Friday, April 13, 2012

Discovering Yourself in the 1940 Census

Have you had a chance to stop and think about what you might find hidden within the 1940 US Census?  Or maybe you have already taken a look. What a marvelous snapshot of our country in the throes of the Great Depression, teetering on the brink of World War II. In fact, some questions were added which reflect the stressed economic conditions under which Americans where working then; such as a person’s usual occupation, not just what they were doing the week of March 24-30, 1940.

The US Census Bureau teamed up with the National Archives to stage a great social media campaign to build interest in the April 2nd first-ever online release of US Census records. They so successfully used Twitter (#1940Census), Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr, YouTube, and blogs (NARAtions and Prologue: Pieces of History) that followers' queries overloaded the servers shortly after release, followed by sincere apologies as the administrators realized they did not have the capacity for the interest they had generated. It was definitely a disappointment to those who had anxiously awaited the big release. Over the weeks, months and years to come, we can all satisfy our curiosity of how our ancestors, communities and country were reflected in those records.

The house on W. 74th Street
One of the amazing elements of this Census, for me and for many of my contemporaries, is that this is the first time our parents appear in a Census. When I look at a digital copy of the census document, I can imagine the census-taker, standing on the porch of my great-grandmother’s house on West 74th Street in Cleveland, talking to my grandfather, who was home during the day from his job as a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. This census includes an indicator of which household member answered the census questions. The census-taker was undoubtedly male, wearing a bowler hat and, most likely, a tie. My grandfather would be giving him the names and ages of his household: besides himself, my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother (almost 3 years old) and my uncle (almost 2 years old).

Timmy & my mom
Although the handwriting of the census belongs to the census-taker, it was written in the presence of a grandfather I barely remember, recording a conversation so full of information, I wish I had been there to gather those facts, and more, myself. The facts the government collected are pieces to the puzzle I long to complete – the family tree on the side of my family known more for record-burning than record-keeping. I admit the 1940 Census has no new news on this little family: I know that my maternal grandfather’s parents were born in Ireland and that my grandmother’s mother was born in North Carolina, her father in Ohio. But there are other paths for me to explore that, I know, will give me countless hours of pleasure: Find my great grandparents in Columbus and see who was living with them then; find my father (3 ½ years old) and his family and see whether they were living in the house I came to know so well; Find the McCarthys in Findlay and the Learys in Cleveland; find my father’s cousins in Ashtabula and see if Great Aunt Winifred was still alive; find my step-grandfathers’ families; find my North Carolina relatives and see how the 10 years since 1930 treated them in births and deaths; find everyone’s occupations and incomes to put together an image of their lifestyle; the list goes on and on.

Aunt Winifred, my dad & his sisters
I am a map lover, and the census data across the decades are a rear-view map of the life journey we are on. We are products of our ancestors. Even generations ago, their experiences weigh heavily on our station in life, our view of the world, the foundation of our soul. 

Time to do a little time-travel.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this very interesting post. It makes me curious and inspired to research!