I received my notice from the government to complete census information online, so I dutifully did so for my husband and me. As empty nesters, it was not very exciting, I must admit. I am used to looking at census forms on ancestry websites, where they are handwritten, a little torn at the edges, hard to decipher, and sometimes, not even all that accurate. It made me wish they would ask more creative questions, such as “What is the biggest problem facing the world today?” Well, I guess right now, that would be an easy one, (COVID-19) but how would people have responded to that in 2000 or 1910? Or how about “What does your household need the most right now?”(Toilet paper?) Or this, “How has your household changed between 2010 and 2020? If someone left your household in the past decade, who was it and where did they go?” That would have been invaluable in doing genealogy research a century ago, especially when the 1890 census was all but toast after 1921.
Thinking about the census got me looking back at how we did the census in previous decades. The first census was done in 1790. Pretty impressive for a country just getting hitting its teenage years. Of course, there were a lot fewer Americans to count back then. The census-takers listed the name of the head of the family, and tallied free white males, sixteen years old and upwards, and free white males under sixteen, then all free white females, all other free persons (?) and then slaves. Not sure where the indentured servants were counted. By 1800, there were more age categories for both men and women but there was still that odd category of folks who were not male or female but considered free persons. Indians were specifically excluded as it was noted they were not taxed.
Someone with an eye for detail must have designed the 1840 census. They still just tallied people, but there were many more age groups, and they identified slave owners and whether the slaves were male or female, and listed “free colored persons” by age categories. They listed foreigners who were not naturalized, and the number of deaf, dumb, blind and insane persons. They also wanted to know the ages of revolutionary war pensioners, and occupations, and who could read or write.
Finally in 1850, they started listing the names of every Tom, Dick, and Mary, and there was often more than one Tom, Dick and Mary per household. They now asked about birthplace, race, whether a person attended school, and whether the person was idiotic, a pauper or a convict. This was on top of the previous questions.
By 1850, the government had separated enslaved individuals into something called slave schedules, which unfortunately for genealogy purposes, didn’t include individual names. Also in 1860, the enumerators who did the census were given written instructions, which probably improved the accuracy of the data collection. Another new question in this census was the value of real estate. The separate slave schedules disappeared in 1870 understandably, but most of the other information remained the same.
Finally by 1880, the question was asked about how each person was related to the “head of the household.” The 1890 census, which was mostly lost to a fire, asked a few new questions such as whether the race was black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Chinese, Japanese or Indian. They also asked if the person suffered from a chronic disease, and if so, how long had that affected them. They also asked if there were any homeless children in the household. It seems to me that if someone was claiming a child in the census, by definition they were no longer homeless. But I have seen mysterious names show up in censuses in this era that don’t seem to be related to the families.
By 1900, they asked the very helpful question of mothers: “how many children have you given birth to, and how many are still living?” Also included were questions about how long the person had been married, and the birthplaces of his or her parents. They asked about citizenship, whether they lived on a farm or in town, whether the home was owned or rented. A new question in the 1910 census was whether the person was a civil war survivor.
Skipping forward a few decades, in 1930 they asked who owned a radio set. If we did that question today, I suppose it would be a smart phone. In 1950 they asked how much money was made in various types of income. By 1960 there was a question about whether the person was married more than once, and what kind of transportation did they use to get to work. They started asking about Latin origins in 1970, asking if the person was Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American or other Spanish.
In 2000, they first asked for your phone number. Interesting that they asked about radios way back in 1930, but did not ask about telephones. It looks like there was a division of the census being centered on people in the past thirty years or so, and there were separate questionnaires trying to capture home details and lifestyle questions. Now we seem to be back to something simpler.
But one question from the current census still remains from the census origins. They are still asking “What is this person’s ancestry or ethnic origin?” To me, it is still asking “where were your ancestors born?” How long does anyone have to live in this country to be considered an American and nothing else? I would be interested to see how others responded to that.
If you haven’t done the census, go online and do it. You’re probably stuck at home anyway. The government sent you something in the mail with a code you need to use. Deadline is April 1, 2020. Your great-grandchildren will appreciate it.