Photo by takomabibelot.
Written by: Kirby Van Amburgh
Relating to previous generations can be difficult in the digital age of social media, texting, and live-blogging; but with the new 1940 Census website, the National Archives has made it’s easier than ever to connect with the past.
“The 1940 census is arguably the most important collection of historical records to be released in a decade and an essential asset for family historians,” said Julie Hill, Senior Product Manager of Archives.com, which designed and hosts the site. “Archives.com joined the 1940 Census Community Project to leverage the power of volunteers who are bringing the indexed records online quickly and effectively.”
The website, which was made public on April 2 after a mandatory 72-year waiting period, is a collection of more than 3.8 million images of 1940 census documents. The public can explore the indexed archives for free, using the navigation tool to search by location, from state listings down to specific street names.
Each form includes household information on family size, education level, citizenship status, occupation, annual income, and other demographic data collected by door-to-door census enumerators. If users have access to their relatives’ street address in 1940, they may be able to find their family’s census responses on the website.
“The 1940 census is unique because it provides a link to parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, which is the perfect stepping stone into more in-depth family history research,” said Hill.
Mother and daughter Shelagh and Liz Winter visited the site shortly after it was unveiled in April. By simply knowing that Shelagh’s parents lived on Commonwealth Street in Detroit in 1940, they were able to view their family’s Census data.
The website is also a tool for those who are interested in the history of current residences.
“I looked up the house I live in now and found out that the rent was only $30 per month in 1940,” said Liz, who currently resides in Los Angeles. “I also saw that five people lived there, which is unbelievable because the house is tiny.”
Growing enthusiasm for family genealogy can be seen in the rise of DIY history websites like Archives.com, Findmypast.com, ProQuest, and Familysearch.org — all of which feature 1940 census images on their respective sites. Ancestry fever has made its way into pop culture as well, with television shows like Who Do You Think You Are?, which follows celebrities as they trace their family trees.
In addition to serving as a tool for ancestry searches, the 1940 census data provides insight on what Tom Brokaw denoted as “the Greatest Generation,” who lived through the Great Depression and World War II.
Certain sections of the census may strike a chord with many Americans today. In particular, detailed answers on periods of unemployment and participation in New Deal public works programs may resonate with those who are currently struggling to find work in the face of a 13% unemployment rate.
The most recent U.S. Census in 2010 had plenty of detractors who argued that the process is invasive and unnecessary. Similarly, publishing census data online may seem like an invasion of privacy, even 72 years after it was collected.
Others contend that the Census is still a valuable tool for both current government administrations and future generations.
“It wouldn’t matter to me if they released my Census answers in 70 years,” said Shelagh Winter, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and had no issues with completing 2010’s Census forms. “It may be personal information, but it’s part of history.”
The National Archives announced that the 1940 Census website will be available to the public for free in perpetuity. Volunteers will continue to index the data by name for more accurate searching of family members.
“The census preserves important genealogical information and provides a snapshot of the U.S. population at that time,” said Hill. “It is essential for future generations who want to better understand the past and where they came from.”