The 1940 census data was released this week.  In one of their stories, NPR noted that this is as exciting to genealogists and historians as the Super Bowl is to football fans.   You might discover, as I did, that it’s exciting to you, too.

First, a bit of background.  Why did it take so long to release this data?  Contrary to some sources, there’s no law stating that personally identifiable census data has to be kept under wraps for seventy-two years.  However, there is a rule, first posed by Census Director Roy V. Peel in 1952.   The idea was that in seventy-two years, people whose data was in the census would be dead.  They wouldn’t care if we knew how much money they made back then; they would be gone.

Turns out, that thinking was a bit flawed.   It is estimated that 21 million Americans who were enumerated in the 1940 census are, in fact, still with us.  People whose names we recognize—for example, Morgan Freeman and Chuck Norris–are in there.  Maybe some of your people, too.

You do need to know this:   the census is not searchable—yet—by an individual’s name.  To find anyone, you need to know what enumeration district they were in.   [Quick: which one are you in?]  Luckily for us, a guy named Steve Morse has created a search tool.  It’s is available here:

I played around with this for about twenty minutes and was startled that I was able to find my grandparents, my mom and her siblings.  Knowing the census was not searchable by name had convinced me that I would not be able to do that.  However, the search tool and the fact that my grandparents lived in a very small enumeration district kept the job from being onerous.  And I have to tell you, there’s just something magical about seeing your mom’s name and her age—in this case, 16—listed on a very old census document.  I wasn’t prepared for how this affected me.  I wanted to call her sister and brother and tell them all about it.  Maybe I still will.

The 1940 census, as others have noted, gives us a snapshot of our country as it pulled out of the Great Depression and before it entered World War II.  It’s a fascinating era, and people will be teasing out information from this for some time to come.

So, let me suggest that you do some digging.  You can start by going to this site: Read up on what the census covers.  Find out the enumerators’  methods.  You’ll discover, for example, that in processing the 1940 Census, operators transferred information appearing on the schedules filled out by enumerators to punch cards. This permitted processing of census returns by sorting machines for the first time.[1]

Take some time with it and look up someone you know.  It’s better than the Super Bowl.


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