Friday, April 6, 2012

The 1940 Census: A Follow-up

As reported here earlier, the 1940 U.S. Census went public on April 2, marked by a ceremony at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The manuscript pages of the 1940 Census, which can be viewed online at, are rich with data for the study of business history during the Depression decade. At the ceremony, long-time BHC member David Sicilia (University of Maryland) shared the stage with Archivist of the United States David Ferriero and U.S. Census Director Robert Groves. In his remarks, Professor Sicilia explained that
The answers to many of the 81 questions asked in the 1940 U.S. Census will help us understand as never before not only how the Great Depression affected work and residence as well as how the roll out of New Deal programs affected the material lives of Americans. (Nine questions are about Social Security, for example.) Now we can see property values, the size and frequency of mortgage payments, and what kind of lending institution held which mortgages. Historians of technology can now see which homes had radios or flush toilets, and what kinds of fuel were used for heating and cooking. Historians of architecture and material culture can analyze exterior construction materials and what kinds of Americans rented furniture.
There was so much traffic on the website—over 37 million visits in the first seven hours—that the system crashed, but NARA reports that most problems have been resolved. The records are now searchable only by census enumeration district. However, according to the AHA blog, "within six to nine months, a host of volunteers will have completed a name index, allowing researchers to completely bypass the enumeration districts." The National Archives has partnered with private firms such as to create the searchable name indexes.