Surprising Tidbits from Censuses of the Past

March 18, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

A snippet from the 1930 federal census showing Harold Carter's entry.

A snippet from the 1930 federal census showing Harold Carter's entry.

If federal censuses of the past had been similar to this year’s census, one writer would be out of work.

The 2010 census form that just arrived in mailboxes asks only about age, sex, race, home ownership, relationship status, and the number of people in a household, up to 12.

However, past censuses asked additional questions and recorded myriad details about occupations, age at marriage, ancestry, and more. Old census records are, to one local writer, the single best source of information about the past.

The questions on the 23 decennial censuses to date, beginning with the first one in 1790, vary from year to year.

The censuses of 1830-1890 and 1910, for example, recorded information about one’s physical–or mental–condition. In the 1880 census, 30-year-old Prussian-born laborer Andrew Shuda is listed as living in Ypsilanti. He lived with his 35-year-old Austrian-born wife Barbara, his 7-year-old daughter Anna, and his stepdaughters, 12-year-old Barbara and 10-year-old Mary. The girls were all born in Michigan and attending school.

The 1880 census includes columns labeled “blindness,” “deaf and dumb,” “idiotic,” or “maimed, crippled, bedridden, or otherwise disabled.” A fifth column bears a mark that lines up with Andrew Shuda’s name.

That column is labeled “Insane.”

Another question, for women only, appears in the censuses of 1890 and 1900. One column records the number of children born. The second records the number of children living.

The censuses of 1850, ’60, ’70 and 1930 asked for one’s net worth, in personal assets, real estate, or both.

The censuses of 1790-1840 listed only the names of heads of families, recording the other household members with a mere checkmark in boxes sorted by age and race. Not until the 1850 census did the form include the names of all members of the household.

The 1930 census is the most recent full census available to researchers. A 72-year privacy law means that 1940 census information will not be available to the public until 2012.

The 1930 census asked whether a home had a radio. An “R” listed next to a name hinted at financial security, enough to buy this nonessential entertainment item. Aside from implying prosperity, the presence of the radio on the census form also suggests how quiet out-of-town farms were before radio and, in the nights before rural electrification, how dark.

At the outset of research, the subject, perhaps one Harold Carter, is similarly obscure. The census offers the first glimmer of understanding.

A look at one page of the 1930 census reveals that Harold Carter was a 30-year-old black mason living in Augusta Township. His household of four included his 29-year-old wife Corrie, his 8-year-old son Harold D., and his 5-year-old daughter Fern.

According to the census’s “birthplace” columns, Carter, like his children and both of his parents, was born in Michigan. Corrie was born in Tennessee, and the birthplace of her parents is listed only as “United States.”

Carter owned his home. The form listed the estimated value of homes; Carter’s was valued at $2,000 [$25,500 today]. The other homes listed on the page, those of Carter’s neighbors, are valued from $2,500 to $5,000. One neighbor was white saw mill worker Arthur J. Lamkin, who lived with his wife Ida and his father-in-law William in his $4,000 home. Carter’s other neighbor was black truck driver Allen Thompson, who lived with his wife Blanch in his $3,000 home.

The occupations listed for Carter’s other neighbors are not the common Augusta Township jobs of “farmer” or “farm laborer.” Rather, the listed occupations of stoveworker, real estate agent, auto mechanic, and paper mill worker hint that Harold lived close to an urban area, perhaps Ypsilanti.

Carter’s specific street or village within Augusta Township is not written on the page. However, there is a Thomas Hitchingham listed, and a Hitchingham Road exists in the township—that might be a lead. A cross-check using other research materials, including city directories, obituary information, church records, genealogical information, and photographs would be necessary to determine Carter’s location—or try to.

Last, Carter’s neighbor Allen Thompson had a radio. Carter and his other neighbor Lamkin did not, unlike the majority of their neighbors.

Far away in time, this census is like a distant light, illuminating the research subject from behind. Details change the darkness of mystery to a silhouette of a person living in 1930 Augusta Township.

Now it is the researcher’s turn to shine, with details from multiple other sources that will develop this silhouette into a photograph, however dim or indistinct. Thanks to Harold Murray, the census enumerator traveling from house to house one April during the Depression, obscurity can change into an image.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales From the Ypsilanti Archives,” available in Ypsilanti at Cross Street Books, the Rocket, and Mix boutique, in Ann Arbor at Nicola’s Books, and on Amazon. Bien will be giving a book signing at Mix, 128 Michigan Ave. on Saturday, March 27 from 2-4 p.m.; at Nicola’s in Ann Arbor’s Westgate Shopping Center on Tuesday, April 20 at 7 p.m.; and at the Ypsilanti Archives, 220 N. Huron St., on Saturday, April 24 from 2-5 p.m.

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