The 1940 Census: Why all the hype?

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The 1940 Census – What’s the big deal?

If you’re not a diehard genealogist or family historian you may not have even noticed that the 1940 census is the talk of the town over the past few months.  Yet genealogists around the world are going nuts over the April 2nd release.

Why all the hype? What’s a census?

In 1787, the founding fathers of the United States of America mandated that a census be taken every 10 years to count the entire population of the country to direct taxes and state representation.

Representation and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers…The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.

– Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution of the United States

The 1940 Census on

The 1940 Census on

What does family history have to do with taxes?

The Census has been taken nationally every 10 years since 1790. For governmental purposes, this gives politicians a way to divide up the citizens they represent and how we are taxed and use those taxes.  For family history, the census data acts as a snapshot in time.

The data illustrates your family at that time. Comparing information from several censuses can help you see your family history.

Census questions have evolved over the years, but generally include name, age, birth place, marital status, spouse’s name, children’s names and ages, occupation, Income and more.

When looking for your family’s history, census records can be an eye-opening experience.

Start looking in the census, and go backwards in time, from 1940 to 1930 and earlier – decade by decade. A more complete picture of your family will form.

Fictitious Family Through the Ages

Fictitious Family Through the Ages

Looking at census records

Looking at the above census data – although fictitious – it is symbolic of a typical family complete with timely and untimely deaths, births, marriages and other events.

From 1910 to 1920: little Susie gets married and starts her own family.

From 1910 to 1920: Susan Miller disappears and Tom Miller now lives with his married daughter. Did his wife Susan die?

In 1920: Susie and her husband John have an infant named Susan. Is this in memory of Susie’s mother Susan?

In 1930: Daughter Susan Walker, 2 years of age when the 1920 census was conducted, is no longer listed with the family.  What happened?  Death was more common in the early 1900s, and perhaps the child died. And there was the worldwide influenza epidemic in 1918 which killed millions of people. For genealogical and family history research, you’ll need to search death and church records – and the local cemetery – for more clues.

In 1920: Susie Anne Walker is married to John Walker.  In 1910, she was 15. The ages, as well as the first names are correct.  We can be almost certain that these records pertain to her, as we see that her father Tom Miller (in the 1910 census) is now listed (in the 1920 census) as father-in-law of Susie Anne’s husband (head of household).

This is just a quick snapshot of what can be found in the census records.   Perhaps now you understand why genealogists are so excited about April 2nd. We’ll have another 10 years of data to add to what we have already gathered.

This data will help us investigate, tie up loose ends and confirm data.  It will also pose new questions for additional research. Armed with the new 1940 information, we can move on to sleuthing cemeteries and other fascinating peeks at other years and cities – clues provided by the 1940 data.

It’s now only four days until the release of the 1940 census. All of us are counting the days and hours!

Happy census searching!

Mark Olsen

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One Response to “The 1940 Census: Why all the hype?”

  1. [...] See Mark Olsen's World Vital Records blog post ("Why all the hype about the census?") here. [...]

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