in a while?"

15)  Joel Weintraub commented:  "I read about Mr. Crowe's comment about our One-Step 1940 locational tools being relatively useless in his situation and I felt really bad about that. I spoke to Steve Morse and he agreed that we should refund him 200% of the money that he paid for the use of the One-Step tools."

16)  Anonymous commented:  "I agree with Mr. Crowe's comments about the 1940 census. I thought the hype about it to be extremely overblown. I found the information on it to be not that useful genealogically, but much more useful sociologically."

My comments:  Well now, we have a number of excellent examples of how the 1940 U.S. Census had value to researchers.  We also have several commenters who are waiting for the indexing to be completed for their states of interest (as I am).  There are several commenters who had some fun at Mr. Crowe's expense, and several who agreed in principle with him.  All were civilly expressed and well written.  Thank you, commenters!  

I agree with Geneabloggers that the hoopla in print, web and social media helped focus the effort to inspire volunteers to index the 1940 Census, and other collections, and as a result we should have the complete index by September (my estimate), and we have the index for 20 states already on FamilySearch, and for several other states on Ancestry.  Many of those indexers brought into the fold will continue indexing records to the benefit of the genealogy community, and many will be energized to do more genealogy research in other records.  

I found it interesting that no one, besides Joel, mentioned the cost of this effort to researchers using the 1940 U.S. census images and indexes.  They're FREE!!!!   That is a tremendous thing, in my opinion.  The providers of the images had to pay NARA $200,000 for the package (except for, who received the images for free from NARA, had to pay for the servers to host the NARA images), and had them posted within two or three days with waypoints to states, counties and EDs.  Joel, Steve and their team of workers did a fantastic job getting the Enumeration District Finder developed over a decade, and everyone was able to use it when the census was released.  Where would we have been without it?  

The one idea that I especially appreciate, and didn't express in my post, was that the release of the 1940 U.s. census enabled us to get family members or friends more interested in genealogy.  If Pat's daughter continues her research, Pat just extended the interest of her descendants in family history for another generation.  That is a wonderful thing.  The combination of being able to find the census image and show it to your children, or to your mother and father, is great for "show and tell" family gatherings.  

As for me, I agree with Anne's comment: "Finding your ancestors in the 1940 census is fun!"  I can hardly wait to look for all of the Seaver, Carringer, Auble, Vaux and McKnew folks in the 1940 Census using the images and indexes.  It should take me only a few years to have a lot more fun adding them to my database.

Copyright (c) 2012, Randall J. Seaver


Jeff said...

>"I don't think the genealogy industry community tried to make the 1940 Census as the "be all, end all" for genealogy records.

Oh, contrary! It was supposed to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. The hype for it was unbelievable. What happened when you actually saw it? Is that what we have been waiting for? It was like being promised a home run but only getting a bunt single.

Jeff said...


In one of your replies to a comment the other day, you listed off a bunch of supposed virtues of the 1940 census. Almost every one of your talking points that used "1940" could have been substituted with 1930 or some other year which would have rendered your arguments moot. I remember another comment that said something about the addresses being listed on the census. Ok, but that "feature" has been on several other census. But it is only handy *IF* the enumerator writes the address down. I have several or more censuses that there is NO address. I have seen other commenters say that I have found Aunt Sally or Uncle Joe or some other relative. I will bet that the same comments were made for certain previous censuses.

Was the information on it nice to have? Yes. Was it everything that we were promised? Not really. I maintain that a good portion of the information on it is more useful for sociologists than genealogists. You could clearly see the hand of the New Deal and the WPA folks.

Anonymous said...

In response to Jeff, respectfully. FREE. That is the major difference. You've obviously worked with other censes before. If your expectation was that the *content* of the 1940 census was going to be significantly different than other censes than that is on you - not on the hype.

For me, and others from the original comments, the value has been in finding people we didn't know about or not finding folks where we expect them. As far as my expectation of the content. Its been met. The only thing I expected to be different was the additional residence information. Great stuff.

Jeff said...


No, the HYPE was that the 1940 census was the end-all-be-all census. The hype was that information on this census was DIFFERENT and better than what was on any previous census. I was foolish enough to believe the hype. In fact, I thought there was LESS genealogical information on it and MORE sociological on it than almost any previous census.

As for finding people that you didn't know about or not finding them where you expected, you could say that about almost any other census. So could most of the comments made on this site.

Come on, let's get back to the point. The point is "Was the hype overblown or was it justified?" The hype didn't match the content.

If someone is going to make comments about 1940 census, don't make comments that can be use about almost any other census.

Carol said...

