Saturday, March 3, 2012

Looking forward to looking back to 1940

1940 is just around the corner! The genealogist’s dream, which comes true every 10 years, is the release of millions of public records that might include information about our ancestors. The 1940 Census, closed due to privacy rules for 72 years, will be released in one month. It’s time for genealogists to prepare!

The federal census, the most recent of which was taken in 2010, was established by the U.S. Constitution in Article I, Section 2: “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.”

Despite its patriotic origins, the census has always been suspect. A modern children’s book, “Tricking the Tallyman,” highlights the first census in 1790 and some citizens who thought the “tallyman,” or head-counter, was some sort of government spy who would tax the people. The main purpose was and is to count the population to establish Congressional representation, although many other uses have developed over the centuries. Of course, to genealogists, the main purpose is to help us sort out our pedigrees!

A certain N.H. Hilyard from San Angelo, in 1940, would not hear of participating in the census.

“Uncle Sam never counted me and I never caught a census enumerator making a nose count,” the 65-year-old told a reporter, prompting a “special” visit from a census supervisor.

The 1940 census, coming just between the Great Depression and WWII, was big news across the U.S. It began in 1937 with a postcard count of the unemployed and with a massive map-making project for census takers. The maps eventually numbered about 130,000. A “trial census” was held in St. Joseph and Marshall counties, Indiana, in August 1939.

Today’s logistics engineers would be impressed with preparations for the tally. When time came for the census to begin, forms, envelopes, pencils and stationery were shipped to San Francisco and other points distant from Washington, D.C., first. The census kits filled 29,500 special wooden boxes and were treated “like gold bars,” according to news reports of the day. It took 56 railroad cars to transport the official materials.

Personnel management was massive, too, and of great interest to the populace, who had just lived through a depression where there were very few jobs to be found. The federal government hired more than 120,000 census employees. This “census army,” was armed with 328,000 pencils and was trained in census schools across the nation. Abridged instructions were 20 pages!

“A few times in the past, members of Congress have sent in applicants who could not read and write, and there have been instances in which the Bureau had to use them,” according to the Trenton, N.J., Sunday Times-Advertiser, on July 1939. As genealogists, we cringe to see this because we’ve sometimes read mangled information in the old records that can only be explained by such a statement.

It was not only humans who worked on the census. People were fascinated by a “robot army” of business machines—not a humanoid robot like we would think of today—was used to process census data. Mechanical card punches numbered 850, and there were 600 machines called “verifiers.” Fifteen “gang punches, 515 duplicating key punches, 35 tabulators and 65 duplications machines stood ready to sort and organized 138 million records, the largest census to that date.

The official census date was April 1, 1940, but some work did not begin until the 2nd because workers wanted to make sure that “April Fool’s Day” would not interfere with door-to-door workers’ welcome. Census workers in the cities were allowed two weeks to finish their count, and rural workers had 30 days. The results were to be compiled and returned to Congress in eight months.

The results have been locked in government archives since that time, closed to the public. When released, the first job of genealogists will be to create an every-name index. (Genealogists are beyond “cringing” when they hear that this huge data dump has no inherent way to zero in on a particular ancestor. Line-by-line reading of an entire geographical area, known as an enumeration district, will be the only method, until an index is produced.)

Read Part II in the next issue to find out what you need to know on Apr. 2 in order to find your “people” and find out whether N.H. Hilyard’s claim to have never been counted in six decades was true.

“Ask the Ancestors,” is a family and local history column by genealogist Lisa McKinney. Comments and questions are encouraged. Ms. McKinney's next workshop on “Preparing for 1940” will be at the Van Zandt County Library, 317 First Monday Lane, in Canton on March 24 at 2 p.m. Contact her at for more information.


  1. Nice write-up! With all the blog posts so far about the 1940 census, I thought I knew most of the 'facts' but I learned a few more.

    1. Thank you, Wendy! Your opinion is important to me. I've got a lot of tweaking to do -- bigger font? better usage of space? etc., but I love finally having this "out there!"

  2. Welcome to the GeneaBloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I have found it most stimulating, especially some of the Daily Themes.

    May you keep sharing your ancestor stories!

    Dr. Bill ;-)
    Author of "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories" and family saga novels:
    "Back to the Homeplace" and "The Homeplace Revisited"

    1. Thank you, Dr. Bill! I look forward to checking out your websites! Writing out stories is a strong focus of mine.

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you, Jim! So happy to be associated with Geneabloggers!

  4. Counting the days! hmmm....I may need to take a 'sick' day from work. :-)
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)

    1. Or a month! Would love to hear your stories!