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A snapshot in time
April 9, 2012
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by Ivan Raconteur

I have had some fun recently, playing detective and exploring family history.

The 1940 census records were released by the US National Archives last Monday, and made available online through a partnership with Archives.com.

The website allows full access to the images of the actual handwritten forms that were completed at the time, as well as maps and descriptions of the enumeration districts.

There are 3.8 million images, scanned from more than 4,000 rolls of microfilm.

In the spring of 1940, the government dispatched 120,000 enumerators (that is government-speak for the fact gatherers who went to people’s homes and gathered census information) to go door-to-door to interview residents.

After a bit of detective work, I was able to find the page that includes the record of my paternal grandfather’s family.

I never met my grandfather, and I never saw the house the family lived in then, although it was in the same part of Duluth in which I grew up.

It was a strange and unexpectedly powerful experience to come face-to-face with this snapshot of my family history.

I found myself trying to imagine what life was like for them. I learned that my father was 12 years old at the time, about the middle of the pack of seven children. The youngest of my uncles had not yet been born. My dad’s oldest sibling, my aunt Pat, was 18. The youngest sibling at that time, my uncle Russ, was only 3.

According to the census, at that time my grandfather was a battery foreman at the steel plant.

His 1939 income of $2,000 didn’t seem like much. However, compared to the incomes of some of the other families in the neighborhood, he was doing OK.

We must remember that the country was still recovering from the Great Depression, and was about to be plunged into World War II.

It was rather strange to read these records online, because there are details in the census that my grandparents would never have discussed with their children, and certainly not with their grandchildren.

For example, I know from talking to my parents and their siblings that their parents sheltered them from things like medical information and family finances.

From my aunts and uncles, I know that they were only able to afford the bare necessities, which did not include things like cars, new clothes, or even a radio.

That may seem bizarre to us today, when it seems like we are surrounded by electronic devices and modern conveniences.

In 1940, however, people lived much more simply.

Many houses were still without indoor plumbing at that time.

Although most city dwellers had access to electricity by the 1930s, only about 10 percent of people in rural areas did. It wasn’t until the formation of the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935 that this began to change.

Despite the family’s limited resources, my aunt remembered that, during the Depression, her mother always found something to eat for anyone who came to the door looking for a meal.

It was odd to see my grandfather’s job title in the census, too.

I was aware that he worked at the steel plant, but I never had any idea what he did there.

I have not yet been able to track down the census information for my maternal grandfather’s family.

It is not currently possible to search the archives by name, and one has to know the address, or at least the area where the family was living to find the correct enumeration district.

At the time, my mother’s family was living in a garage owned by one of my mother’s uncles.

That, too, may seem strange to us today, but was probably not that unusual at the time.

Pat noted in her written reminiscences that, when she started dating, she was reluctant to bring boys home because there were so many people, including extended family members, living there in those days.

Like the census, Pat’s notes shed light on what life was like at the time.

She was 18 in 1940. There were no jobs in Duluth, so she traveled to Detroit to find work (which might not be such a good move today).

Her starting pay as a receptionist was $6 per week, and out of that, she had to buy a uniform and white shoes, as well as pay for her room and board.

The census maps are also fascinating. Some areas have changed dramatically since 1940. Indeed, the neighborhood in which my father’s family lived no longer exists. The homes were demolished when the freeway was built.

The release of the 1940 census data provides a fascinating window into the past.

For those of us whose parents and grandparents are dead, these documents can give us a snapshot of what life was like for our families in those days. They can, in a way, bring history to life, and inspire further research, making us want to travel back through the mists of time to learn about our relatives and our country’s history.

The 1940 census archives can be found at http://1940census.archives.gov.


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