People who answered the U.S. census questions in 1940 knew about hi-fi, not Wi-Fi.
But their descendants will be able to pull up their answers from the Internet on April 2 when the entire census from that year becomes available, completely free and online, to any computer in the world.
It’s a historic first, and it covers a historic era. The 1940 census will be a portal to the individuals who lived through the Great Depression and were about to endure the Second World War.
The 1940 census was tailored to that era. It was the first to include a question about income and the first to take an accounting of the nation’s housing stock. It measured the reach of the New Deal by asking who worked for the Works Project Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps and who had a Social Security number.
It included a special day for counting transients. It even asked people where they were living in 1935, providing a mini-census for the middle of a harsh decade in which millions of people were on the move, especially in the Midwest. It’s no coincidence that Kansas and Oklahoma each lost a seat in Congress during the Dust Bowl decade.
“This census enumerates the group called the Greatest Generation, and we’re going to be able to look at our family members,” said Missouri state archivist John Dougan. “It’s personally important to me because this is the first census my parents will be on.”
Some people will find themselves. It takes 72 years for individual census records to be released. The rule was meant to protect privacy at a time when life spans were shorter.
“My husband and I will both be on that census,” said JoAnne Magner of Olathe, who is eager to advance her genealogical knowledge.
She jokes that she was a little concerned about the Mayan calendar hype that the world could end this year.
“My first thought was, will we get to see the 1940 census first?”
It all goes online at 8 a.m. Central time on April 2. But there’s one wrinkle: It won’t be searchable by name until a small army of volunteers gets the whole thing indexed, and that could take months.
But there is a trick available to family tree climbers and historians who do just a little bit of homework.
“The most important thing you can do between now and April 2 is you need to be collecting addresses for the people you want to find in the 1940 census,” said Lori Cox-Paul, director of archival operations at the National Archives at Kansas City.
Addresses may be found in old family papers, military records or city directories kept at libraries. With an address in a good-size town, a seeker can often find out which enumeration district will include the people they are interested in. That’s the area covered by a single census taker. It could be just a few city blocks, which is a lot easier to search than an entire county or township.
“If you get lucky, maybe they’ll be on the first page,” said Cox-Paul. “You never know.”
A website at stevemorse.org/census/unified.html offers a free way to convert a street address in most large towns into an enumeration district.
For example, we know that Kansas City’s Boss Tom Pendergast lived at 5650 Ward Parkway. Using the website, we can learn that his enumeration district in 1940 was 116-152.
So when the 1940 census is released, we can immediately call up that district and scroll through the names until we find the Pendergast household. Then we can learn what the political boss told the census taker about himself and his family.
Enumeration district maps are also available at the National Archives’ website. A short video at www.1940census.archives.gov provides a primer. You can also watch a publicity short for the census by the Three Stooges.
The 1930 census is also available online now through fee-based services such as ancestry.com. It and earlier censuses can be accessed free, on microfilm, at the National Archives or at many public libraries.
But with the 1940 census, everything is free and no one needs to leave home to see the data.
Still, the National Archives at Kansas City, normally closed to the public on Mondays, will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on April 2 and will offer classes on how to work with the 1940 census. The Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence will open at 6 a.m. that day and offer a pre-release tutorial. Both institutions are free and have public access computers. Both will have staff members on hand for assistance. And both have Wi-Fi so people can bring their own laptops.
“We’ll see how long it takes until it crashes,” Janice Schultz, manager of the Midwest Genealogy Center, joked about the census release.
Cox-Paul said that concern prompted the National Archives to put the 1940 census information — about 3.9 million digital images — on its own server.
“It’s supposed to be built with enough oomph that even if lots of people are on there, it won’t crash,” she said. “But honestly we don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re hoping that it doesn’t.”