The Great American Census of 1940 was released to the general public at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, April 2, 2012. The 1940 census marks the first time that the Federal Census has been released online. The 1920 and 1930 Census were released on microfilm. Genealogists and historians have long awaited the release of the 1940 census. Interest was so great that when it first went online the National Archives website crashed under the volume. The website had 22.5 million hits in the first three hours of operation and 37 million hits by the afternoon. The National Archives is still struggling to meet the online demand. Keep in mind that the 1940 Census is made up of 3.8 million images, scanned from over 4,000 rolls of microfilm.
The Constitution of the United States (Article I, Section II) directs that the population be counted at least once every ten years and the resulting counts be used to set the number of members from each state in the House of Representatives and also, by extension, the Electoral College. The data gathered is also used to determine the distribution of federal funding. Today once a census is completed photographic images of the originals are transferred to rolls of microfilm and stored in a locked vault at the National Archives, then the original documents are destroyed. In order to protect confidentiality, the Census Bureau and the National Archives withhold the release of the records listing names of individuals for 72 years after the census is originally taken. Only statistical data is made available before 72 years have passed.
The 1940 census was officially taken on April 1, 1940. The census was recorded by over 120,000 citizens who spread across the United States gathering answers in hand-written ledgers. In 1940 the census contained a total of 65 questions that everyone answered. Five percent of the population was asked an additional 16 supplementary questions as a sampling. By 2010 the census form had been reduced to ten basic questions. More detailed questions are now asked annually through the American Community Survey which was sent to about 3 million households in 2010. The 1940 census is the sixteenth United States census. The first census, taken in 1790, listed only the name of the head of household along with the number and approximate ages of the others living in the home. The 1850 Census was the first to record the names of the wife, children and others living in a household.
The questions asked in the 1940 census give most of us today a view of the world our parents and grandparents lived in over 72 years ago. Supplementary questions included parent’s place of birth, mother’s tongue, veteran’s status, Social Security information (no SSNs were taken), usual occupation and industry, age of first marriage, and number of children ever born. North Carolina State Librarian Cal Shepard said, “The 1940 Census release is the most significant record to be made available to genealogists since 2002 with the release of the 1930 census. This Census is an economic snapshot of the Great Depression, and a fascinating look at the United States on the eve of World War II.”
In addition to listing those in the household, the 65 questions on the 1940 form gathered a wide range of information such as: address, home owned or rented, monthly rent, farm or not, relationship to head of household, sex, race, age, marital status, school attendance, educational attainment, birthplace, citizenship (if foreign born), location of residence five years ago, employment status, whether in private or non-emergency government work, or in public emergency work such as the WPA or CCC, occupation, industry and class of worker, weeks worked last year, wage and salary income last year. Though the 1940 Census has been released it is not yet indexed by name. Indexing efforts began as soon as the census became available online and it should be searchable by name within six months. A community volunteer project is underway at the1940census.com.
Until name indexing projects are completed researchers have to browse through the census pages by location to search for names. The first step to finding someone in the 1940 census is to see if you can identify the address, city, county, or state where the person would have been living in 1940. Then log in at the National Archives website. The census images are organized by enumeration district (ED) numbers. The enumeration district is a two-part code that was used to divide the U.S. map into 147,000 distinct geographic locations. Once you log into the site you click on “County Census” and then select the state and county you wish to search. Then click on “Maps” to find the enumeration district (ED) for the area you are interested in. I checked for my grandfather who was living in Watauga County, North Carolina in 1940. I found the area he was living in was ED 95-10. I selected ED 95-10 and clicked on “Census Schedules” and saw that there were 28 pages recording the people in that area of Watauga County. Next I clicked on “View ED 95-10 and began scanning through the pages looking at names until I found my grandfather’s farm with his wife and children listed including my father. The other names of people on the same census page would have been the neighbors living around my grandfather’s farm.
To view the images you must have Adobe Flash installed to zoom, pan, manipulate lightness or darkness, etc., of the images on the webpage. You are allowed to both print and download images. I found it easier to print after I downloaded the image and saved it to my computer.
The Iredell County Public Library offers access to indexed census records that can be searched by name for 1930 on back. HeritageQuest can be accessed from home if you have a Iredell County library card. The library also subscribes to Ancestry’s Library Edition and patrons can access this site for free on any of the public Internet computers inside the library. In addition the library has census records for Iredell County and other surrounding counties on microfilm in the library’s Local History Department.