1. Target the right census.
2. Transcribe, extract and analyze.
Squeeze every drop of information from census records by transcribing—copying word for word—the information on the sheets. Because census data are presented in table format, I like to transcribe the information the same way using a chart or spreadsheet with columns labeled the same way as on the census. You can download extract forms and worksheets on FamilyTreeMagazine.com.
|1940 Census Information||Notes and Questions|
|On April 9 (the day the census taker visited), Frank A. Brown was the head of household, renting the house at 1021 E. Cypress for $25 per month.||
• Where is 1021 E. Cypress? Locate it on a map.
• What is average rent in the neighborhood?
|Frank was a white male, age 47, who attended school through eighth grade.|
|He was married to Arline A., age 49. He had two daughters, Frances L., age 9, and Suzanne W. (my mom), age 7.||• When did Frank and Arline marry? Possibly 1930 or 1931.|
|Frank was born in California (in 1893, estimating from his stated age).||• Birth information confirmed by birth record.|
|In 1935, Frank and family lived in Kansas City, Saline County, Kan. They didn’t live on a farm.||• How long did the family live in Kansas City?|
|For the week of March 24-30, 1940, Frank didn’t work in any capacity. He was seeking work and had been unemployed for 78 weeks prior to March 30 (on the census return, 18 mo. is lined out and 78 is penciled above). Frank was a cannery worker by trade. He hadn’t worked in 1939. His wages that year were $0, but he had other sources of income totaling over $50.||• Was unemployment common in the neighborhood?
• What other sources of income did Frank have?
Like many Americans of their era, my grandparents left their home in Kansas to look for employment and opportunity in California. Mom remembered living in the old Victorian house at 1315 N. Broadway sometime in the 1940s, but the census showed they weren’t living there on the April 9, 1940 survey date.
3. Understand the neighborhood.
I used the web to find the exact location of the Brown home on Cypress. Typing the street address and town name into Google brought up a map of the location on Google Maps <google.com/maps> (other mapping sites, such as Bing, have a similar feature). With Street View, I could get a close-up look at the house. Then I hit Get Directions to find the distance between this house and the other one. The Browns’ 1940 home at 1021 Cypress was 1.6 miles from the house Mom remembered at 1315 N. Broadway.
• What was Frank’s other source of income?
• When did the family move to the Victorian house at 1315 N. Broadway?
• How could the Browns possibly afford the rent on the larger house?
4. Look beyond the census.
The first stop for any type of family history research is your own home and the homes of your relatives. I’ve inherited a trove of letters, photos and assorted memorabilia from my mother, aunt and grandparents. It’s easy to recognize the genealogical value in old letters and photos, but harder to know what information you can learn from old bank passbooks, ration books, library cards and the like. I was glad I saved those things when I began to tackle this research problem. I wanted evidence of residence—where the Brown family lived in the decade following the official 1940 census.
• Searching the 1940 census
• State censuses research guide
• Analyzing census clues
• Guide to special censuses
• Family Tree Pocket Reference, 2nd edition
• Smarter Online Census Searching video class
• auto insurance or registration papers
• bank account passbooks
• driver’s licenses, library cards, club memberships and other identification cards
• household bills and receipts
• magazines (look for an address label)
• paycheck stubs
• ration books
• rent and mortgage receipts
• school or medical paperwork
• tax returns
• utility bills