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Depression, War, Waffle Irons, Controversy: The World of the 1940 Census

Behind the the 1940 U. S. Federal Census stands the story of questions considered, approved, fought and finally answered by over 131 million Americans for the 16th national census. Step back into the world of the 1940 census and learn what information will be revealed when the census is released in 2012.


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Behind the columns, handwritten names and ticks of the 1940 U. S. federal census stands the story of questions considered, approved, fought and finally answered by over 131 million Americans for the 16th national census. Step back into the world of the 1940 census and learn what information will be revealed when the census is released in 2012.

Which Questions for "the Quiz"?

Besides apportioning seats in the House of Representatives, the census is an opportunity for the USA to learn almost anything about itself, and curious Americans had all kinds of things they wanted to know. On Aug. 17, 1939, the Associated Press(AP) reported that the Census Bureau had received hundreds of suggestions for "the quiz," as many newspapers referred to the census. Suggestions included determining how many people are over 6 feet tall, how many rooms in America didn't have windows, how many homes had a waffle iron and Bible, and detailing the hair and eye color of every American.

"An organization pleaded for a dog census," reported AP." It didn't just want to know how many dogs there are, but wanted the bureau to classify them by breeds." In the 1940 Three Stooges short, No Census, No Feeling, census enumerator Moe asks, "Are you married, or happy?"

But census director William L. Austin had more pressing information to gather. In a March 1939 interview with a Connecticut newspaper, The Meriden Daily Journal, Austin told reporter Bruce Catton that the census would gauge the Great Depression's impact: "Exactly how many people work now? As for the people who have jobs, what kind of jobs have they? Are they making enough to support their families decently?" wrote Catton. Although unemployment information had been gathered in the 1930 Unemployment Census, in 1940 questions on employment would be added to the general population questionnaire.

Austin also wanted to know where Americans were moving, especially those leaving the farm for the city or vice versa. The Bureau added a question asking respondents where they had lived on April 1, 1935. "These data were coded and compared to the place of residence in 1940, thus providing, for the first time, statistics on population movement," writes the Census Bureau on its website.

The Census Bureau Readies for War

And while America had not yet entered World War II, war was enough of a possibility for the federal government to begin preparations. The Associated Press reported on Sept. 1, 1939 that the War Department had requested the Census Bureau gather information on current and former occupations of workers to give them an idea of the man power available.

Finding enough tradesmen to fill the military's technical needs without depriving private industry of too many workers would be "one of the government's hardest tasks in event of war," reported the AP. With the Depression having thrown many workers out of their usual line of work, officials believed the census could best determine how many tradesmen were actually out there.

The questions on former or usual employment appeared in the list of supplementary questions asked of 5% of respondents. Why just a sample? The Census Bureau explains: "Tabulations based on the sample could be completed months ahead of the regular tabulations prepared from the general population—an especially important feature in times of national emergency and for obtaining quick preliminary counts of the distribution of the labor force by area, sex, age, etc."

A Private Question Raises Controversy

As with many other federal censuses, the 1940 census had its share of controversy. Senator Charles Tobey (R-NH) objected to a question asking how much income a respondent had made in the last year. Tobey said the question was an invasion of citizens' privacy by the federal government and that the information might be used by partisan enumerators for political gain.

Tobey tried to bring in legislation before the Senate to remove the question, but failed. In the meantime, Secretary of Commerce, Harry Hopkins, had made a compromise; respondents who did not want to have their answer identified could write the information on an unsigned sheet of paper, place it in a sealed envelope and give it to their enumerator, who would forward it to the Census Bureau. Quoted in a March 14, 1940 Associated Press report, Hopkins said he respected "the sincere and honest feeling of some people against giving this information to enumerators who might be acquaintances or neighbors."

According to The Meriden Daily Journal, Meriden residents were happy to give their information to the 1940 Census takers. "Local citizens friendly with census takers / Like Quiz, officials report, and want to keep talking" ran a headline on April 3, 1940. By the end of 1940, the Census Bureau had tallied 131,669,275 Americans and had completed national censuses for business, manufacturing, mining and quarrying, as well as the general population, agriculture and housing censuses.

General information was released soon after, but as every genealogist knows, individual answers in the 1940 general population census were not; 72 years would have to pass before that information could be released to the general public. The release date for the 1940 census has been set for April 2, 2012, and genealogists will have a short year before finding out how their relatives answered the "quiz".

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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