Looking Forward to ’40

By David A. Fryxell Premium

In 1940, America wasn’t yet at war, Glenn Miller was “In the Mood” and Frank Sinatra vowed “I’ll Never Smile Again.” Rebecca and The Grapes of Wrath topped the box office, charts, Seabiscuit ran his final race, and the Census Bureau undertook its biggest enumeration yet of the US population.
You can watch Rebecca or listen to Sinatra whenever you want, but that 1940 census will remain under wraps until April 2, 2012, when the legally required 72-year privacy period expires. Just as the release of the 1930 census started a genealogical gold rush in 2002, expect a family tree frenzy when the National Archives and Records Administration takes the locks off the last pre-WWII census.
What can you expect to learn about your family from the 1940 data? Enumerators asked 34 questions, with ages given as of April 1, 1940. (Since April 1, 2012, falls on a Sunday, we’ll have to wait until Monday, April 2, for the census to be released.) First came address and housing data, including whether the home was owned (O) or rented (R) and the value of the home or the monthly rent. Each person was listed by name, relationship to the head of household, sex, color or race, age at last birthday, marital status, education (whether attending school at any time since March 1, 1940, and the highest grade completed), and places of birth and citizenship (if foreign born). In recognition of the ways the war in Europe had already redrawn the map by 1940, foreign birthplaces were to reflect the “country in which the birthplace was situated on January 1, 1937.”

The remaining questions focused on the respondent’s place of residence as of April 1, 1935 (a nifty way to track your relatives between censuses), employment and income.

Alas, only a randomly selected 5 percent of the population had to answer questions 35 through 50. This supplemental form—the Census Bureau’s first use of statistical sampling—included such family history favorites as parents’ birthplaces, mother tongue, veteran status, a woman’s age at marriage and the number of children she’d given birth to. If your ancestor’s name happened to fall on line 14 or 29 of the 40-entry enumeration sheet, you’re in luck: Those persons got asked the supplemental questions.

Unpuzzling EDs

When the 1940 forms are first made public, indexes and transcriptions probably won’t yet exist to help you find your family among the mountain of pages. In order to make the search manageable, you’ll have to know the enumeration district (ED) where they resided in 1940.
Happily, genealogy database wonk Stephen P. Morse, known for his “one-step” searches of databases such as the Ellis Island passenger lists, is already at work on this challenge. With the help of a team of volunteers, he’s posted three 1940 ED utilities. Just select 1940 from the drop-down menu at the top of the page and choose a state from the next menu. The ED Finder utility computes the ED from the street address in any municipality of at least 50,000 residents (plus many smaller towns).
You don’t know your ancestors’ address in 1940? Many libraries and a growing number of websites have old city directories you can use to answer that puzzle—you’ve got until 2012 to look up your kin. It’s also quite possible that your ancestors in 1940 lived at or near their residence in 1930. Morse’s 1930 ED Finder (choose 1930 from the drop-down menu) can figure out that ED for you, or use the ED Description utility, again selecting the year 1930. Once you have a single 1930 ED, clicking the 1940 ED button will take you to the 1930/1940 ED Converter Utility.
Finally, for rural areas and places of fewer than 50,000 residents not already included in the large-city ED finder, you can use Morse’s 1940 ED Description utility to home in on the right 1940 district.

Jumping the gun

Can’t wait until 2012? You may be able to take advantage of the Census Bureau’s Age Search Service. For $65, the bureau will search one census (1910 through 2000) for one person and send you an official transcription listing the person’s name, relationship to head of household, age at the time of the census, state of birth and citizenship if foreign born. Other single items of data such as occupation (for documenting black lung disease) will be provided on request. The full schedule of information for that one person will be provided for an additional $10 (not available for 1970 and later).
There’s a catch, of course: You have to complete a BC-600 application, which you can download as a PDF. The person you’re looking for must be deceased, a minor or mentally incompetent. For a deceased individual, you’ll have to provide proof, including a copy of the death certificate. And only a blood relative, surviving spouse, executor of a will or estate, or beneficiary by will or insurance (again, proof is required) can request post-1930 census data about a deceased person.
Requests normally take three to four weeks to process, or you can pay an extra $20 for expedited service. Write the National Processing Center, 1201 E. 10th St., Jeffersonville, IN 47132. Questions? Call (812) 218-3046.

If, despite this rigmarole, your appetite already has been whetted for the censuses of 1950 and beyond, don’t get too excited. The 1950 enumeration followed the 1940 statistical-sampling model, collecting only the basics on 95 percent of the population.

In 1960, the universal census was even more bare-bones—just five questions—but the statistical sample increased to 25 percent. The story was similar in 1970—eight overall questions, with others asked of 5 to 20 percent of households. Not until 1980 did all census respondents again complete a long form. Then the 1990 and 2000 head counts switched back to a short form for most respondents, plus a long questionnaire for a random sampling of the population.
Future genealogists, we’re sure, will lament the increasing statistical sampling approach to taking censuses. But by the time the 2010 census becomes available to family history researchers in 2082, everything about everybody will probably already be available on the Internet. Your descendants may not be able to learn much about you from the census—but they’ll have your Facebook page.

From the May 2010 Family Tree Magazine