1940 Census Goes Digital

April 11, 2012

Last week, on April 2, 2012, the 1940 United States census was released to the public in digital format by the National Archives in conjunction with the U.S Census Bureau at http://1940census.archives.gov

Image: 1940 Census Poster urging Americans to “Help the Ten-Year Roll Call”. Source:U.S.Census Bureau

Reports National Public Radio:

Veiled in secrecy for 72 years because of privacy protections, the 1940 U.S. census is the first historical federal decennial survey to be made available on the Internet initially rather than on microfilm.

In a great example of a private/public partnership, Archives.com’s parent company partnered with the National Archives to provide the public with free digital access to the 1940 Federal Population Census.

Miriam Kleiman, spokeswoman for the U.S. National Archives, told The Associated Press that the Archives’ 1940 census site registered more than 22 million hits in just four hours from almost 2 million users on its very first day of release. It is extremely popular already with librarians, researchers and genealogists researching their family tree.

Data from the Great Depression

Archivist Connie Potter, in an entertaining video about the Archives’ digitization project, explains that the reason this census is so amazing is because it describes “the country during the Great Depression.  It reflects all of the economic dislocation, how many people were immigrants, how many people had what level of education.

Last week’s release of digitized information covers detailed records on 132 million people living in the United States at the end of the Depression and a year before Pearl Harbor.

The census data was transferred to microfilm during World War II, and in 2009, National Archives personnel began digitizing those records, culminating in the release of the database last week.

Over 3.9 million images were digitized, providing a bonanza for researchers.

Some interesting facts about the 1940 Census

Image: An enumerator interviews a woman with her 10 children around her for the 1940 census. Source: National Archives at College Park

The Census Bureau began the 1940 census with extensive long-term planning, recruiting and training.  Back in 1940, about 120,000 census-takers, called enumerators, spread out across the U.S. and territories, going door-to-door to interview families.

Enumerators both then and now can face challenging situations when gathering the data to tabulate the census, from trudging through fields or mushing a dog sled across the snow.

Image: Rural visit by a U.S. Census taker in connection with the 16th decennial census of 1940  Source: Library of Congress image number LC-USZ62-91199

Image: The Alaska Territory saw the census enumerator arrive in his dog sled, 1940 – 1941 Source: National Archives Research Catalog

Questions from the 1940 Census

It’s interesting to note the questions that were asked on the 1940 census form.  One of the fifty questions the enumerators asked Americans in 1940 reflected the more formal societal structures of the time: “What was the Relationship of this person to the head of the household, as wife, daughter, father, mother-in-law, grandson, lodger, lodger’s wife, servant, hired hand, etc.?”  

Another question was very relevant for a Depression-era nation where children as young as 14 still worked, and millions of out-of-work Americans were given “public emergency” jobs around the country under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. One was the Works Project Administration (originally the Works Progress Administration) or WPA, which was the “largest and most ambitious New Deal agency and employed millions of unskilled workers to carry out public works projects,including the construction of public buildings, roads and dams, as well as operating large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects.

Image: WPA Federal Arts poster. Source: Smithsonian Archives of American Art

Another New Deal program mentioned in the census was the Civilian Conservation Corps or CCC . It was designed to provide employment mostly for young men in relief families who had difficulty finding jobs during the Great Depression (there were separate programs for veterans and Native Americans), while at the same time implementing a general natural resource conservation program in every state and territory for the “conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands” owned by federal, state and local governments. Many trees were planted and national and state parks built and preserved by the CCC.

Image: Illinois CCC recruiting poster. Source: Archives.gov

Another youth-focused program referenced was the National Youth Administration or NYA that focused on providing work and education for young Americans between the ages of 16 and 25.

Thus, it makes sense that this 1940 census question asked Persons 14 Years Old and Over” to classify their employment status during the time of the census-taking (March 24-30, 1940) as follows:

  • Was this person AT WORK for pay or profit in private or non-emergency Government work during week of March 24-30? (Yes or No).
  • If not, was he at work on, or assigned to, public EMERGENCY WORK (WPA, NYA, CCC, etc.) during week of March 24-30? (Yes or No).

