Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Genealogists look forward to release of 1950s census data

By Jane Wilkerson, archival assistant

Image taken from the 1940s census records.
Lately, the question many genealogists have been asking is, “when will the 1950 census be released?” The answer is simple: April 1, 2022, since that is 72 years from the date on which the enumeration of the 1950 census began. It is believed that researchers will have access to the documents online for free, as was the case about eight years ago, when the 1940 census was rolled out. Some of you might ask, “Why the wait?” This is because the National Archives follows what is known as the “72-year rule” with the census, meaning records are released 72 years after they are taken.

So, how did this “72-year rule” come about? To understand it we need to take a brief look at the history of the census. The United States census was first taken in 1790, and from that time until 1870 there were two copies of the census schedules made. One would be sent to the Census Bureau, and the other would be kept at the county courthouses throughout the nation for the public to view. In 1880 this changed: Only one copy was created. When the U.S. Census Bureau transferred all census records to the National Archives in 1942, the bureau determined that the records up to 1870 would be open because they were already in courthouses, thus establishing an informal “72-year rule.” So, when the bureau transferred the 1950 census to the archives in 1952, they requested it fall under the de facto restriction.

The anticipation of the opening of the census has genealogists wondering what to expect. Is there an index? Does it include everyone? What types of information did the Census Bureau ask? The questions go on. So, let’s discuss what is known.

First, the roll out by the National Archives will probably be handled like the 1940 census, as discussed earlier. This means that there will not be a searchable database function. In time, it is likely that, and other genealogy sites will provide one, but until then researchers will have to rely on knowing the enumeration districts to narrow their search.

For those not familiar with the term, an enumeration district is is an area that is assigned to one single census worker to canvas. The system, first introduced in 1880, divides areas by address, and each area is assigned an individual number. So, unless your ancestor is in a rural area, where a line-by-line search is possible, you are going to need to determine where they were living at the date of the particular census. City directories, telephone books, World War II draft registrations, family letters, newspapers and other documents can help you identify their location. Once the address is known, you can check the enumeration district maps found at the beginning of the census schedules to determine the district in which your ancestor’s address was located. At this point, though, your work is not yet done: You have an entry point but now must look for the enumeration schedules for the street on which your ancestor lived!

Researchers will find that the 1950 form is much like the 1940 version. The Census Bureau continued to practice sampling: Instead of the entire population receiving the same questions, enumerators asked a small portion of the population for additional information. In 1940 this consisted of 5 percent of those counted, but it was increased to 20 percent in 1950. Those sampled answered questions like highest educational grade completed, current marriage status and number of marriages, number of live births (for female responders), prior residence, weeks worked during the previous year, respondents’ usual occupations and the incomes of both the individual respondent and others living in the household. Other information collected was like that of previous census years: name, gender, own or rent house, race, marital status, place of birth and whether or not the respondent was a U.S. Citizen. 

The 1950 census also continued the questions that first appeared in 1940: hours worked in the past week and most recent occupation. There were, however, a few unique things to the 1950 census. On previous census records college students were enumerated in their parents’ households, but in 1950, they were counted at their school address. Also, unlike in other years, transients did not appear on designated pages because the census instructions were vague on how to record them.

We have less than two years to go until the anticipated release. What mysteries will be answered and created? We will have to see, but for genealogists it will be fun discovering these and finding many other answers.