1940 census records


About the 1940 U.S. Census

The 1940 U.S. Federal Census marked the sixteenth time since the adoption of the Constitution that a count of the United States population was conducted. From the first census in 1790 through the most recent census in 2010, the amount of information collection every ten years has changed greatly. The earliest efforts captured only the names of head of each household, along with a count of the people living in the house by age and sex, as well as the number of slaves owned.

At the time, fewer than 4 million people lived in just 14 states. One hundred and fifty years later, more than 120,000 enumerators carried out the 1940 census by canvassing 48 states and territories, ultimately counting 132 million people in the U.S. population.

As the list of census questions grew in scope and number, so too did the opposition expressed by some regarding the need to delve so deeply into such personal issues. For the 1940 census, there were upwards of 50 questions covering basic location and household data, but also age, sex, race, marital status, education, nativity, employment, income, military service, and more. To satisfy privacy concerns, all 1940 census population schedules have been privately secured by the U.S. Census Bureau for a period of 72 years before releasing to the public.

1940 Census Release Date

The official 1940 census date was Monday, April 1st and enumerators had just one month to complete their task for each assigned enumeration district. The 72-year privacy restriction will be lifted on April 1, 2012, but since that date falls on a Sunday, researchers will have to wait one addition day until the records are released on Monday, April 2, 2012. For the first time ever, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released digital images of Population Schedules for all 1940 U.S. census records.

1940 Census Highlights

The 1940 census was somewhat similar to that of previous decades, but there are certainly some notable exceptions. In addition to familiar questions recording name, age, sex, and place of birth – the 1940 census was the first for which enumerators were instructed to note which person was the informant for a family group.

The 1940 census was also the first to use a concept called ‘statistical sampling’ whereby 2 of 40 lines on each page (5% overall) were also designated as lines to collect answers for more than a dozen Supplemental Questions. As the 1940 census was the first to ask income-related questions, it was also quite controversial and met with some outspoken critics. Senator Charles Tobey, a Republican from New Hampshire, was among the most outspoken critics before, during, and after the 1940 census.

If your family was on the move during the 1930s, you’ll appreciate the fact that 1940 census schedules also record the residency for each person as of April 1, 1935. This was helpful for family history to document internal migration during the depression years.

Life in 1940

As the 1930s drew to a close, so too did a challenging period in the history of the United States. Many family historians can easily find evidence of the economic impact the great depression had within their families. People living in central and southern states were also impacted by severe drought and winds in what would become known as the Dust Bowl.  As the 1940s arrived, World War II was underway in Europe, but it would be nearly two years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would trigger U.S. involvement in the conflict that would define a generation.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been elected president in November 1932. He steered the country through a difficult period and was re-elected to a historic fourth term, but died in office on April 12, 1945. His vice-president, Harry S. Truman, would succeed Roosevelt and serve until as President until 1953.

As enumerators were diligently recording details for families, households, and farms throughout urban and rural areas during April 1940, many well-known American traditions were making headlines just as they do today.

On Friday, April 19th 1940, Canadian runner Gerard Cote set a world record to win the 44th Boston Marathon, the first of what would eventually be four victories for Cote in Boston.

Just two weeks later, a Chicago-based horse named Gallahadion won the 66th running of the Kentucky Derby. The 35-to-1 odds were just as exciting then as they would be today!

The 1940 census release promises to be an exciting event for millions of family history enthusiasts.