How to Use the 1940 Census

Even for those not steeped in genealogy research will find it thrilling, like I do, to see the excitement build over the release of these images.  It might be fun to look up my ancestors because I know my grandfather worked for the W.P.A.   I’m also interested in looking at the various trends and metrics available on housing to see if there is any correlation to the current economic situations.

Visit the National Archives pages to see the various resource location aids, enumerator training videos, and question templates that have been gathered for your use.  Based on the times, there were specific instructions for enumerators to get a count of temporary housing such as huts, tents, and cabins as of a point in time.   Here’s one bit of instruction to help clarify how to count the large transient population: “Persons in hotels, tourist or trailer camps, missions, and cheap one night lodging houses (flophouses) will all be enumerated as of the evening of April 8th”.

Help Tag the Images

The Census Bureau is appealing to the public for help indexing and meta tagging the images.  This is a genealogy crowdsourcing project to ensure the 3.8 million images are indexed and freely searchable online. You, too, can register to be a 1940 Census Blog Ambassador and get a nifty badge for your page!

You can follow the 1940 Census via Twitter at: #1940Census #Genealogy #history. 

How can you get other Census Bureau publications today?

The release of the historic images will be made at 1940census.archives.gov.

For those interested in more current information, take a look at the resources in GPO’s U.S. Government Bookstore.  The subscription series help keep you updated on the Census and Population statistics as they are released.

  • Buy them at GPO’s retail bookstore at 710 North Capitol Street NW,Washington, DC 20401. Open Monday-Friday, 9am to 4pm, except Federal holidays. Call 1.(202) 512-0132 for more information.
  • Find them in a Federal Depository Library.

Guest blogger: Nancy Faget, one of our federal librarians in GPO’s Library Services & Content Management Division who writes often about NASA “rocket scientists” and digital innovations in the library field.


Browsing the U.S. Government Manual

September 29, 2011

What with invisible ink, yetis, and earthquakes, the world of Government publications can be so diverse and intriguing that it’s easy to lose track of sober perennials like the U.S. Government Manual. I’ve used this great book throughout my career in the Federal Government to get contact information for the right part of a large Federal agency or verify that a smaller, more obscure one actually existed – and what it really did. Thanks to the diligent folks at the National Archives and Records Administration’s  Office of the Federal Register, you can ferret out phone numbers, mailing addresses and URLs that really work, or just read through each agency entry to better understand its particular missions and activities. It’s perhaps the premier annual reference book for all three branches of Government.

Of course, this wouldn’t be Government Book Talk if I didn’t come at my subject from a slightly skewed angle. My favorite section to browse isn’t the main listing of agencies, the quasi-official agencies, or even the international organizations – it’s the History of Organizational Changes. For scholars or other researchers, this section is valuable because it allows them to trace the institutional evolution of a Government function or track down the ultimate fate of a defunct bureau or commission. For me (although I’ve used it for these worthy purposes), it’s mainly a way to arouse bemused curiosity about how Federal entities were christened in years past. Did you know that we once had a Bureau of Efficiency (1916-1933)? Did it fade away because we got too efficient? Doubtful, I’m afraid. What about the Office of Facts and Figures (1941-1942)? I know we haven’t run out of them…

Some innocuous agency names conceal more interesting activities. There couldn’t be a blander, more bureaucratic sounding name than The Office of  the Coordinator of Information (1942). It quickly changed to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which, under the charismatic leader of William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, conducted U.S.espionage and sabotage activities for the European Theater of Operations in World War II and was the progenitor of today’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Then there was the Virgin Islands Company (1934-1966), a New Deal Government corporation established to grow and refine sugar cane and manufacture and sell rum in that beautiful U.S. possession. It marketed rum under the name “Government House.” The label (left) featured a sailing ship, a palm tree, and a harbor, and supposedly was designed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. How else could I find out about this stuff if not through the pages of the U.S. Government Manual?

