by Amy Barlow
In April 2012, the US National Archives released the 1940 census records to the public. Like any massive digitization project, the newly published collection of 3.8 million images is mostly user friendly. While I wouldn’t compare searching for a name to finding a needle in a haystack, I would compare it with hoping to bump into your ex-boyfriend at Coachella. Probing the census feels like stalking, which is probably why the US government mandates that 72 years pass between the collection of data and the publication of household-level details, such as a person’s address, country of origin, age, occupation, education, employment status, weeks worked, salary, etc. The census takers, who’s handwriting skills are highly variable, left no stone unturned.
The 1940 census is worth exploring. It’s a truly remarkable collection of enumeration district maps and schedules, documenting American households at a historically significant moment. Conduct a search for either your own neighborhood or your great-grandfather’s, and you are almost guaranteed to find evidence of the economic depression, the New Deal, and immigration patterns. I can think of at least a dozen 1940 census assignments for history students, to encourage their interest in primary source research and interpretation. To teach them how to read the maps and schedules, I would ask them to look for their current addresses. The following screenshot reveals the occupation of one of the 1940 occupants of my home in Providence, RI. Thank you, first generation Italian American WPA sand laborer, for taking good care of our 1890s house.
For sure, it is easier to locate urban dwellers than country folk. A search for my Library Director’s parents and grandparents in the wilds of Wyoming took forever because enumeration districts were indexed at the county-level in rural areas. Yet, browsing the census schedules is time well spent, as it will lead you to unintended discoveries: Did you know that Park County, Wyoming was home to the families Cabbage, Hogg, and Pigg? Neither did I.
If you too would like to take a journey into 1940, then I suggest that you prepare yourself by watching this helpful video. Go forth!