Eyeing a census that really counted
Updated: March 28, 2012 5:22PM
For anyone who ever wondered what their parents or grandparents were doing on the eve of World War II, April 2 is the day they’ve been waiting for with much anticipation.
The National Archives is going to release the 1940 census on April 2. Anyone with online access will be able to delve into the vast amount of data collected in the waning days of the Great Depression and the eve of World War II.
In addition to the standard questions about name, age, gender, race, education and place of birth, the 1940 census will identify who is giving the information. That’s good to know because I’ve seen answers vary from census to census.
We’ll also get a peek into how families dealt with the devastation of the Great Depression. One of the questions asked is if the person worked for the CCC, WPA, or NYA during the week of March 24-30, 1940.
The census inquires about the amount of income earned during 1939. That should be sobering for a lot of us when we see what our grandparents had to work with.
It also asks the occupation of each person and how many weeks they worked in 1939.
This census delves into the nation’s mobility by asking where each person lived in 1935. Did people live in the same place or did they begin moving in the search for work?
Employment must have been the big issue in 1940 because there are work-related questions for everyone over 14 in each household. Were they working or seeking work? How many hours did they work during a week in the spring of 1940?
There are supplementary questions asked of two people on each census page, including information about where they were born and where their parents were born. It asks if the person was a veteran and, for the first time, it asks questions about Social Security. It even asks women if they have been married more than once.
I’ve been doing family research for the last few years and have found a wealth of information in the census. I’m curious to find out more about how my family lived in 1940, when my mother was just 3 years old and my grandparents were struggling through the Depression. How much did they earn in 1939? What did they do to make ends meet? Did parents live with them?
I’m also looking for more clues about my grandmother’s ancestry. She always said her father spoke German, but all the kids were sent to Hungarian school to learn Hungarian. So were they German or Hungarian? In 1920 and 1930, the census says German. Will that answer change on the eve of World War II?
While the information in the 1940 census is bound to be a treasure trove for genealogists, be warned that you are going to need some information to get started.
The data will not be indexed by name, so you can’t just type in grandpa’s name. Subscription sites like Ancestry.com will eventually index by name, but the National Archives won’t.
You will need to know where your relatives lived down to the street address. Then you need to find the census enumeration district number for that address.
There’s plenty of information on what the census contains and how to get started. Just head to the 1940 census landing page at www.1940census.archives.gov.