Do some of the entries in U.S. census records not make sense? I am not referring to the handwriting but rather the various entries in the different columns across the page. Why did they enter the information like that? What does it mean? Some columns are always filled in but others are sometimes blank. Why?
In the 1790 through 1870 collections of census information, the records were created by Assistant Marshals. A March 3, 1879 act replaced the U.S. Marshals with specially hired and trained census-takers (called “enumerators”) to conduct the 1880 and subsequent censuses.
During the early censuses, U.S. Marshals received little training or instruction on how to collect census data. In fact, it was not until 1830 that marshals even received printed schedules on which to record households’ responses. The marshals often received limited instruction from the census acts passed prior to each census.
Beginning with the 1880 census, door-to-door census by temporary census-takers was the primary method of conducting the census until the U.S. Census Bureau began mailing questionnaires to households in 1960.
Prior to every census, the Census Office issued Instructions to Enumerators (census takers). All of the sets of instructions have now been scanned, digitized, and are available on the U.S. Census Bureau’s web site at https://www.census.gov/history/www/through_the_decades/census_instructions. You can read the instructions given to the enumerator who wrote the information you are looking at.
Some of the instructions concern things I never thought about, such as the instructions for 1850:
“Eating-houses, Stores, Shops, &c.- Very many persons, especially in cities, have no other place of abode than stores, shops, &c.; places which are not primarily intended for habitation. Careful inquiry will be made to include this class, and such buildings will be reckoned as Dwelling-houses within the intention of the Census law; but a watchman, or clerk belonging to a family resident in the same town or city, and sleeping in such store or shop merely for purposes of security, will be enumerated as of his family.”
Sadly, the Instructions for Enumerators did not give handwriting instructions.