If you need a source of the latest information about any Government agency, or if you’re just curious about the innumerable nooks and crannies of the Federal establishment, the U.S. Government Manual is for you. You can browse it here, get a print copy of the 2011 edition here, or find it in a library.


GPO, FDR, and The Malta Citation

March 4, 2011

On March 4, 1861 – exactly 150 years ago today – the United States Government Printing Office opened for business. On such an auspicious occasion, Government Book Talk examines a unique Federal Government document. Ordered by the President on the tightest possible deadline for a purpose of international importance, only one copy was created by GPO. It is also, as far as I know, the only GPO product ever reproduced in its entirety on a postage stamp. Here’s the story of the Malta Citation.

From 1940 to 1943, the British Crown Colony of Malta endured prolonged and brutal air attacks launched by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Axis was determined to bomb or starve the people of Malta into submission  to deprive Great Britain of a vital naval base and, in so doing, dominate the Mediterranean. Despite saturation bombing and near starvation conditions caused by submarine attacks on British supply convoys, the Maltese people carried on with exemplary courage until the Allied invasions of North Africa and Sicily ended this threat. To honor their resistance to Nazi aggression, King George VI awarded the George Cross to Malta and its people in recognition of an entire nation’s collective valor. In November 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided that America also should salute the people of Malta. He decided to visit the islands after the “Big Three” conference with Churchill and Stalin in Teheran and present the Maltese people with a citation that expressed the sentiments that Malta’s defense had inspired in the American people. The text was composed at the White House, but it fell to GPO to transform that text into an appropriate form.

The order for the Malta Citation was forwarded to GPO from the White House on November 15. Delivery was required not later than 3 p.m. on November 24 to meet the deadline for transport halfway around the world. The President suggested that the citation should be about 16 by 24 inches with lettering resembling that of medieval illuminated manuscripts. The details of color and design were left up to GPO. A complicating factor was secrecy. For reasons of security, the President’s visit to Malta could not be allowed to leak out. This combined need for speed, secrecy, and artistic excellence made the Malta Citation one of GPO’s most exacting and unusual wartime assignments.

The Malta project was assigned to GPO’s Division of Typography and Design. Its Director, Frank H. Mortimer, was given complete responsibility for the design and execution of the Citation. Because of the need for secrecy, and because only one copy was required, Mortimer decided to do the job by hand rather than experiment with type faces. He chose to work with genuine sheepskin parchment, feeling that its qualities of endurance and its capacity to retain freshness of lettering in both black and colored inks made it the most logical choice. He used steel and crow quill pens, drawing letters in the gothic style he had selected. Two sketches were prepared and submitted to the President, who chose the simpler version. Once the design was approved, Mortimer set to work. He used red and black inks for the 1-page text, with initials illuminated in blue, red, and gold. Pure gold leaf was used in the surrounding border, along with two fine lines of blue and red on the outside. An ornamental design consisting of the shield of Malta with the flags of the United States and Great Britain, all superimposed upon an aerial contour map of the main island, was placed above the text.

 To house the Citation, GPO’s Carpenter and Paint Shop produced a specially constructed case of solid, highly polished walnut, lined with royal blue plush. It was designed so that the right half contained the text while the left served as a cover. A weight to hold the parchment flat when the case was closed was placed inside the left half. This was produced in the GPO Bindery and consisted of laminated wood covered with dark blue morocco leather trimmed with lines in gold leaf and faced with the shield of Malta. Public Printer Augustus E. Giegengack personally delivered the completed citation in its case to the White House at 2:45 p.m. on November 24, beating the deadline by 15 minutes. On December 18 he received a letter from the President containing this tribute: “I wish to congratulate you and your craftsmen on the splendid workmanship displayed on the scroll which was presented by me to the people of the Island of Malta. It was very beautifully done, and I am sure we can all be proud of this product of our Government Printing Office.”

And the postage stamp? In 1956, Malta issued a stamp (left) that reproduced the Citation’s text, documenting  its importance to the Maltese and serving as a reminder of the huge variety and high quality of work that GPO has produced for the last century and a half. Happy birthday, GPO!


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