Monday, June 18, 2012

What is the Value of the 1940 U.S. Census?

There was an elaborate  "how-to access" cover article in the May/June 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine.  The July/August issue of the magazine landed in my mailbox last week, and there is a long letter to the editor titled "Much Ado About Nothing" by G. Rodger Crowe of Cincinnati.  Mr. Crowe notes:

"The genealogy 'industry' is making much ado about very little -- i.e., the 1940 census."

After claiming that the Steve Morse ED finder is relatively useless in smaller towns, he states:

"Even when you are lucky enough to find your ancestor, you will find very little new information that you didn't already know..."

This got me thinking about the relative value of the 1940 U.S. census to genealogy researchers in general, and for me in particular.  Here re my thoughts:

1)  There is unique information for every person in the 1940 U.S. census, including:

*  The current street address and home value (or monthly rent) of their residence
*  Relationships of household members to the head of household
*  Birthplace and citizenship information
*  Education level of each person in the household
*  Residence of each person on 1 April 1935 (city, county, state or country)
*  Employment information as of 1 April 1940
*  Income in 1939
*  For 5% of the persons, there is additional information concerning number of children born to females, marital information, birthplaces of parents, etc.

Yes, many researchers know some of this information about their families, but there are many researchers for whom this will be vital information - clues to help them identify the residence, parents and/or siblings of their ancestors.

2)  Many researchers are trying to track down distant cousins to find family records of their ancestors, or to pursue a DNA match that might help them determine their own ancestry.  The 1940 U.S. Census provides another set of information that helps pursue these goals.

3)  Some genealogists conduct "One-Name Studies" where they collect records for a given surname and try to identify and connect these records to persons in a family tree.  I have One-Name Studies for Seaver/Sever, Carringer, Auble, Vaux and McKnew that extend to 1930 and whatever vital records and newspaper records I can find after 1930.  The 1940 U.S. Census permits me to extend these One-Name Studies to 1940.  

4)  Often, there are "surprises" in a census record - a spouse is missing (where are they?), a spouse has died, a child is missing (where are they?), extended family is living with a family (parents, siblings, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, etc.), and so forth.  

Mr. Crowe finished his letter by saying:

"...but in the meantime, don't waste your time trying to use it."

I disagree with Mr. Crowe - in my humble opinion, every historical record set has value to the genealogist and should be fully explored to obtain information about persons in the family tree. I may have only a few ancestral families in the 1940 U.S. Census (two grandparent families, two great-grandparent families, some aunts/uncles/cousins, my wife's parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles/cousins), but I am patiently waiting for the every-name index in order to find my grandmother (she wasn't living with my grandfather for some reason), thousands of Seaver, Carringer, Auble, Vaux and McKnew persons, and much more.

I'm sure that my readers have other reasons about the value of the 1940 U.S. Census to them.  Please add them in Comments if you wish.

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Copyright (c) 2012, Randall J. Seaver


Karen Packard Rhodes said...

I respectfully submit that Mr. Crowe is full of beans. However, I'm glad for him that he apparently does not need the information in the 1940 census, as he obviously knows everything he needs to know about his family. (I will now take my tongue out of my cheek.)

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.

Scott Phillips said...

I respectfully say I understand where Mr. Crowe is coming from. 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.

Onward To Our Past,


geneabloggers said...


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.

Linda said...

And don't forget there are all those kids born from 1930-1940 that you may not have been aware of previously!! Many of them still alive and to your point candidates for DNA testing.

Elizabeth Handler said...

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.).

Anonymous said...

Me thinks this falls into the category of "If you don't have anything nice to say...".

As Linda said there is value in identifying family members born after the 1930 census.

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.

bgwiehle said...

I'm with you, Randy: every record collection has some value. 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.

Joseph said...

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 stated with the indexes, I will be looking for the 1950 city directories to get ready for Steve Morse's next database!!


Charles said...

Well I used the descriptions of the Enumeration Districts from Steve Morse site to help me find my grandparents and parents. His descriptions gave the street boundaries of the Enumeration Districts here in Spokane and since I live close I know that neighborhood, so found my mom and dad (they married in 1942) and her parents. I also used the description to find my dads parents on a farm in North Idaho. In the same ED was 2 CCC camps. I did not think they had CCC camps there, I knew they had some further north, so a big surprise.

Jim Landmeier said...

Mr. Crowe probably knows who was the Most Valuable Player in the 1963 World Series!

DearMYRTLE said...

IIt 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.

Anne Gillespie Mitchell said...

It's just darn fun to find your ancestors in any record. Therefor, finding your ancestors in 1940 is fun.

You either get it or you don't :-) Mr. Crowe does not. :-(

Carol P. said...

Doesn't the release of the census deserve a boatload of fanfare simply because it's a rare (once-a-decade) event?

Andria Sprott said...

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.

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.

gophergenealogy said...

Great comments about the importance of the 1940 Census. 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.

Peggy 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?

Nancy, said...

Randy, thanks for addressing this topic. My comment was too long to put here so it’s on my blog, 1 Foot Planted Firmly on the Ground.

The post can be found here:


Anonymous said...

Hi Randy,

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.

Joel Weintraub
Dana Point, CA

Anonymous said...

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.

G. Rodger Crowe said...

I just did a search on my own name and discovered that I had stirred a three-day mini-tempest in a teapot with my letter on the 1940 Census. I found that all the comments were interesting and well-thought-out. I was reminded of a quote attributed to William Rees-Mogg, late editor of The Times of London: "It's not my job to be right. It's my job to be interesting."