In the early months of 1940, long before super-computers and the Internet, more than 100,000 Census counters went door-to-door in all 48 states, scribbling down intimate details about every American’s home and work and family history.
Monday morning, with a big assist from the technological advances of successive decades, the government pulled back the curtain on the 1940 Census, releasing individual records from the decennial count, and for the first time providing online access to the survey answers provided by many of our grandparents and great-grandparents.
Confidentiality laws keep individual Census records under wraps for 72 years. That timeclock ran out over the weekend for the 1940 Census, so the National Archives and Records Administration planned a flashy tech-savvy release of the information, with infographics and vintage videos and even a game in which you can replace Uncle Sam’s face in the poster above with a face of your choosing.
But the real draw is the individual records, which in the past have been released only on endless shelves of microfilm. This time, committed genealogists and the merely curious can use the Internet to track down information on relatives (or possibly themselves; the Census Bureau estimates about 21 million people covered by the 1940 Census are still alive).
The process is not as simple as searching a name or address, however. Survey results are grouped by “enumeration districts,” the often small areas delineated by the Census Bureau to divvy up the work. With a street address, researchers can identify the correct enumeration district, and from there, scan digitized images from that district, in what the government describes as a “scavenger hunt” for the pages listing our pre-war relatives. Get tips on the hunt here.
The Census Bureau is also using the release of the records to reflect on societal changes in the six-dozen years since the count was done. In 1940, American men actually slightly outnumbered women, which is no longer the case. The median age in the nation in 1940 was 29, a figure that has grown to more than 37 due largely to medical advances. There have also been leaps in education, with high school graduation rates jumping from slightly less than a quarter of the adult population to more than 85 percent.
In Connecticut, a typical rent ran about $8 a week in 1940 – a welcome bargain, since most workers made less than $20 for a week’s work.
That same year, Connecticut had 21,163 farms, occupying 48 percent of the state’s land. That left room for 1.7 million people – less than half the current population. And, at least as counted by the Census, the state had only the slightest diversity. According to the counters, 98 percent of the state was white. Today, whites make up about 78 percent of the state population.
To access the details of the 1940 Census, start here: http://1940census.archives.gov/