What census years asked women about childbirth?

Near the turn of the twentieth century, in an attempt to gather statistics on infant mortality, and lacking a comprehensive registration of births and deaths to gather such data, the U.S. Census Bureau began asking women questions (often referred to as fertility questions) about the number of children born and the number still living. The questions applied to births and deaths as of the enumeration date, which in some areas may have differed from the date on which the census taker arrived. Fertility questions were first asked in 1890 and continued through 1910; by the 1920s and 1930s, birth and death registration was largely in place, but in 1940 the question was asked again, on a limited basis.

Following are the questions asked, to whom the questions applied, and the census year the questions were asked, in parentheses.

  • Mother of how many children, and number of these children living. (1890, Question 9)

    This question applied to all women who were or had been married, including those those widowed and divorced. If a woman had no children, the number, of course, would be zero. If the woman had given birth but all her children were dead, the number of births would be reported and the number living listed as zero. As most researchers are aware, the 1890 census was damaged and largely destroyed, although a limited number of fragments census remain in certain areas.

  • Mother of how many children. Number of these children living. (1900, Columns 11 and 12)

    This question applied to women, independent of marital status. As with the 1890 census, if a woman had no children, the respective numbers, of course, would be zero. if the woman had given birth but all her children were dead, the number of births would be reported with the number living listed as zero.

  • Mother of how many children: Number born. Number now living. (1910, Columns 10 and 11)

    These questions applied to women who were married, widowed, or divorced. The instructions to enumerators were more specific than previous census years. The answer was to be the total number of children the woman had in her lifetime, including children by any former marriage, as well as by her present marriage, but not to include her husbands children by a former wife, even if part of the household. Stillborn children were not to be included. If a woman had no children, the respective numbers, of course, would be zero. if the woman had given birth but all her children were dead, the number of births would be reported with the number living listed as zero.

  • Number of children ever born (Do not include stillbirths). (1940, Question 50)

    Again, aimed at capturing the total number of children born to a woman during her lifetime, this question applied to "all women who are or had been married," and was asked along with several other questions of a sampling of the population, and not the entire population. However, if one's ancestor was among those who participated, the responses are available as part of the census record.

Knowing how many children a mother had and how many were living at a given point in time can help researchers in putting family groups together and accounting for those that might be missing. The information may also help determine the total number of children born to a woman in her lifetime, through all marriages. In addition, it may help distinguish between a woman's own children and those of her husband, born of a previous marriage, overall, allowing researchers to build a more complete picture of female ancestors living during that time period.

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