Tales of the Census

Soon, we will all be part of history.

How, you wonder? 

In April of 2010, the new decennial United States Federal Census will be arriving in our mailboxes. The government will be mailing the questionnaire, as it is still not available online.  So we all need to sort through our mail a little more carefully that month!   

For those of us interested in family history, the U.S. Federal Censuses provides a glimpse into our ancestors’ lives.  Taken every 10 years since 1790, the census evolved over time into a snapshot of American life in different parts of the country over the generations. 

Currently, almost all the censuses from 1790 through 1930 are open to the public for viewing.  The years 1940 through 2000 still fall within the governments 72 Year Privacy Policy.  But the details of the 1940 census will be made available in 2012—oh, so close!

As you may have noted in the paragraph above, it is stated that almost all the censuses from 1790 through 1930 are available for public viewing.  Let us explore briefly the tragedy of the 1890 census, which exists today only in a few fragmented sections: 

In March of 1896, before final publication of the general statistics volumes had taken place; the special schedules for 1890—mortality, crime, pauperism and benevolence, and special classes (including deaf, dumb, blind, etc.)—were damaged in a fire.  What remained of the charred mess was ordered destroyed by the Department of Interior.   The general population schedules, which we know as the basic, personal questions asked during the census (including names, place of birth, etc.) survived, but not for long. . . . (Feel free to insert your own Da Da Dum in scary music fashion here)

The surviving schedule, stored in the basement of the Commerce Building, was partially destroyed by fire in 1921— and what wasn’t burned succumbed to severe water damage.  Left for years unattended in a warehouse and then basement area, the surviving records were ordered destroyed by the Bureau of Census and Department of Commerce sometime between 1933 and 1935.  Only a few sections were passed over, somehow, and these have since been microfilmed for public viewing. 

It took tragedies like that of the 1890 census to create greater recognition in government for the creation of a “hall of records” to store valuable papers.  As early as 1898, some members of government felt a need for there to be a federal government national archive, but it took several decades before anything was actually done.   Finally on June 19, 1934,  President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Archives Act, which created the National Archives as an independent agency.  The National Archives building opened in 1935.   We haven’t lost a Census since.

Are we modern genealogists the only ones excited by the prospect of a new decennial census?  Actually it appears not.  Looking through newspapers for the year 1910, for example, articles and notices can be found regarding testing information for potential census takers, as well as  news releases telling the public what information they will be requested to provide.  Those lucky enough to be employed by the Bureau of Census began their work on April 15, 1910,  and were required to complete their rounds within thirty days—an entire country tallied in one month.  That kind of deadline makes you hope everyone was home to keep things moving along! 

The Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center not only has the 1910 census on microfilm for Scott and other counties in Iowa, but census information for other years may be obtained  for Iowa and other states in our microfilm, book collection or through our subscription to Ancestry.com, which is available on the computers in the Special Collections Department.

The general population census wasn’t the only information collected in 1910, by the way—Farmers had their own census in addition to the general population record.  That information has its own story to tell—soon!

(posted by Amy D.)

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2 Responses to Tales of the Census

  1. Adrian says:

    Yay, census! This will be my first time to participate as a separate household. I look forward to it! Thank you for the story about the 1890 census.

  2. Amy D. says:

    Thanks Adrian. I’m glad someone understands my interest in the census (and being part of it). I find them fascinating to look through. I have fun with the 1880 census which may be searched by occupation in Ancestry.com. I did not find an archivist in 1880, but did find wire walkers, a mineral water manufacturer, and a Capitalist in Davenport. One of my favorites still has to be a young lady in another state whose occupation in 1880 was listed as “Heart Breaking.” Sadly, my occupation will never be that exciting!

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