Census spills grandma’s personal data

Monday morning, the red tape was ripped off a long-kept secret stash of personal records from  132 million Americans counted in the 1940 census.

Many history and genealogy buffs are excited about this never-before-seen treasure. The census data was controversially locked up for 72 years, an average American’s life span at the time, to protect people’s privacy.

It includes detailed information collected from every household counted in the 1940 census including who lived there, where they came from, their occupation and salary, their education, and military status. This information was used to determine congressional seats in the 1940s, calculate population trends and gauge the effectiveness of New Deal economic programs.

This census data was influential because more than one million people who fled West in the 1930s to escape rural poverty and the Dust Bowl were first counted in California in 1940. Marcy Goldstein, director of the Bay Area branch of the National Archives, told the CoCo Times:

“It really tracks what happened after the Great Depression. It was a time of a lot of movement.”

Unlike the release of the 1930 census data that came out in 2002, this information is now entirely digitized and available to everyone online. Since a Silicon Valley-based federal contractor flipped the switch on Monday, anyone can now see the public records.

Among the first to scour and interpret the 1940 data will be self-described “compulsive” genealogist Steve Morse, who keeps reams of family records at his Russian Hill home in San Francisco.

The 1940 census was far more invasive than the ones we are used to now. It was the first census of its kind to ask about income, which at the time the average salary for a man was $956 a year. Families had to answer a total of 65 questions ranging from how many times they had been married to which wars they fought in with options like the Spanish-American War, Boxer Rebellion and the World War, which the census hadn’t yet given a number.

Among the other excited history buffs is Lorie Garcia, Santa Clara’s city historian. She told the CoCo Times:

“Up until now, the record really stopped at 1930. All you could find after that are deeds, the city directories, but they really don’t tell you much about anybody. The census really tells you who people are. You’re able to take the story one step further.”

You can check out the National Archives website for all the details about your past family members, from Grandma Sue to Auntie Em. Note though that the census records are indexed by location, not by name. So it may be hard to find your relatives if you don’t know where they lived at the time.