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It Is Almost 1940

By Daniel Hubbard | April 1, 2012

It is not without some trepidation that I sit down to enter the world of 1940 census blogging. So much has already been written that I’m somewhat afraid of boring the already over-informed. On the other hand, I love to explore the census and to write nothing before April 2, simply seems wrong.

In Case You Haven’t Heard

The 1940 census will be released online at on April 2, 2012 at 9 am ET. The images will be completely free BUT…

There is no index.

There, I said it. I hope you will forgive me for repeating it for, as my kids would say, the bazillionth time.

There will be an index eventually but in the meantime you will need to know where you ancestor lived. If that is the mystery you are trying to solve, you’ll either need to try another source or wait for the index. If you have some idea then you can try to find the enumeration district where the ancestor lived. If you aren’t sure, you may have to search several EDs. It will be just like the good old days of skimming through microfilm except you can do it at home at your computer. You can try to work out the ED in several ways. The National Archives has the maps of the EDs online. Go to then enter a search like this into the search box—1940 census maps TOWN COUNTY STATE. When you get your search results, they will look completely useless to you. Don’t despair. Click the “Digital Images” tab and you will get the map and be able to read off the ED’s. They are written onto the map as a number, a hyphen and then another number.

The other way to do it, actually several ways, starts at You will need to work through a form that will, hopefully, give you the ED or EDs that you need. The more you know about where a person lived the better. Their likely address in 1940 and nearby cross streets will be useful in cities. The 1930 ED might be what you need in a smaller place but that assumes your ancestor did not move, or at least didn’t move far.

Once you know what enumeration district you want to examine, you’ll navigate over to the images for that district and start reading.  If you have worked your way through a census on microfilm, then you might want to start practicing saying “This is how we used to do it in the old days after we walked ten miles though waist deep snow just to get to the nearest half broken microfilm reader.” However, please consider joining me in my “No waist deep snow story” pledge.

If, on the other hand, you’ve never read through a census microfilm, having no idea if you’d find what you want or not, then I suggest you brace yourself for hearing about the waist deep snow or maybe just hide from any older genealogist you know until there is an index. Better yet, volunteer to help index and shorten the dreaded “waist deep snow story” period.

The Good

There are some things that are big improvements over previous censuses. The informant will be marked with an “(X)” after his or her name. We will finally know who provided the information. Was it an adult in the household or was it the neighbor’s snot-nosed ten-year-old? (Snot-nosed 10-year-olds will be noted as the informant in the margin by name followed by the word “neighbor.” Then you can check the informants age, though, sadly, “snot-nosed status” was not a question in 1940.)

There are some nice new questions, as there often are. There is more about work than there was before and we get to know a person’s level of education. When people were lodgers we used to only know that their relationship to the head of household was “lodger.” In 1940 we will get to know the relationship, if any, between lodgers.

For the first time, the census asked were a person had been at an earlier time. In this case, as of April 1, 1935. A tip: in this section instead of getting town, county and state you might read “same place.” That doesn’t mean that they had not moved. In that case it should say “same house.” The meaning of “same place” is that they had moved within their town.

The Hype

I admit that I have a check or two to make in the 1940 census and for some people it will be just what the doctor ordered. Some of the new information really is great and even if it was the same information as in 1930, another decade of census data is nothing to sneeze at. So many people that we are interested in will make their first appearance in the census. Wonderful!

On the other hand, I have to admit that I am looking forward to the hype fading after April 2.

I’ve read that thanks to the 1935 information it is like having two censuses in one! Well, sort of, but in reality you won’t know anything about 1935 except where the person was living. You won’t have a 1935 data set to compare with 1930 and 1940. You won’t have another year to be amused by someone’s drastic lies about their age. Sorry.  Also, if you can’t find them in 1940 you obviously won’t find them in 1935 either. We won’t learn where someone lived in 1935 if they died in 1939.

I’ve also seen excitement about the supplementary questions. It is nice that there are extra questions asked of two people per page and it can be some interesting background information that was added. The economy was still not healthy and so one of those supplementary questions asked not about what work the person was doing (that was a standard question) but about what they were trained to do or normally did. Perhaps the man who was selling apples on the street corner was trained as a bank teller. If you’re lucky you might get that kind of information.

What isn’t so wonderful and why this falls under my hype heading is that some of the information that we used to get for everyone we will now only get if we are lucky. In 1940 the birth places of a person’s parents was only in the supplementary questions. That can be very important information for identifying the correct person. Except for marital status, the questions about marriage are now supplemental. Also only women were asked. Want to know how many times a man was married? Sorry, he wasn’t asked even in the supplemental questions.

Also, since these questions were asked of two random people per page not two random adults, chances are quite good that those random people will be children. That means that perhaps more often than not the question about where parents were born will be a repeat of information that we can already read from the parents’ rows. We won’t necessarily have those all important questions asked of the parents in the household. Because of the way people were picked for the supplementary questions, you will never get both parents in a family being asked the questions.

The problem of information pertaining to a child was handled to some degree by the veterans’ questions. If the person was a child, the answers were supposed to be about the person’s father. On the other hand, it is explicit in the instructions to the enumerators that women were not considered veterans. A woman would have been asked about her husband but not about herself. A man whose wife had been an army nurse would not have been asked the questions either.


Go ahead and be excited about the 1940 census. Another decade of data, covering more people than ever before, is great. No question about it. Just take a deep breath and push the hype out of your mind. Then do the homework necessary to figure out those enumeration districts and understand the implications of people’s answers.


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