1940 Census Poster
Credit: National Archives

Year of Uncertainty

For many Americans, 1940 was a turning point. The Great Depression was on its last legs; President Franklin Roosevelt’s alphabet agencies were churning out thousands of jobs for eager workers and the U. S. Census Bureau hired d 120,000 census takers to canvas the country from Key West to the Alaska territory.

The 1940 census became the most exhaustive census in history.  As Hitler’s armies were blitzing Europe, an increasingly suspicious U.S.  Government added several supplemental questions, partly as a security measure.  On April 2, 2012, the 1940 census became available to the American public.

The census has been described as a “treasure trove for genealogists” and is the first census to be released online.  The U.S. population in 1940 was roughly 130 million. Many in this population ended up being the parents of today’s aging baby-boomers.  The boomers have combined a passion for discovering their roots with their technological finesse into a huge market for all things genealogy.  For many in this generation, the 1940 census was the first census their parents showed up in.

What information can be found in the census?

The 1940 census contained the standard questions such as name, age, gender, race, education and place of birth. In addition, like past censuses, the 1940 census questions reflected the social, political and economic issues of the time.  Several questions were designed to measure the effectiveness of Roosevelt’s public works programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the National Youth Administration (NYA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and others.

Migration patterns resulting from unemployment in the northeast and the dustbowl in the Midwest were also addressed, as one question asked where people were living in 1935, the height of the Great Depression.  The question allows genealogists an extra glimpse into family movement between the 1930 and 1940, a time of great upheaval in the American economy. For example, the population exodus was so immense in Kansas and Oklahoma that both states lost a seat the U.S. House of Representatives.

Another question that could be a boon for genealogical researchers came about as a result of World War I border changes. Census takers were directed to ask respondents the name of the specific city or province where their parents were born if they were born in Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia or Turkey.

1940 Census workers hard at work.

Supplemental Questions

A host of supplemental questions were asked to about 5 percent of respondents (two names per page). Some of these questions may prove beneficial to researchers.  These questions included the birth place of the mother and father, the mother’s native language, all women in the household who had been married more than once, age at first marriage and number of children ever born.  Also for the first time, census takers asked if anyone in the household had a Federal Social Security Number, another Roosevelt mandate.


Accessing the 1940 Census

The National Archives (NARA) designated 1940census.archives.gov as the access point for census information.  Searches are free and information is downloadable. However, the search engine is not entirely user friendly.  Searches must be done by “enumeration district” instead of name.  The NARA does provide enumeration district maps as well as other search tips on their site under the title “How to Start Your 1940 Census Research”.  There is a nationwide volunteer effort to index the census by name and that undertaking is expected to be complete in about a year. The major for-pay genealogical websites also expect to have the images available in roughly the same time frame.

About 21 million of the 130 million Americans enumerated on the 1940 census are still alive today.  For them, viewing the census will offer a backward glimpse into a turbulent era, but also a nostalgic look at their families, friends and neighborhoods.