In response to Jeff, respectfully:

the 1940 census will be the be all, end all census for some of us, as the next census won't be released for another 10 years. I'm sad to say some of my very close friends and relatives won't be around for that release...In that sense, for these folks, it is the greatest thing since sliced bread. This is their last chance to locate any information on friends and loved ones they have not been able to locate elsewhere and you should not belittle their hopes of finding the information they seek. In a few decades, YOU may find that this cencus is more valuable than you believe right now.

Randy, you rock!

Anonymous said...


Using examples from this Census I can show the impact of the dust bowl on people's lives... their movement to California and their existence in transient camps... all thanks to the question asked about: Where were you in 1935.

I can show the impact of the Great Depression on a Brooklyn family. The head of household was working as a night watchman for a used car lot and making $144 dollars for only his 12 weeks of employment in 1939.... and one son had no employment during 1939 while the other only worked 12 weeks. I can show that this night watchman's usual occupation was a stage musician. I can see the impact on my own family, some of whom never got over the Depression.

Show me Jeff where that information was in previous censuses. Each federal census usually has questions that pertain to the living conditions (yes, social issues) of that era. If not, why should the federal government ask those questions? And each census should rightfully have a buildup of publicity before being made public because of this. Thus your argument that somehow other censuses having similar information diminishes in some way the anticipation and publicity for our present (and only) new census in 10 years makes no sense.

If you restrict genealogy to lineages, then you probably didn't get much from the 1940 census. If you equate genealogy to family history, and researching the lives our ancestors led, and their "social problems".... which is one definition of sociology, then the 1940 census is an inside-the-park home run. Let's hear it for sociologists then, because most genealogists fit part of that definition.

However, I think Jeff you fouled out with this criticism and have ignored the many genealogists who have put in print their satisfaction with the information and pure research pleasure of this new gold mine of data. In addition, your claims that the advance publicity by some unnamed entity... was it the National Archives or the Census Bureau or some specific Blogger (and do you always believe what you read on the Internet.... I don't think that's a good idea)... included statements like it would be the "greatest thing since sliced bread" and "was the end-all-be-all census" is interesting. Can you support that by citing specific references or are those your words that you made up to justify your argument? I have done a 1940 Census Google search every day the last 5 years, and don't recall ever seeing those terms online describing this census. Please give me specific URL references to where they occurred. And while you are at it, show us who the "we" and what was "promised" in your statement that "we were promised". A copy of the census form and the questions on the 1940 census have been online for many years if you just looked, put there by the National Archives and other respectable entities. If you can't find such statements that you base your argument on, or that there was a concerted effort to hoodwink the public (which it seems you are implying), then it's time to go on the "disabled list" (Randy, I'm starting to run out of baseball terms).

You indicated that this census "was a bunt single" not a home run. I searched for baseball statistics since my feeling is that home runs are a lot more common in games than bunt singles, and probably require less skill to do, and therefore one should conclude you really liked this census, but alas, I couldn't find any information for or against my strong suspicion.


Joel Weintraub

Anonymous said...

Ok Jeff,

Getting back to the point, as you say, I still disagree the hype was unwarranted. First from the FREE aspect I mentioned before but also, I still disagree that there is no meaningful difference to this census than others.

1)1940 - "Name of each person whose usual place of residence" vs. 1930 - "Name of each person whose place of abode", with the additional instruction for 1940 of clearly marking someone "AB" for absent. It may not make a difference in your research but it does change the way I pursue missing individuals.

2) 1940 vs. other census - "Mark with an 'x' in a circle the person giving the information". Huge if you are sourcing to the Genealogical Proof Standard. Each entry can now be better judged as to whether the person giving the affidavit would credibly have knowledge of the information. Example: A mother would certainly be a credible source about her children's names/ages/pob but the household servant would not.

3) 1940 vs. other census – "Place of Residence April 1, 1935". Between the 1930 & 1940 census a lot happened in the US. The ravages of the great depression and the dust bowl plus the location of some of the grander construction projects like the Hoover dam and Golden Gate Bridge led to a period of internal migration not seen since early westward expansion.

You and I will likely disagree over the genealogical value of what you deem the more ‘sociological’ information on the census such as the employment information. I think that is more a product of research style or opinion which I let lie. I think you and I might agree that we miss some of the items left off, or only supplementary, from many prior census years. Naturalization and parents pob are examples I’ll miss.

Clearly you feel you were sold a bill of goods. Just as clearly, many of us on this thread and elsewhere feel differently.

I appreciate your adding to this discussion. Personally I feel our industry sometimes suffers from the echo chamber. It is good to have a contrarian opinion expressed once in a while. Makes us think about our positions. I’ve enjoyed debating this with you.