At 9 a.m. Eastern Time on Monday, the federal government will reveal a new window on history: 1940 census records will be open to the public for the first time. The 3.8 million images will show painstakingly handwritten forms created by census workers who traipsed door to door to count all 132.2 million Americans living in 1940. The images will be available online immediately for free. About 21 million Americans who show up in the 1940 records are believed to still be alive.
People’s names, addresses, ages and even more personal information, such as their marital status, how many kids they had, how much they earned and what they did for a living ,were kept under wraps for 72 years — as required by a confidentiality law. The 72 years expired April 1 but, being a Sunday, the government will reveal the now public records on the first business day after the 72 years has expired. In this case, the records will become available on Monday, April 2, 2012, at precisely 9 a.m. Eastern Time.
The National Archives has been running a countdown clock on its website and has launched 1940census.archives.gov for its first online release.
Census enumerators in 1940 asked things that had never been asked before – about personal income, migration patterns, employment and whether households had servants or boarders, for example. The 1940 census contains usual questions regarding name, age, gender, race, education, occupation and place of birth. Enumerators, or census data takers, listed each person who was alive at 12:01 a.m. April 1, 1940.
However, with the country recovering from of the Great Depression, the 1940 census also displays a circled “X” after the name of the person furnishing information about the family; whether the person worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration or National Youth Administration the week of March 24-30, 1940; and income for the 12 months ending Dec. 31, 1939, according the National Archives website.
Of the 40 names listed on a census page, two individuals (listed on lines 14 and 29) were chosen to answer an additional 16 questions, including mother and father's birthplace; veteran status; Social Security information; and for all women who were or had been married, whether she been married more than once and age at first marriage.
You can view a blank 1940 census form in detail by clicking on the thumbnail image to the right. You will be easily able to read each field in the form by looking at the larger image.
While the images will be available on April 2, you can only search the documents manually. That is, move from page to page by the click of a mouse. Familysearch.org (the genealogy organization run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), Archives.com and findmypast.com have joined forces to form the 1940 U.S. Census Community Project to index every name in the census with the help of volunteers. The completion date of that effort is unknown as it depends upon the number of volunteers who contribute their labor.
In addition, Ancestry.com plans to offer the 1940 census products free through 2013 and will soon be adding a detailed index searchable by street address. Again, the index will not be available on April 2 but is expected to become available online later in the year.
This is the first time that census records have been released on the first day in digital format. Previous census records were released on microfilm at national and regional Archives centers. Genealogists would line up outside the building at 7 a.m. to get the first crack at a microfilm reader. With the 1940 census, you can stay at home in your pajamas to view the newly-released records.
The 1940 U.S. census is being released only in digital format; no microfilm version is planned. In the past, institutions, such as libraries, had to pay a significant amount of money for a copy of the census on microfilm. This time, institutions and individuals alike will have free access available.
Finding individuals in very small towns will be easy; you simply go to that town's records online and then click through the pages one at a time. However, searching in larger communities can be a bit more involved. You will need to know the 1940 street address to search the website for a three- or four-digit enumeration code. An enumeration district is the area that one census worker covered in a month.
Finding the enumeration codes is rather easy, thanks to a wonderful online tool created by Steve Morse. Steve provides "How to Access the 1940 Census in One Step" instructions in his web site at http://stevemorse.org/census/quiz.php. After reading the instructions go, to Steve's "Unified 1940 Census Enumeration District Finder" at http://stevemorse.org/census/unified.html.
The "Unified 1940 Census Enumeration District Finder" finds districts by street names. Obviously, if you don’t know the street address, you will need to obtain that information before using the "Unified 1940 Census Enumeration District Finder." Many libraries still have old telephone directories for the communities they serve. Keep in mind, however, that not all homes had telephones installed in 1940.
Street names are less critical for small towns or rural areas with only a few enumeration districts.
Additional help may be found on the National Archives' web site at http://www.archives.gov/research/census/1940/start-research.html.
Where will you at 9 a.m. Eastern Time on Monday? I know I will be seated at a computer.
One warning: If millions of genealogists all access the 1940census.archives.gov at 9 a.m., I wouldn't be surprised to see it crash by 9:01. Archives.com is hosting the web site and, for the first time, is using cloud computing to create hundreds of virtual servers to handle the expected workload. While I suspect the problems will be minor, I still would not be surprised to see a few computer glitches.
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