Going Public

By David A. Fryxell Premium
Good genealogists learn to be patient. You may not manage to tease out answers about your ancestors until you’ve done months of research and hit many dead ends. Sometimes, as in the case of the 1940 census, you have to wait 72 years for the resource you need to become available.
But that long wait, imposed by federal privacy restrictions, is over. April 2 at 9 a.m., the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released the data on 132 million people enumerated in the 1940 census. And unlike previous census releases, which initially were limited to microfilm, images of the 1940 enumeration became available immediately—for free—online at 1940 US Census Community Project.

But a 1940 census index—three of them, in fact—is still being created, so knowing your ancestors’ enumeration district (ED) will be key to finding them. We’ll help you learn that crucial piece of information and take a look at what you can discover about your family from this newly available genealogical goldmine.

A tale of three indexes

The records’ free online availability is thanks to an arrangement between NARA and genealogy company Other genealogy websites then began adding all those record images, one state at a time, and feverishly developing indexes. At least three indexes are underway: is working with FamilySearch, the genealogy division of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and British genealogy company brightsolid (owner of the website, on the 1940 US Census Community Project. This massive volunteer effort has people around the world transcribing 1940 census returns to create a searchable index. “We would like to have 100,000 volunteers,” says FamilySearch spokesman Paul Nauta. “If we can get that kind of support, we feel we can complete the indexing project within 12 months. Our index will be double-keyed and arbitrated for maximum quality and accuracy.”

That means two volunteers will transcribe every name, and a third person, experienced in reading handwritten records, will resolve any differences. As each state’s index is completed, it will be published online. The indexes and images will be free online at, and free, at least for a while, at the project partners’ sites.
Subscription site is undertaking its own indexing project. “The indexing will be done in two phases—basic then advanced—so that users can conduct a basic name search shortly after the first images stream live on the website,” explains spokesman Matthew Deighton.
The home for’s 1940 census collection is “The census images will start streaming live onto from early April 2012, with the first state indexes available by mid-April, and the complete basic name index live by early fall,” Deighton says. “The advanced search index will be complete in 2013. The census will remain free to search on through December 2013, after which it may [become] a subscriber offering.”’s advanced-search index will catalog almost all the fields in the 1940 census, which asked 34 questions of all residents and an additional 16 questions of a random five percent of the population. The site’s new census image viewer will make it easier to spot relatives in the census schedules: When you call up a record in the viewer, the rows for the person you searched for and his household will be highlighted across the whole page. And cross-collection searching means that your 1940 census searches will generate hints for potential matches other collections.
Yet a third company,, based in Israel, is offering the 1940 census free at, and hopes to upload its first state index within a week of publishing the digital records, spokesperson Caroline Cohen says. This index—being developed separately from the Community Project and indexes—is “being prepared with a guaranteed accuracy level of 98 percent plus,” Cohen says. “Users who are searching the 1940 census elsewhere are also advised to do that on”
In addition, the census search will be available in 38 languages. If you have a family tree on the site, you’ll be automatically notified of potential matches in newly uploaded indexes.

ED education

Having already been so patient, you may not want to wait any longer to start finding ancestors in the 1940 head count. Fortunately, you can dive into the newly released census even before your ancestors get indexed. You’ll be able to search the free census images if you know where your ancestor lived. You can browse online images by the enumeration district number (ED for short; more on this in a moment), or use address or geographic information to locate the correct census schedule.
So what’s an ED, and how do you figure out your ancestor’s? The Census Bureau divided the massive enumeration job into areas one census taker could handle. The 1940 EDs, however, are different from those used in 1930. Depending on the place, an ED might cover several blocks or an entire county.
Stephen P. Morse, known for his “one-step” genealogy search tools, and Joel D. Weintraub have created an easy-to-use way to determine 1940 enumeration districts. You’ll need to know your ancestor’s address either on April 1, 1940, or in 1930 (in which case the site will guide you through converting the 1930 ED to the 1940 ED).

If you don’t know where the family lived, try using city directories, Alien Registration records, naturalizations filed close to 1940, and WWII draft records.

For a more hands-on approach, you can determine your ancestor’s ED by comparing 1940 maps to ED maps of the town. View the 1940 ED maps online using NARA’s Online Public Access search. Enter as search terms 1940 census maps plus the county and state, and a town name if you have one. (For a shortcut to this search, click here.) To read descriptions of EDs boundaries, search instead for 1940 census enumeration district descriptions plus the county and state (or try the shortcut here).

