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The Census: America’s Reflecting Pool

 

Jennifer Truran Rothwell

Commenting on the provision for a census in the U. S. Constitution, 20th century French statistician Moreau de Jonnes commended the people “who instituted the statistics of their country on the very day when they founded their government, and who regulated by the same instrument the census of inhabitants, their civil and political rights, and the destinies of the nation.”1

The U.S. census has sometimes been described as “the mirror of America.” An even more apt metaphor might be that of a “reflecting pool.” From the outset, the census has reflected both the nature of the body politic and critical national purposes—the original intention being to effect a compromise on congressional representation that would allow the thirteen states to hang together. In so doing, the framers arrived at an unequal definition of the nation’s people—of who counted how much—that would become open to resolution only after the Civil War and the abolition of the three-fifths rule by the 14th Amendment.

The U.S. Census as a “reflecting poo#148; holds another meaning. Its collection of data about the population, rudimentary at first, grew to include information requested by Congress not only to measure, but to advance, the nation’s progress. The pool of statistics provided by the census thus became a resource for reflecting about the nation—past, present, and future.

What does it mean to introduce a census of manufactures in 1820? Probably not that you want the country to have fewer factories. To introduce a question on literacy in 1840? Not that you want schoolchildren to throw away their slates. To institute a census of housing in 1940? Not that you want another decade of homelessness and despair rending the fabric of the nation.

Census questions have also reflected issues viewed as problematic. A rising tide of questions pertaining to immigration reflected the great human movement toward America’s shores at the turn of the 20th century. The census was used to understand this migration and to help plan the services—especially in the nation’s public schools—needed to accommodate such profound change in society.

The U. S. census constitutes a living document on the state of the nation and its purposes throughout our history. This article provides a timeline of the U.S. Census (meaning the decennial censuses from 1790-2000) that looks at three things: (1) the subjects asked in each census, (2) the methods used in census taking, and (3) historical milestones of the census and its findings.2 The article includes selected portions of schedules (forms or questionnaires) used in different censuses for analysis as primary documents.3 It is hoped that this long view of the census may help students to understand its fundamental importance and to reflect on its relationship to major trends and issues in our nation’s history.

 

Notes

1. A. Ross Eckler, The Bureau of the Census (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972), 5.

2. This timeline is heavily indebted to three sources: Appendix C: Population and Housing Census Questions, 1790-1970, in Eckler; Bureau of the Census, 200 Years of U. S. Census Taking: Population and Housing Questions, 1790-1990 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989); Bureau of the Census, “Milestones in American History as Recorded by the Census,” Social Education 53, No. 7, theme issue on Celebrating the Bicentennial of the U.S. Census (November/December 1990), 457.

3. All of the schedules are taken from 200 Years of U.S. Census Taking unless otherwise indicated.

 

21 Censuses

 

These questions pertain to the decennial census of population from 1790 to 2000. “Subjects” refers to the questions asked in a census. Questions asked for the first time appear in italics; however, these questions may or may not have been asked in succeeding censuses. From 1940 on, the list refers to “100-Percent Subjects,” meaning those asked of all persons, or appearing on both the short and long forms. “Methods” refers to developments and innovations in census taking. “Milestones” refers to significant aspects of census questions and/or findings.

 

1790 Census

Subjects: name of family head; number of: free white males 16 and above; free white males under 16; free white females; all other free persons, excepting “Indians not taxed”; slaves

Methods: census taken by U.S. marshals for federal judicial districts; Congress determines questions and makes response mandatory

Milestones:

> introduces the first national periodic census in the world

> implements the U.S. Constitution’s three-fifths compromise, counting five slaves as equivalent to three free persons for the apportionment among states of representatives and taxes [Note: direct taxation based on the census did not occur]

> U.S. population: 3.9 million

> center of population in Maryland

> Virginia is the most populous state

> New York is the largest city (throughout nation’s history)

 

1800 Census

Subjects: name of family head; number of: white persons, by age and sex; all other free persons; slaves

Methods: the census comes under the Secretary of State, who directs marshals [Note: hereafter until 1850]

 

1810 Census

Subjects: name of family head; number of: white persons, by age and sex; all other free persons; slaves

Milestones:

> New York becomes the most populous state (until 1970)

 

1820 Census

Subjects: name of family head; number of free persons by age, sex, race; slaves; number engaged in industry (agriculture, commerce, manufactures); foreigners not naturalized

Milestones:

> first census of manufactures

> U.S. population of 9.6 million has more than doubled since first census

> median age of population is 16.7 years

 

1830 Census

Subjects: name of family head; number of free persons by age, sex, race; slaves; disabled (deaf and dumb, blind); foreigners not naturalized

Methods: first uniform schedules printed by federal government

 

1840 Census

Subjects: name of family head; number of free persons by age, sex, race; slaves; disabled (adds insane and idiotic), in public or private charge; literacy; school attendance; number engaged in industry (7 classes); military pensioners

Methods: first temporary census office in Washington, D.C.

