The Way We Were: 1940 Census Details Released

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Courtesy of the Census Bureau

If you want all the nitty-gritty details of peoples’ lives from 1940, then today is your day. The National Archives and Records Administration has unveiled the 72-year privacy restrictions on the details of the 1940 Census, opening up infographics, photos and individual records from the census for the first time. (Seventy-two years was decided upon as the timeframe to keep information private because it extends past the average lifespan of Americans.)

As researchers clamor for the opportunity to mine the details, the general public can get in on the act too at the census’s website, the first time detailed census data has made its way to the web in such a form.

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Sure, the general census information has been in our hands for decades, but the fine details of individual “manuscript census” items are now open for analysis. In 1940, over 120,000 enumerators toted portfolio-sized books across the country to record the individual lives of U.S. residents. Those pages were then transferred onto punch cards, which were electronically registered.

The enumerators took down people’s names, ages, addresses, marital statuses, number of children, occupations and even, sometimes, how much people earned, their faith affiliation and more. Of the 132.2 million people counted in 1940, 21 million of them are still alive.

While you can’t search for a particular person by name on the website, you can zero in on an “enumeration district” and slog through the scanned images of the enumerators’ pages with a touch more specificity.

From there, you can learn a little more about the way of life in 1940. Experts say that studying the data during a time that saw the country shift from the Great Depression to prosperous wartime will open up information about specific communities and offer candid answers on everything from faith to finances.

Then there are the folks who love to play the comparison game, showing that the 132 million people in 1940 has grown to 309 million in 2010; that in 1940 the three most populous states were New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois, which has changed to California, Texas and New York; and the median income for a man was $956 and is now $33,276.

But remember that while you search for your family secrets, the information you gave during the 2010 Census will be available in 2082.

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