Questions, questions

The 1940 census was one of the richest enumerations ever in terms of data collected, although some genealogically important questions got asked only of that random five percent. The census form itself was an unwieldy 23¾x12½ inches, printed on both sides, with room for 40 individuals on each side plus two extra lines for additional questions asked of 5 percent of those listed (see opposite). For the first time, the enumerator had to enter a circled X after the name of the person furnishing the information about the family.
Many questions on the 1940 census are standard: name, age, gender, race, education and place of birth. All information was to be correct as of the official census day, April 1, 1940. Each question was numbered, beginning with two about the location of the household: “Street, avenue, road, etc.” and “House number” (in cities and towns). Questions 3 through 6 reported the household’s number in the enumerator’s order of visits, whether owned (O) or rented (R), value if owned or monthly rent, and whether it was on a farm.
Finally, line 7 got to the name of each person usually living there as of April 1; those temporarily absent from the household were marked with Ab. Newborns not yet named were marked Infant. Each individual’s relation to the head of household came next, followed by sex (M or F) and “Color or Race.” Codes used for this 10th question were W for white, Neg for Negro, In for Indian, Chi for Chinese, Jp for Japanese, Fil for Filipino, Hin for Hindu and Kor for Korean; others were to be spelled out.
Column 11 asked for age at last birthday; the ages of children less than one were to be given in fractions of 1/12—so, for example, 9/12 for a child born in June 1939. Last, under “Personal Description,” was marital status: single (S), married (M), widowed (Wd), or divorced (D).
Next came two questions about education: whether the person had attended school or college any time in the previous month, and highest grade of school completed, indicated by 1 through 8 for elementary and middle grades, H-1 through H-4 for high school, C-1 through C-4 for college and C-5 for subsequent higher education.
The instructions for question 15, place of birth, were a reflection of the times. For those born in the United States, the state, territory or possession was listed. For those foreign born whose countries of origin might have been overrun by Nazi Germany, enumerators were told to “give country in which birthplace was situated on Jan. 1, 1937.” Those born in French Canada were also to be distinguished from “Canada-English,” as were those born in the “Irish Free State from Northern Ireland.” Foreign-born individuals were asked their citizenship in question 16.
The next batch of questions relate to where the person lived five years prior, on April 1, 1935. If that was a different city or town (rather than a different addresses in the same “place”), the enumerator was to fill in the name of the city or other place of more than 2,500 population (otherwise, R for rural), county, state and whether the home was on a farm.

Not surprisingly given the Depression, several questions asked those age 14 and older about employment. For those not employed or seeking work, codes indicated home housework (H), in school (S), unable to work (U) or other (Ot). Those with jobs were asked about their occupation, industry, number of weeks worked in 1939, and income. The census asked whether each person worked for Depression-era employment programs (CCC, WPA or NYA) the week of March 24-30, and income for the 12 months ending Dec. 31, 1939.

The 5 percent

That was it, alas, for the regular questionnaire. Those whose names fell on lines 14 and 29 of each side of the form—about five percent of everyone listed—were also asked supplementary questions 35 through 50. If you’re lucky enough to have an ancestor among this five percent, you’ll also learn:

  • Place of birth of father and mother
  • “Language spoken in home in earliest childhood”
  • Veteran status, including whether the person is the wife, widow or under-18-year-old child of a veteran. Codes used to indicate which war were: W for what we now call the First World War; S for Spanish-American War, Philippine Insurrection or Boxer Rebellion; R for peacetime regular military; and Ot for other. Social Security status, including whether the person had a Social Security number.
  • “Usual Occupation, Industry and Class of Worker”—for the unemployed, this was a way to gather information on what people would be doing if they had a job.
  • For all women who were or had been married, whether married more than once, age at first marriage, and total number of children not counting stillbirths.

You might wish these supplemental questions had been asked of everyone, but unfortunately this sampling technique was the shape of things to come. Only in 1980 would everyone again complete a long form. The latest census, in 2010, used just 10 questions and skipped the long form entirely. So relish the cornucopia of data released at least with the 1940 census. Future genealogists won’t be able to use the census to learn nearly as much about us—no matter how patient they are.

Those Were the Days

In 1940 …

  • The US population was 132 million.
  • The national debt was $43 billion.
  • Average salary was $1,725 a year.
  • Minimum wage was 30 cents an hour.
  • A new car cost $850, a gallon of gas 11 cents.
  • A gallon of milk cost 54 cents.
  • A first-class stamp was 3 cents. 
  • Fifty-five percent of US homes had indoor plumbing.
  • Life expectancy at birth was 65.9 years for females, 61.6 for males.
  • The Academy Award for Best Picture went to Rebecca.
  • Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” was the No. 1 song.
  • The Pulitzer Prize for best novel went to The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
Find more fun facts from the years 1930 to 2011 in Remember That? by the editors of Family Tree Magazine.
Tip: Share your 1940 census finds with family. Because the people listed lived within recent memory,

their names might trigger recollections and stories. 
Tip: Many large libraries with genealogy departments have enumeration district finding guides for their areas. Check your library’s website or contact the genealogy reference desk.

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From the May/June 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine