Learning More about the Census from Newspapers

Introduction: In this blog article, Gena Philibert-Ortega searches old newspapers to learn more about an essential resource for genealogists: the U.S. Census. Gena  is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

The U.S. Census is one of the first resources family history researchers learn about and use. And it’s no wonder: since 1790, the census is taken every 10 years and provides a count of people and other statistics that assist researchers in tracing families’ lives.

Have you ever considered learning more about the U.S. Census from newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives? Newspapers provide a unique look into what our ancestors knew and thought of this decennial name count. Newspaper articles about the census range from factual looks at the importance of the census, Census Bureau job announcements, negative editorials, to statistical reporting.

What Is the Census?

There’s a lot to be done in preparing for a census year. The Census Bureau takes some time and effort to educate the public about the census, its importance, and what to expect. While we genealogists are well-versed in the census, everyday citizens are less so. This newspaper article from 1919 explains the history of the census and provides some facts about the upcoming 1920 census, including that 90,000 enumerators would take 2-4 weeks to gather the information – and then the population figures would be available in less than three months from the date that the enumerations were completed.

article about the U.S. Census, Pueblo Chieftain newspaper article 24 November 1919
Pueblo Chieftain (Pueblo, Colorado), 24 November 1919, page 4

Who’s Knocking at My Door?

It should come as no surprise that one of the reasons you find less than truthful information in the census may have nothing to do with the enumerator – and instead everything to do with your ancestor. I was surprised a few years back to hear about people who purposely write incorrect information on census forms because they believe that it isn’t the government’s business to know about their family. Judging by this 1910 newspaper article some of our ancestors thought the very same thing.

article about the U.S. Census, Gulfport Daily Herald newspaper article 4 March 1910
Gulfport Daily Herald (Gulfport, Mississippi), 4 March 1910, page 7

According to this newspaper article, a considerable element of the population believed that answering the census “…will cause increased taxation, legal entanglements, or injurious consequences to their persons and property.” The article goes on to explain that information provided to the census-takers is held in strict confidence, and that Census Bureau employees who break their oath face jail time and a $1,000 fine.

There’s no doubt that some people have long held the belief that the census is an invasion of privacy. This 1949 editorial calls census workers “unskilled local snoopers.” This writer was upset over income questions asked on the census and felt like it was repetitive since the government already knows everyone’s income via the Internal Revenue Service.

article about the U.S. Census, San Diego Union newspaper article 17 December 1949
San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 17 December 1949, page 4

For whatever reason, people sometimes get missed in the census count. Aside from those who boycotted the count, some people were legitimately not home or were homeless. It’s not easy counting every single person in our nation. In this example regarding the 1940 census, newspaper readers are provided a form and address to send in their information if they were not counted in the census.

article about the U.S. Census, Kansas Whip newspaper article 24 April 1940
Kansas Whip (Topeka, Kansas), 24 April 1940, page 2

Stats from the Census

Census statistical data found its way into all types of newspaper articles. Take for instance this 1940 chart (using 1930 census records information) that details African American railroad occupations, found in Bags and Baggage, an African American railroad newspaper from Chicago.

article about the U.S. Census, Bags and Baggage newspaper article 1 January 1940
Bags and Baggage (Chicago, Illinois), 1 January 1940, page 13

In some cases you might come across a mention of an enumeration from nearly 100 years ago, like this report of the Jewish community in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

article about the U.S. Census, Carolina Israelite newspaper article 1 November 1945
Carolina Israelite (Charlotte, North Carolina), 1 November 1945, page 1

Newspaper Articles Lead to Further Research

Our newspaper research shouldn’t be limited to just finding instances of our ancestors’ names. In order to learn more about their lives, their communities, and what other records might be out there, we need to consult newspapers because they provide a day-to-day look into our ancestors’ lives. Use the newspaper to learn more about the census? Yes, and by doing so you might be surprised at what else you learn.

Genealogy Tip: You can learn more about other census counts in the community you are researching by searching on the word “census” and the place you are researching. Other census newspaper articles that came up in my search included school and religious censuses.

Related Census Articles:

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