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Family Tree Friday: Interesting facts about the 1940 Census

by on February 3, 2012

Here is another entry from guest blogger Diane Petro, Archives Technician in the Archives I Research Support Branch (RD-DC), Research Services, Archival Operations – Washington, DC.  Diane helps staff the research rooms at the National Archives Building and has also been working on reference activities relating to the upcoming 1940 Census release.

Time is moving swiftly and April 2, 2012, will be here before we know it.  Reading statistics and instructions to enumerators have taken up a lot of my time; time well spent, because there is a lot of interesting information about the 1940 census that doesn’t necessarily pertain to genealogy.  Here are a few items that seemed of general interest.

1.  In August 1939, the bureau conducted a special census in St. Joseph and Marshall Counties, Indiana using questions proposed for 1940 census.  The result of this test modified some questions and finalized the schedule design.  (These schedules did not survive.)

2.  Officials agreed to add new questions on migration, income, fertility, education, social security, usual occupation, and unemployment.

3.  The income questions in columns 32 and 33 caused controversy. Republican Senator Charles Tobey of New Hampshire mounted a campaign to force the administration to delete the questions. It was unsuccessful, but a compromise allowed individuals who did not want to give the information to the enumerator to send in a confidential card listing their income.   A “C” (for confidential report) will appear in the upper right hand margin opposite the name on the census record.  In the end, only 2% of the population did not answer the question.

4.  Between 1930 and 1940 the U.S. population dropped to a historical low of 7.3 percent, however, the population in Washington DC increased by 36%.

5.  Internal migration redistributed 9 Congressional House seats. Six seats went to the western states of California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Oregon.  Three went to the southern states of Florida, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois each lost a seat. So did Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Indiana.

6.  In April 1940, unemployment stood at 15 percent of the labor force and totaled 8 million.

7.  The Census worked with the Bureau of Vital Statistics to check accurate birth registration in each state.  This test was the first conducted simultaneously for every state in the country. Census enumerators gathered information on infant cards such as, exact date of birth, exact place of birth, maiden name of mother, and hospital of birth.  Unfortunately these cards have been disposed of.

8.  The U.S. Census Bureau conducted a publicity drive using radio programs, newspaper advertisements, mass mailings, and teacher involvement to encourage cooperation and participation in the census. The Three Stooges made a short film in 1940 titled “No Census No Feeling”.

9.  The 1940 census fell on the 150th anniversary of census taking in America.

10.  Enumerator salaries ranged between .5 cents and .8 cents a person, depending on the geographic area and the schedule they were enumerating.  Agricultural enumerators were paid more because of the greater distance they had to travel between farm households.

Stay tuned to NARAtions for more details on some of these facts and the upcoming 1940 census release!


Jim Kelling February 10, 2012 at 2:37 pm

“4. Between 1930 and 1940 the U.S. population dropped to a historical low of 7.3 percent” I don’t understand this quote. Does is refer to rural population?

Cori Dulmage February 10, 2012 at 3:08 pm

@Jim Kelling — I read that to mean that population *growth* had dropped to only 7.3% between 1930 & 1940

Sherri February 11, 2012 at 12:43 pm

IS the 1940 census going to tell us more information then than the 1930 did?

Rebecca February 17, 2012 at 9:23 am

Hi Sherri – There are some new questions on the 1940 Census including those about internal migration; employment status; participation in the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Works Progress Administration (WPA), and National Youth Administration (NYA) programs; and years of education. More information about the questions asked on the 1940 Census is available on our web site at


Nancy October 27, 2012 at 8:55 am

How was the census information actually recorded by the individual enumerators? Did they carried the forms that we see today from house to house and record the information as they went along. Or was the information taken on cards and then transcribed ?

Meredith D. (admin) November 5, 2012 at 9:21 am

Hi Nancy,

From 1790 to 1950, the census takers carried the forms with them from house to house and entered the information as they went along. The 1960 census marked the first mail out census.

Thanks for your question!

Ginalie February 25, 2013 at 2:31 pm

In #3, you say, “Only 2% of the population did not answer the question.” Which question? The one on the confidential card? Or the original question on the census form, regarding the $5,000 threshold? If the latter, I’m still not sure of the specifics. I’m on deadline. Eager for answwer. THANKS

Meredith D. (admin) February 26, 2013 at 10:43 am

Hi Ginalie,

“Only 2% of the populations did not answer the question” refers to the income question in columns 32 and 33:

Income in 1939 (12 months ending Dec. 31, 1939):
32. Amount of money, wages, or salary received
33. Did this person receive income of $50 or more from sources other than money wages or salary (Y or N)

Individuals who did not want to give the information to the enumerator were given the option to send in a confidential card listing their income. In such cases, a “C” (for confidential report) will appear in the upper right hand margin opposite the name on the census record.

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