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Census Taking and How It Was Done

by Holly Timm
[originally published 27 September 1989
Harlan Daily Enterprise Penny Pincher]
Most of us are aware that every so often the federal government takes a head count of the nation for various purposes, including determining the number of state representatives to Congress. The census to be taken next year, 1990, will make it 200 years since the first census was taken in 1790. The earlier census takings listed only the name of the head of each household and the number of people in that household, broken down by gender and age groups, such as males age 10 to 20.

It was not until 1850 that each individual was listed by name. The number and type of questions have increase and changed over the years. For example, in 1850, 1860 and 1870, although each individual was listed, no indication was given about their relationship to each other. Beginning in 1880 a column was added asking for the individual's relationship to the head of the household.

The 1890 census added several detailed questions about length of marriage, number of children born to each female and how many of these were still living, etc. Unfortunately, a fire in 1921 destroyed virtually all of the 1890 records so there is a 20 year gap in census records.

The 1900 census contains the same detailed questions as the 1890 census, including a column inquiring the month and year of birth for each individual. The 1910 census dropped this last set of questions but added a column for the number of marriages each individual had.

Census records come under the confidentiality law and are not open to public access until 72 years thereafter. In other words, the 1920 census will not be available to the public until 1992.

One of the biggest problems with census records is the mistaken belief that they are accurate. There are many ways in which they can be either misleading or completely wrong. Nowadays, most people fill out the form for their household and send it in, then a follow-up is done by census-takers to catch up with the ones not returned to the census bureau.

In the 19th century, the entire job was done by censustakers. Anyone who has looked at a number of census schedules from the 1800's knows that some censustakers had the awful handwriting, some were just barely literate. Others were fools, a few were drunks, many were careless and some just plain didn't care at all. They were human and got tired and cold and hungry. Through honest mistakes or out and out carelessness, some households were missed and once in a while entered twice. The spellings of names varied greatly usually according to the whims of the censustaker.

Assuming a relatively honest, literate, sober and conscientious censustaker, we now come to the informant. The informant would be whoever was at home - often an adult member of the household but sometimes a child, an idiot, a drunk or the next door neighbor.

Although it may be hard to believe in these days of bureaucracy and paperwork, many people honestly did not know their own exact age, much less that of their family members, stepchildren, in-laws, etc. Especially for women, vanity enters into it. A very young bride might pretend to be 21, an older woman might take a few years off, this can be especially true of a wife with a younger husband...our ancestors were imperfect too.

Here's a totally fictional but quite possible account of a census-taking. Tom Jones is a fair censustaker, not particularly dishonest or lazy. It's the end of a long day of traipsing up and down the hills, it's been raining all day and he's wet and tired and does not want to have to come back up into this particular hollow tomorrow.

There are four houses up there and at the first house we meet John Doe, an old man, illiterate, slightly senile and mayble just a little bit tipsy. He offers the censustaker a drink or two to take the damp chill off and gives his age, his wife's age and the ages of his three children still at home fairly accurately, within a year or two.

The older son's wife's age he guesses at, he knows she came from Virginia and gives that as her birthplace. She was actually born in North Carolina.

Warmed by the fire and the drinks, Tom, just a little less concerned about accuracy, moved on to house number two where he finds Jane Smith, Henry Smith's second wife and daughter of John Doe. She is quite accurate about the ages of her and Henry's childrne but isn't too sure about her older stepchildren and vanity compels her to guess.

On to the third house. James Doe and his wife are not at home but James' mother-in-law is. She has just come to live with them and is lonely so she talks poor Tom's ear off. Tom is tired and just wants to finish up and get home so he scibbled it all down as fast as he can.

The old lady is off several years on James Doe's age but knows that of her daughter and grandchildren quite well. She informs Tom that no one is home at the last house, that of Samuel Doe.

Rather then have to come back again or return to one of the other houses, Tom puts down her rather wild guesses as to the members of Sam's household. The dear old lady forgets to mention one child completely, listing all the other's as Sam's children when actually one is a nephew and two are stepchildren with a different surname.

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last edited 05 Jun 2008