 

1850 Census

Subjects: name of all free persons; age; sex; race; disabled; literacy; school attendance; occupation; married within year; birthplace; pauper or convict; value of real estate. Supplemental schedules: slaves (unnamed), public paupers and criminals, mortality within year

Methods: central tabulation in Department of Interior in Washington, D.C. (Note: and hereafter until 1910)

Milestones:

> first census to record names of all free persons; names of slaves specifically proscribed

 

1860 Census

Subjects: name; age; sex; race; disabled; literacy; school attendance; occupation; married within year; birthplace; convict; value of real estate; value of personal estate; number of slave houses. Supplemental schedules: slaves; public paupers and criminals; mortality within year

Milestones:

> center of population is in Ohio, first time beyond original states and territories

> New York City population (1.17 million) passes million mark

 

1870 Census

Subjects: name; age; sex; race; disabled; literacy; school attendance; occupation; married within year; birthplace; month of birth within year; whether parents foreign born; value of real estate; value of personal estate; male citizens 21 and over, and number denied the right to vote for other than rebellion. Supplemental schedules: paupers; criminals; mortality within year

Methods: first use of tally device and creation of maps, charts, and diagrams

Milestones:

> first census to name all African Americans

> median age of population is 20.2

> 2% of adults (over 17) have completed high school

 

1880 Census

Subjects: name; relationship to family head [Note: hereafter, relationship]; age; sex; race; disabled (adds maimed, crippled, bedridden); sickness or temporary disability; literacy; school attendance; occupation; months unemployed during year; married within year; marital status; birthplace of person and parents; month of birth within year. Supplemental schedules include: Indian population on reservations; disabled; paupers; prisoners; homeless children; mortality within year

Methods: census supervisors replace marshals; large number of schedules means census count takes almost a decade

Milestones:

> first pledge of confidentiality by census takers

> first census of Indian population on reservations

> U. S. population reaches 50 million

> non-agricultural workers outnumber agricultural workers for the first time

 

1890 Census

Subjects: address; name; relationship; age; sex; race; disabled; acute or chronic sickness; literacy; school attendance; occupation; married within year; marital status; birthplace of person and parents; if foreign born, number of years here, naturalized or papers taken out; able to speak English, or language or dialect spoken; prisoner, convict, pauper, or homeless child; Civil War veteran (Union or Confederate) or widow; home/farm tenure (rented, owned, mortgaged); number of families and persons in house. Supplemental schedules include: Indian population; inmates of benevolent institutions; disabled; prisoners; paupers; veterans and widows; mortality within year

Methods: first use of electric tabulating machine and keypunch cards (invented by Hollerith); first separate schedules for each household

Milestones:

> census report declares end of “frontier of settlement,” prompting 1893 Turner thesis

> average household size (4.93 persons) is below 5 for first time

 

1900 Census

Subjects: address; name; relationship; age; sex; race; literacy; school attendance; occupation; marital status; number of years married; for women, number of children born and now living; birthplace of person and parents; if foreign born, year of immigration and whether naturalized; able to speak English; home tenure; living on farm. Supplemental schedules: disabled (blind or deaf)

Methods: pledge of confidentiality by all Census Bureau employees; first decennial census taken beyond continental U.S. and territories adds Hawaii and population living abroad

 

1910 Census

Subjects: address; name; relationship; age; sex; race; disabled (blind or deaf and dumb); literacy; school attendance; occupation; whether out of work on census day or weeks unemployed during year; marital status; years in present marriage; for women, number of children born and now living; birthplace; if foreign born, year of immigration, whether naturalized, able to speak English, or language spoken; Civil War veteran (Union or Confederate); home tenure; farm or house. Supplemental schedules include: Indian population; disabled (various categories); prisoners and juvenile delinquents in institutions

Methods: Permanent Census Act of 1902 creates Census Bureau; moved to new Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903; census employees take competitive exams

 

1920 Census

Subjects: address; name; relationship; age; sex; race; literacy; school attendance; occupation; marital status; birthplace of person and parents; if foreign born, year of immigration, whether naturalized and year; mother tongue of foreign born; able to speak English; home tenure. Separate schedule for “Military and Naval Population, etc., Abroad”; Supplemental schedule: disabled (blind or deaf)

