1940 census just one source

What the 1940 census doesn’t prove

In all the wonder and joy and, yes, even hype over the 1940 census, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that it’s just one source, and — by itself — may well not prove the fact you need to prove.

Case in point: the name of my paternal grandmother, shown here with my grandfather Hugo Ernst Geissler and my father Hugo H. Geissler on West 63rd Place in Chicago.1

It’s quite clear from the census record that my grandmother was the person who spoke to the census taker. That’s shown by the circled X next to her name in Column 7. The 1940 census was the first time the census enumerator was instructed to specifically indicate who it was who had provided the information for each household.2

And it couldn’t be clearer that the census taker here carefully entered my grandmother’s name as “Margarite M.” No issues of transcription or handwriting here — the name is printed. And there may well not have been any issues of language — my family was German, yes, but the census taker was a Clarence Schreiber — also a German surname.3

And, of course, her name wasn’t Margarite at all. She was born Marie Margarethe Nuckel on 9 February 1891 in Bremen, Germany.4 So her middle name was close to what the census taker wrote, but that’s not what she was ever called:

     • When she married in Germany in 1917, the church and church records listed her name as Marie Margarethe geb. (geboren = born) Nuckel.5

     • Her 1924 application for a visa to come to the United States listed her name as Marie.6

     • Her name in the ship passenger list for the family’s 1925 passage to America was Marie.7

     • Her 1927 declaration of intention to become an American citizen gave her name as Marie Geissler.8

     • Her February 1930 petition for naturalization was in the name of Marie Geissler.9

     • Her entry in the 1930 census gave her name as Marie.10

     • Her 1936 application for a Social Security number was in the name Marie.11

     • An undated postcard written to her by a niece in Germany most likely around 1940 was inscribed “Liebe Tante Marie” (“dear Aunt Marie”).12

     • When my grandfather died in 1945, she was listed as a survivor in his Chicago Tribune death notice as Marie.13

     • When she died in 1947, her own death notice was in the name of Marie,14 and her death certificate was in the name Marie.15

In other words, the one and only record that has ever existed that names my grandmother as “Margarite M.” rather than Marie (or Marie Margarethe) is the 1940 census. If I were writing this up in a genealogical proof summary, I’d write the 1940 census entry off as an anomaly. She may have misunderstood the census taker; he may have misunderstood her.

So be careful in using this — or any — census. It’s one bit of evidence, and it may just be wrong.


  1. 1940 U.S. census, Cook County, Illinois, Chicago Ward 13, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 103-867, page 1,429(B) (stamped), sheet 61(B), household 52, Margarite M. Geissler; digital image, Archives.gov (http://1940census.archives.gov : accessed 2 Apr 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T627, roll 947.
  2. See Jason G. Gauthier, Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses from 1790 to 2000 (Washington, D.C. : U.S. Bureau of the Census), 62.
  3. 1940 U.S. census, Cook Co., Ill., Chicago Ward 13, pop. sched., ED 103-867, p. 1,429(B) (stamped), sheet 61(B).
  4. Bremen birth certificate, attached to visa application, Form 255, 4 December 1924, Marie Geissler; photocopy received 2004 via FOIA request by Judy G. Russell from U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (now U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services).
  5. Heiraten (Marriages), p. 41, nr. 5, Geißler-Nuckel, 14 Feb 1918; Kirchenbuch (Church Book), Evangelische Kirche St. Jakobi, Bremen, Heiraten 1911-1930; FHL INTL microfilm 953,273. Also Bescheinigung der Eheschließung (Certificate of Marriage), nr. 135 (1918), Geißler-Nuckel, Standesamt (Registry Office), Bremen.
  6. Visa application, 4 December 1924, Marie Geissler.
  7. New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957, List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States, SS George Washington, Passengers sailing from Bremen, January 28th, 1925, line 5, Marie Geissler; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 5 Apr 2012); citing NARA microfilm publication T715, roll 3605.
  8. Declaration of Intention no. 179553, Cook County, Illinois, Circuit Court, Marie Geissler, 14 Jan 1927; Cook County Archives, Chicago.
  9. Petition for Citizenship, no. 86796, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Marie Geissler, 20 Feb 1930; FHL microfilm 1468306.
  10. 1930 U.S. census, Cook County, Illinois, Chicago Ward 16, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 17, page 223(B) (stamped), sheet 18(B), dwelling 155, family 386, Marie Geissler; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 5 Apr 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 441.
  11. Marie Geissler, 29 Nov 1936, Application for Account Number (Form SS-5), Social Security Administration, Baltimore, Maryland.
  12. Undated postcard, “Hilde” to Marie Geissler, 3757 W. 63rd Place, Chicago, Illinois; Geissler family research files, privately held by Judy G. Russell, New Jersey.
  13. Death notice, Hugo E. Geissler, Chicago Tribune, 14 Jan 1945, section 2, page A6.
  14. Death notice, Marie Geissler, Chicago Tribune, 14 Apr 1947, section 1, page 30.
  15. Illinois Department of Public Health, death certificate no. 12011, Marie Geissler, 12 Jan 1947; Division of Vital Statistics, Springfield.
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11 Responses to 1940 census just one source

  1. Jen Baldwin says:

    Thank you for another wonderful post! I very much enjoy reading your material, and the clarification you provide on certain issues is invaluable. Have a great day!

  2. Pat Morgan says:

    When I found my husband’s maternal grandfather I was so excited. There he was with his youngest daughter (husband’s aunt) in the right place in Gallia County, Ohio. But I was a bit disheartened to see that neither of them had the X that would have identified who gave the census taker the information. Yet, all of the information provided matched what I knew of his grandfather and aunt. So who talked to the census taker and just how dependable was the source?

    As it turns out – I believe it was one of his neighbors and I think they are reasonably dependable. The family listed right before his grandfather was his sister-in-law and her children and the house listed after was his grandfather’s sister and brother-in-law. I have no knowledge of any family feuds or bad blood so for now I am confident that the information was provided in the spirit of family cooperation. Sigh of relief!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That’s terrific, Pat! Having family all around sure makes the likelihood of accurate information better!

  3. Cyndy Bray says:

    You are so right. I have found more conflicting info in the census than I care to remember. One census has someone 45 years old the very next census has the same person 50 years old. Neat trick. That’s only one example. I have seen several others.

  4. Jim Owston says:

    Great post – I’ve found some errors for my relatives as well. Thanks for the info on the X – I learned something new today.


  5. Pingback: 1940 Census Links Part II: Fun Finds « The Ancestral Archaeologist

  6. Anne Willson says:

    I also didn’t know that about the circled X marking the person the census-taker spoke with. Which is valuable information. I have found in other censuses, that the census taker wrote the names backward…in other words, Surname, MIDDLE-name First-name. However, it occurred for many people, not one individual, so I doubt that would be the case here. And, I still laugh at a grandmother who, after 35, only got 5 years older each census, until on the last census before her death, she showed up the same age as her daughter!

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