The 1940 Census is Coming!

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Even as I type, there are 299 days, 3 hours, 14 minutes, 31 seconds (and counting) to the release of the 1940 federal census on April 2, 2012. (Census day was April 1, 1940, but because April 1, 2011 falls on a Sunday, the release date is one day later than the legally required seventy-two years). We have had ten years to learn about our ancestors and family members from the 1930 census. The release of the 1940 census offers an opportunity to study even more recent ones.

The 1940 census, however, will offer challenges as well as opportunities for our research. Some of the more significant of these are:

  • This census will be released digitally only. This decision by the National Archives means that no microfilm will be created. Initially, the 1940 census will be available only at the National Archives facilities as well as online at its web site. There will be no index available at the time of the release. It can be expected that resources such as Ancestry and HeritageQuest will make this census available on their sites and that they will create an online index, but they have not received the digital files in advance in order to have images or indexes available on the day of release. A spokesperson for ancestry.com could state only that “Ancestry is looking forward to the release of the 1940 Federal Census and how to incorporate that into our existing database.” Look for blog and press statements to learn more about such plans when they are available.
  • This census is inclusive of the continental United States, Alaska, American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, the Panama Canal Zone, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, military and consular services abroad, and naval services abroad or in American waters, but not at a fixed station. Individuals in the armed services were enumerated as residents of the states and counties in which their duty was located. Merchant marine crews were enumerated as part of the population of the port from which the vessel operated. These last two enumeration specifications may cause some difficulty in locating an individual, particularly prior to the development of an index to this census.
  • The 1940 agricultural/farming and housing schedules no longer exist. The loss of the housing schedule, in particular, is unfortunate as it asked questions about building construction, heating, plumbing, value of the home, ownership of a radio, principle lighting source, and other such interesting questions that could have added much detail to the lives of our family members.
  • The 1940 census was the first to employ sampling techniques. Each page of the census includes an additional sixteen questions for individuals who appeared on lines 14 and 29 (5% of the population). You can only hope that one of your family members was enumerated on one of these two lines. If so, you will learn the birthplace of the individual’s mother and father; language spoken in the home in earliest childhood; if the person was a veteran or the wife, widow or child (under the age of 18) of a veteran, and if a child, whether the veteran was deceased; war or military service; if the individual had a social security number; and whether deductions for federal old age insurance or a railroad pension were taken from their wages in 1939.

If an individual indicated that he or she had a social security number, you will be able to request a copy of the SS-5 application form. Knowing that the individual had a social security number is particularly important for those individuals who may not appear in the Social Security Death Index (which indicates only those individuals for whom a death benefit was paid, not all deceased holders of a social security number).

  • You will be able to learn where the individual resided on April 1, 1935. This information may be very important given the effects of the Depression on the mobility of the nation’s population. The enumerator was asked to specify if the individual lived “in the same house” if there was no change in residence; “in the same place” if they were in the same city, but a different address; or the exact city/town, county and state in which they lived in 1935 if they had moved elsewhere. The enumerator was also asked to indicate if the place was a farm or if it was located in a rural area (population of 2,500 or less).
  • You will be able to identify the householder who provided the enumerator with the household’s information, as signified by an “x” placed next to his or her name.
  • Pay particular attention to the citizenship status of married women. Even if a woman was born in the United States, if she married a foreign-born man who had not become a citizen before September 22, 1922, her status would be listed as NA (naturalized) or AL (alien). After the 1922 date, she would have had to submit her own application for naturalization or continue to be listed as an alien.

The 1940 census will require some homework to insure its successful use:

  • Make a list of individuals from your family line who you believe should be enumerated in this census, based on their birth date and/or their enumeration in the 1930 census.
  • Use other resources such as family documents, city directories, telephone books, etc. to determine an address for each individual.
  • Consult any of the following to place that address in its corresponding enumeration district:
    • Steve Morse’s online project to convert street addresses to enumeration districts. You can also volunteer to help make this project complete by the 1940 census release date in April 2012.
    • National Archives microfilm publication T1224, Descriptions of Census Enumeration Districts, 1830-1950 – text descriptions of the enumeration districts.
    • National Archives microfilm publication A3378, Enumeration Districts (ED) Maps for the Twelfth through the Sixteenth Censuses of the United States, 1900-1940 – boundary maps for each enumeration districts.

Note: these descriptions and maps are being digitized by the National Archives and will be available later this year (2011).

If you are in frantic need of 1940 census information prior to the release date in April 2012, for a price you can request a transcript now.

As the days, hours and minutes countdown to April 2, 2012, you can prepare yourself by learning all you can about the 1940 census, its contents, and its oddities, so that when the clock runs down, you will be ready.

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