Ahh, the census! It only comes around every 10 years but let me tell you – the information gathered by the Census Bureau is pure genealogical gold. Even more so, because after the census is taken and the statistical results are tabulated, the information is sealed for 72 years! If you don’t think the government takes your privacy seriously, you’ve never been involved in a census release!
Time for a little math lesson – the census is taken every ten years and then released 72 years later so, the 1910 Census was released in 1982, 1920 in 1992, 1930 in 2002, and the 1940 Census was just released last April. We won’t be seeing another census release for nine more years. And don’t get all excited about seeing the 2010 Census…that won’t roll around until 2082!
Now can you understand why genealogists go absolutely bananas when the census is released?! In the olden days (and by olden days, I mean, pre-Twitter, like 2002), that meant lines out the door at the National Archives so genies could hop on microfilm readers as soon as the census was released at midnight. Last year, the first time the census was released entirely online, websites crashed left and right as genies across the world tried to track down their great-great aunt Ida or Grandpa Harry on the 1940 Census.
Before we look at the census records in which the Wissmanns and then the Schellhardts are listed – and the cool information that we can glean from them – I’m going to get all know-it-all archivisty on you because it’s important that I make this crystal clear to you –
The primary function of the census is NOT for genealogical research. It was a statistical record prepared for statistical reporting purposes. So, before the age of Ancestry.com, you couldn’t just type in great-great aunt Ida’s last name and get all her information – because, well, the Census Bureau didn’t care about her last name as much as they cared about other stuff (like what they were counting – race, sex, level of education, home owners, radio owners, etc.) Basically, the only way to find Aunt Ida on the census was to have some idea of where she lived when the census was taken so that you could determine the enumeration district (ED) that she lived in. Once you had the ED, then you had to go through pages of population schedules to find her name. And then bingo…you hit pay-dirt. So, yes, it’s a lot easier these days, but I feel that it’s important that we appreciate the records and how to use them.
Okay, I’ve said my piece and I feel much better.
A few things to know – like ship manifests, the census has changed over time. In 2010, mostly all of us received census forms in the mail, we filled them out, then sent them back to the Census Bureau. Easy-peasy. But in the real olden days, the Census Bureau used enumerators – people they hired to go around every city, every town, every census-designated location (those aforementioned enumeration districts) to get a count of all the people in the country. They filled out population schedules by hand asking the residents of households a variety of questions. Some towns have a couple of enumeration districts while cities – like Philadelphia – can have hundreds. Something tells me that the census enumerator who gathered the Schellhardts’ information in 1940 was happy to relax with a beer when he reached Schellhardts Café at the end of the block!
I love the census because I love seeing the changes from one decade to the next – arrivals and departures; births and deaths; migrations from place to place; family fortunes rising and falling. When we begin our examination of the census records, we’ll be able to trace the evolution of our family within a thirty year period. Not bad for a statistical report, huh?
We’ll start with the 1910 Census and work our way up to 1940! Since next Sunday is Easter, however, you’ll have to wait until the following Sunday to start our censusational adventure!