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NARA’s Constance Potter on the 1940 Census

Imagine the scene: it’s the Celeste Bartos Forum of the New York Public Library. This room is cavernous, with a 30-foot-high glass saucer dome ceiling, and a seating capacity of 500.

Every genealogist in the city and surrounding suburbs had vied for a chance to attend the all-day program The Road to the 1940 Census: In Search of Your Family History, co-sponsored by the Library, the National Archives and the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society. And there’s not an empty seat in the house.

There’s a podium, and an image of a census form on the screen behind the podium. It can’t be an image of the 1940 census because the 1940 census hasn’t been released yet. So a fair-to-middlin’ speaker isn’t going to be carried along on the power of the images.

And this particular speaker isn’t tall enough to be seen behind the podium. She’s not much more than five feet tall, with a short cap of greying hair and — always — just that hint of a smile that says “if I could, I’d bust out laughing about this.” And because she can’t be seen behind the podium, the conference attendees get her to step out where she can be seen — and that means she can’t even use her notes.

No images. No notes. And an hour or more of absolutely riveting information about the 1940 census. Not a sound heard from the audience in the packed room except the sound of pens and pencils taking notes on paper.

That, my friends, is what it was like last Saturday to hear Constance Potter of the National Archives, shown here in a YouTube video about the 1940 census that’ll give you just the slightest hint of what her NYPL presentation was like.

I wish I could show you a video of everything she said (the NYPL did tape the program and I’m hoping eventually it will all be online), but, as promised, at least let me share with you the highlights of what I learned from Connie Potter about the 1940 census:

Enumeration districts

     • Enumeration district numbers can have a letter suffix A or B. If you go looking for a district by number and it doesn’t come up, add an A to the number.

     • On average, enumeration districts in 1940 had 30 pages of returns. They’ll have the usual numbers — 1A and 1B on through 30A and 30B. But there may be either or both of two other pages: page 61 was for those who weren’t at home when the census taker came around; and page 81 was for transients (folks in hotels, flophouses and the like). All pages will be stamped so if the last census page is 30, then if there’s a page 61 it’ll be stamped as 31 and if there’s a page 81 it’ll be stamped 32. Check and make sure you’ve looked at all the pages for your enumeration district.

     • Some cities had their own enumeration districts. If you search for county and state and the district you want doesn’t show up, look for city and state.

The 1940 census forms

     • Blank copies of the 1940 census forms can be viewed or downloaded to get used to the format in advance.

     • The 1940 census instructions, for the first time, asked census takers to indicate who provided the information. There should be a tick mark in Column 7 to show who the informant was — and, not surprisingly, in most cases it was the wife. After all, she was the one most likely to be home when the census taker came around.

     • In Column 14, for highest grade completed, don’t assume that somebody who finished 11th grade was a high school dropout. At that time, many students graduated after the 11th grade.

     • In Column 16, for citizenship of the foreign born, AmCit meant an American citizen born abroad.

     • In the employment questions, Columns 21-33, you may find people who were in the CCC but who are enumerated with their families at home and not at one of the CCC camps. That’s because only the people who were actually employed by the government to run the camps were supposed to be enumerated at the camps.

     • Column 31 asked people how many weeks they worked in 1939 and column 32 asked for their wages and salary. Don’t be surprised to find people who worked 52 weeks and had zero wages or salary. Those were the self-employed, including farmers — anybody who wasn’t paid by someone else.

The supplemental questions

     • Some of the questions we genealogists love on earlier censuses — such as place of birth of father and mother and how many children a woman ever had — were moved from the regular census form to a set of supplemental questions. Only five percent of those enumerated were asked the supplemental questions. (Just as I am not one of the One Percent, I am taking large bets on no key member of my family being one of the Five Percent either…)

     • Each census form has 40 lines for a maximum of 40 people. Those in lines 14 and 29 were asked supplemental questions. If the person on line 14 or 29 was an infant, that’s who the answers were supposed to relate to. And if nobody was on lines 14 or 29 on a given sheet, nobody was asked the supplemental questions.

Census surprises

     • Columns 9-11 called for sex, color or race and age at last birthday. Comparing the results of the census for black men aged 18-35 versus the draft registration results when America geared up for World War II showed that young black men were undercounted in the census by a whopping 13%. Considering that the constitutional reason for the census is apportioning the House of Representatives by population, wow… talk about skewing the results.

     • Columns 17-20 asked where people lived on 1 April 1935. Given economic conditions and the horrific dust storms of mid-April 1935, the expectation was that many Americans would have moved between 1935 and 1940. In fact, only 8.5% did.

The income question

     • Asking people how much they made stirred the usual furor among politicians that marks every census. One Senator from New Hampshire insisted in a speech on the Senate floor that nobody should know what he made — despite the fact that what a Senator or Congress member makes is always a matter of public record.

     • Any citizen who objected to the income question was given a slip of paper marked with the enumeration district, household and family number, and allowed to write the information on the paper and seal it in an envelope. When the envelopes reached the Census Bureau, the information was neatly entered in the blank space on the census form and marked with a C (for confidential). So we can all now see what folks in 1940 didn’t want us to know.

Four more days. I can’t wait.

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