The Great American Census of 1940 was released to the public for the first time through the Internet at 9 a.m. on Monday, April 2, 2012. While the statistical data gathered from the census has been available Monday marked the first time that the actual names of the people in the census could be viewed. Interest was so great when the site went up that the site practically crashed under the volume of people trying to log on. 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. N.C. 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.”
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 distribution of federal funding. Today once a census is taken the original documents are destroyed after their photographic images are transferred to rolls of microfilm and stored in a locked vault at the National Archives. In order to protect the confidentiality of the individuals in the census records the Census Bureau and the National Archives withhold the release of the records listing names of individuals for 72 years after the census was originally taken
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 with 5 percent of the population receiving an additional 16 supplementary questions as a sampling. By 2010 the census form had been reduced down to the same 10 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 1790 census was the first and listed only the name of the head of household along with the number and approximate age 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.
Though the 1940 Census has been released it is not yet indexed by name. Efforts began though as soon as it became available online and it should be searchable by name within six months. Until name indexing projects are completed researchers have to browse through the census pages for names by location. 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 at http://1940census.archives.gov/. The census images are organized by the enumeration district (ED) number. Enumeration districts were the geographic areas assigned to the enumerators or census takers. Once you log into the site you click on “County Census” and then select the state and county you wish to search in. Then click on “Maps” to find the enumeration district (ED) for the area where your ancestor lived.
I checked for my grandfather who was living in Watauga County, N.C. in 1940. He was living in 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. The other names of people on the same census page would have been the neighbors living around my grandfather’s farm. In going through the census pages, you might notice the page numbers jump to 61A or 81A. Page 61 is the first page number used to record people who were not at home during the census takers first visit. Page 81A is the page used to list people in temporary dwellings like hotels. Census takers identified the person who gave them their information by putting an x with a circle around it beside their name. To view the images, you must have Adobe Flash installed on your computer. You are allowed to both print and download images and I found it easier to print after I downloaded the image and saved it to my computer.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article was published in the Statesville Record and Landmark in April 2012