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Navigating the New 1950 Census

April 6, 2022
Chamber of Commerce Collection, billboard advertising the 1930 Census

After 72 years, the next set of U.S. Census records were released on Friday, April 1st, revealing everyone accounted (and not accounted for) for in the year 1950.

Why does it take 72 years to release these records? No clue, but thanks to a recent presentation I heard at the TSLA Tennessee Archives Institute (thanks Trent!), it has nothing to do with age expectancy like many believe. The most we know is that the number was chosen by the director of the Census Bureau in 1952 (Roy Peel) and the Archivist of the United States (Wayne Grover), and it might have been because the 1880 census was released that year [shrug].

I did find this helpful blog post from the National Archives that might provide a little more clarity though. 

If it were up to you, how many years would you have chosen to pass before releasing the data?

72 years, that seems perfect
0% (0 votes)
More than 72 years
0% (0 votes)
30-50 years
50% (6 votes)
10-30 years
33% (4 votes)
Less than 10 years
8% (1 vote)
Never!
0% (0 votes)
Immediately - they'd never get sealed away
8% (1 vote)
Total votes: 12

Basics of Census Records

1910 Census with family member of Anthony family

If you're unfamiliar with census records, here are some basic details of what's included and why it's important for genealogy research:

  • In any given census year (for example, 1950), it provides the name of the head of the household as it was defined then, their spouse, children and any other lodgers. 
  • Then, in the column "personal description", it provides the details regarding the sex, race, age, and marital status. 
  • Next, it asks for educational background, such as if they attended school and the highest grade completed.
  • Place of birth
  • Previous residence
  • Employment Information

And that's mostly the basics, but it changes with each census. 

From the National Archives announcement of the new census, these records that are taken every 10 years since 1790, "help define 'We the People' by providing a snapshot of the nation's population." We'll say that's almost true since it wasn't until the 1870 census records that all persons were counted, including recently-emancipated enslaved individuals. Prior to 1870, the records only included land owners and freed individuals. 

Tennessean clipping from May 1st, 1950, with questions to be filled out and mailed to the U.S. Census Office
May 1st, 1950 Tennessean clipping, with questions to be filled out and mailed to the U.S. Census Office ASAP.

What Makes 1950 So Special?

Well for some of us (and this is showing my age and generation), it might be the first census in which your parents, uncles, and/or aunts were on. My parents were not actually, but just (sorry mom and dad!) BUT I did find my grandparents, and aunts and uncles. 

Reading Cursive

1950 Census info showing families living in Evansville, Indiana

Also, what makes it special is the ability for technology to read cursive. Previously, the census would be released and uploaded to other ancestry databases such as Ancestry, Heritage Quest, Family Search, etc., and users would help transcribe the data to make it more legible. While that's still necessary considering the technology isn't perfect, what's new now is an Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AI/ML) and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology tool that allows the cursive to be searchable immediately!

Yes, as an Archivist whose job is to make records more accessible to researchers - this is huge!  

Post World Wars

McClanahan-Weakley Collection_World War I Soldiers
From the McClanahan-Weakley Collection, World War I soldiers

This census was after both World War I and II, and acknowledges that in its questioning. 

Question #33: "If male, did he ever serve in the U.S. Armed Forces during (33a) World War I, (33b) World War II, or (33c) any other time including present service? (Yes/No)."

Population and Other Statistics

Per the National Archives research...

  • There were 152 million people counted on April 1st, 1950, about 20 million more people counted than in 1940.
  • Over 140,000 enumerators (census takers) had been trained by 8,300 crew leaders. This was 20,000 more enumerators than were needed for the 1940 census.
  • 22 questions were asked instead of 34 in the 1940 census. BUT more questions were asked of six persons, at the bottom of the schedule (presumably these 6 persons were at random), and the person at the bottom of that line was also asked additional questions, starting from #34. 
  • 6,373 microfilm census rolls were scanned by National Archives' staff.
  • 6.4 million pages were scanned from more than 200,000 enumeration districts.
  • If you're curious for more behind-the-scenes info about the census, a facts page is provided by the National Archives here, with a full list of the questions asked on the census. 

"Baby Boomers" and Technology

Among all these other firsts, this census is the first that "baby boomers" are mentioned. In fact, apparently extra efforts were made to ensure all infants born from January to March 1950 were counted as well. And people were also asked if they owned a television. 

AND, this was the last census that enumerators personally visited most households with large multi-family census sheets; from 1960 on, households received enumeration sheets in the mail. 

How to Conduct Your Research

While this most-recently released census does provide users the option to search for their ancestors or other individuals by name, it's not without its faults. The technology is far from perfect and can't necessarily decipher every name since the enumerators that documented the census all had different handwriting.

So on that note, here are some helpful tips of how to conduct your research (hopefully) successfully:

  • Start by clicking on the link to access the census website. 
  • The starting page is quite user-friendly and even provides some helpful tips of ways to search, so we'll start with the most obvious way - searching for a name. 
  • For example, I'm searching for my grandparents that lived in Evansville, Indiana - so I typed "Wargel, Lawrence" in the "Name" bar. You don't need to search for names in any particular order as the technology is going to search for all results pertaining to both of those names, in no particular order.
    • By a stroke of luck, the first result is the correct one I'm looking for (though that's definitely not always the case). 
1950 U.S. Census, showing data from Evansville, Indiana
  • If you don't have luck finding your person by name, you can narrow the search even further by location and/or enumeration district. For example, when I was searching for my paternal grandfather's side of the family, I knew that they lived in Stark County, Ohio, and was able to narrow the number of results down further. 
  • The Archives' page also provides these helpful suggestions:
    • If a person has an unusual or unique first name, search for that person by first name plus state and county of residence.
    • Do you know the names of your relative’s nearby neighbors?  Did they have a less common surname?  Search for the neighbor’s head of household or surname (plus state and county of residence).
  • Also, if you find out their exact address, you can narrow the enumeration district down to the exact number. For example, district 99 applies to Nashville and 99-3 covers the St. Cecelia neighborhood (maps showing the districts are on the census website as well).
Enumeration district map of Nashville (number 99)
Legend from the enumeration district map 99 from Nashville

Other Notable Mentions...

  • The census includes an "Indian Reservation Schedule" that allows users to search for Native Americans that resided on reservations. According to the National Archives facts' page, in addition to recording each individual's name as it appeared on the schedule, they also "recorded other name(s) by which that person was known, along with his or her tribe, clan, degree of Indian blood, ability to read, write, or speak English or any other language, and participation in any native Indian ceremonies in 1949."
  • Lastly, while conducting your research, you can help other researchers by using the built-in transcription feature. This allows you to provide your feedback on the names you're searching by entering in the correct spelling of the name of the individuals you find. For example, Arntz is spelled a million different ways according to the census, but by providing my feedback on the ones I find - I can tell the system that no, Arntz is not spelled "Arnty" or "Arnto". 

If you click on the link "resources" instead of "begin search", you find other helpful tools such as the full enumeration maps of districts, like the one you see below. 

And for information on previous census data, the Library provides a helpful resource called Heritage Quest for Tennessee residents through the Tennessee Electronic Library [TEL]. Among the various other records this resource provides, access to census records is one of its main ones. 

Enumeration district map for Nashville

'Til next time, 

Sarah 

lucille ball

Sarah

Sarah is a Program Coordinator with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.