Methods: Census Bureau placed in Department of Commerce when divided from Department of Labor in 1913

Milestones:

> U.S. population passes 100 million mark (in 1915)

> urban population exceeds rural population for the first time

 

1930 Census

Subjects: address; name; relationship; age; sex; race; literacy; school attendance; occupation; at work previous day or last regular working day; marital status; age at first marriage; birthplace of person and parents; if foreign born, year of immigration, whether naturalized, original language, able to speak English; veteran status; home tenure; living on farm; radio set. Supplemental schedules: Indian population; gainful workers out of work previous day; disabled (blind or deaf-mute)

Method: Congress grants census director authority to determine content of census

 

1940 Census

100-Percent Subjects: address; name; relationship; age; sex; race; school attendance; educational attainment; employment status; if at work, private or nonemergency government work (and hours per week), or public emergency work (WPA, CCC, etc.); if seeking work or on public emergency work, duration of unemployment; weeks worked last year; income last year; marital status; birthplace; citizenship if foreign born; residence five years ago; house or farm; also housing census. Supplemental schedule: infants born within previous four months

Methods: introduction of sampling whereby a representative portion of households receive additional questions; first housing census; criminal statistics moved to Justice Department

Milestones:

> population growth rate of 7.2% between censuses is the lowest recorded

> introduction of the housing census

 

[Note: The 1940 Census was the first to use sampling and to include a separate census of housing. The remainder of this list includes only the 100-Percent Subjects asked in each census. In general, questions that have moved to Sample Subjects involve socioeconomic data, such as: birthplace, language spoken at home, education, employment status, marital status, children born, disability, income, internal migration, and veteran status. New Sample Subjects have included: transportation to work (1960), Spanish/Hispanic origin (1970); ancestry (1980), and grandparents as childcare givers (2000).

The housing census attempts to measure the state of the nation’s housing using such benchmark questions as type of structure, number of rooms, heating, lighting, refrigeration, and toilet facilities, and adding over time such items as: TV set (1950), telephone available (1960), automobile (1960), and solar energy (1990). In the 2000 Census, all housing questions beyond home tenure have moved to the long form.

 

1950 Census

100-Percent Subjects: address; name; relationship; age; sex; race; occupation; employment status; hours worked in week; birthplace; if foreign born, whether naturalized; whether house is on farm; also housing census. Supplemental schedules: persons on Indian reservations; infants born within first three months of census year; Americans overseas

Methods: use of UNIVAC computer

Milestones:

> center of population in Illinois

> women outnumber men, 100 to 99, for the first time

> service workers outnumber goods-producing workers for the first time

 

1960 Census

100-Percent Subjects: address; name; relationship; age; sex; race; marital status; also housing census.

Supplemental schedule: Americans overseas

Methods: use of FOSDIC (Film Optical Sensing Device for Input to Computers) to read marked circles on census forms makes punch cards obsolete; first use of self-enumeration by mail, with door-to-door follow-up

 

1970 Census

100-Percent Subjects: address; name; relationship; age; sex; race; marital status; also housing census

Methods: 60% self-enumeration by mail

Milestones:

> U.S. population passes 200 million (in 1967)

> median age of population (28) is lowest since Depression, reflecting Baby Boom

> foreign-born share of population is lowest since recording began

> more than 50% of adults (above 25) have completed high school

> California becomes most populous state

1980 Census

100-Percent Subjects: address; name; relationship; age; sex; race; marital status; Spanish/Hispanic origin; also housing census. Supplemental schedule: persons on Indian reservations

Methods: 90% self-enumeration by mail

Milestones:

> race identified by self not census taker’s observation

> center of population crosses Mississippi River to state of Missouri

> population of South and West overtakes that of North and Midwest

> average household size (2.75 persons) falls below 3 for first time

 

1990 Census

100-Percent Subjects: address; name; relationship; age; sex; race; marital status; Spanish/Hispanic origin; home tenure

Methods: use of TIGER, a new digital mapping and geographic referencing system; 94% self-enumeration by mail

 

2000 Census

100-Percent Subjects: address; name; relationship; age; sex; Hispanic origin; race; home tenure

Methods: first fully-computerized census with data to be released on the Internet; use of optical scanners that read handwriting

Milestones:

> respondents may report more than one race

> introduction of the American Community Survey, annual reports that may replace the long form by 2010

 

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.