Lauded as a gold mine for researchers and the public, the 1940 Census was released online this week.
Technology now allows first-time, instant public access to federal records that provide an extraordinary snapshot of Americans on the verge of World War II. You can look at the country as a whole, or find your individual family members.
The records provide details of 132 million people, including 21 million who are still alive today, what their lives were like during those trying times, how long they were out of work and what America looked like in a different century.
Ancestry.com, a well-known genealogy site, has turned census reports going back to 1790 into digital images. But this is the first time the federal government has taken on the task and is making the images available for free. The National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA, has spent the last three years turning microfilm into digital images of the census that weren't previously available to the public.
"It will provide us with a real slice of life during a momentous time in our nation's history," Census spokesman Robert Bernstein told AOL Government.
The wealth of information — 3.8 million original document images — describes the country during the tumultuous Depression, how many people were immigrants, how many were dislocated by the pain of a devastating economy, how long they were out of work and when they found a job.
In 1940, many Americans didn't have a high school diploma, most women didn't work and many African-Americans were migrating from the rural South to find work in northern cities.
"For the first time, the 1940 Census will offer specific information regarding people's wages, education and housing costs; making it the most comprehensive census available to date," said Dan Jones of Ancestry.com.
There were many first-time questions in the 1940 census, according to Census Bureau historian Michael Snow. Among the groundbreaking questions that will add to the picture of the impact of the Depression:
- It's the first census to ask people where they lived five years before — providing the first information about the majority of Americans in mid-decade and how they kept migrating for work.
- The first census to ask people detailed income questions, providing a fuller and detailed picture of Depression-era work and unemployment. Ninety-five percent of the population earned less than $5,000 a year in 1940.
- The first to ask if people worked for New Deal emergency government agencies — the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps.
- The first to ask people if they were foreign-born and an indicator of how many Japanese-Americans and German-Americans lived in the U.S. on the eve of World War II.
- The first census to ask about the condition of housing. That information eventually led to the nation's massive slum clearance program and the birth of "green cities," like Greenbelt, Md.
The data on individuals will be there, but it will take some work to do the research. You will not be able to search the information by the name of a grandmother or grandfather. You can locate people by identifying the enumeration district in which they lived in 1940 and then browsing the census population schedules for that district.
The National Archives has placed copies of the enumeration district maps and descriptions in NARA's Online Public Access catalog to help people dig deep into their roots.
Every 10 years, the individual information in a census becomes public. A census becomes public 72 years after it was taken. The first census made public was the 1870 Census in 1942.
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