Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Working with the Census in Family History

One of my favorite sources, when researching my family history, is the United States Census. Each year, starting in 1790, stats have been compiled every 10 years, for the main purpose of finding out the number of people in each state so they could determine the amount of representation they would have in Congress. Other entities used the info to be able to collect taxes and put together demographics of their area.

There is a lot of information to be found in these documents if you know how and where to look. Many years the census takers acquired different kinds of information. Besides the obvious, name, address, age and whether married or not, other information such as birthplace, employment, whether attended school, could they read, write, etc. Some years asked if the person was a veteran and if so, which war.

In 1930, one of the questions asked was whether or not you had a radio set? What? That seemed strange to me so I looked up why they would put that on the form. I found an explanation on the Census History website taken from a book by Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity. "The 1930 census reflected the emerging values of early twentieth-century America, in particular the growing influence of consumerism and mass culture. The 1930 census included for the first time a question regarding a consumer item. Respondents were asked whether they owned a "Radio set," a luxury that had become increasingly common in the 1920s. As historian Roland Marchand has argued, in the early decades of the twentieth century, American business and political leaders viewed radio as a source of cultural "uplift" for the population as well as a valuable medium for advertisement of mass-produced goods. The inclusion of a question on radio ownership reflected this new interest in the possibilities of consumer items and methods of mass communication."

Even though the census started in 1790, it was not until 1850 that they listed all members of the family. Up to that point, just the head of the household was listed and then tick marks for the others living there, divided by male, female and age groups. I have found the 1850 to 1940 forms are the most helpful because it does list all the family members.

If you were born after the first half of 1940, you won't see your name listed on a census... yet. The 1940 census came out in April 2012. A census can not be released until 72 years after it was taken We won't see the 1950 until sometime in 2022. I won't be able to see my name on a form until 2032. Because they were only taken every 10 years, if someone was born in 1922 and died in 1926, you will not have a record of them in a census.

When you find a person from your family tree, in a census form, it makes their lives so much more real. You get to know a little bit more about them, what their life was like, where they came from, who their neighbors were, just to name a few. I find that in the older forms, the neighbors are typically other names you will find in your lineage. People tended to marry those that lived close by.

Some census forms can be very entertaining too. The census takers probably grew bored of asking the same things, over and over again. Some of their feelings about that come out in the comments on their listings. For example, on Lisa Louise Cook's website, a listener sent her information on an 1875 Kansas State Census (different than the US) where Frank Wilkeson, the census taker, wrote that one of the people he reported on was a "loafer". Another one was a "blow hard". He didn't think much of them, did he?

Another site, RootsChat, listed the mother as "in childbirth" at the time the census was taken. Yet another one listed the head of the household and then a woman's name with mistress after it, instead of the typical entry of wife. Each of the children were listed as the son or daughter of the mistress. Another listed the lady of the house as a concubine.

These are just a few of the interesting things you will find in the census records. Take some time and look for some of your relatives. You never know what little fun facts you might uncover.

1Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940 (1985), p. 171

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