Alex Kadis

Turning the Clock Back 72 Years

After reading a post on the Freakonomics blog, I decided to do a bit of research:

If you are in the United States, you probably remember participating in the Decennial Census in 2010. These forms are kept confidential for 72 years—roughly an average American’s life span. But this same rule means that today (actually, a couple of days ago), the 1940 Census results became public information. The good folks at the National Archives have scanned all of these census forms, and put them all online. With a bit of work, you should be able to find your house—or if you are in a newer neighborhood, perhaps a neighboring house.

It took me a few hours to make my way through the National Archives site before I hit on useful information. It turns out that their site really only likes Internet Exlorer. Blegh. Of course, not that you can find that listed on their website anywhere. If you’re looking to do the same research I did, I’d recommend checking out this Unified 1940 Census ED Finder. I didn’t find it until I completed my research, but it would have saved me a lot of time.

According to the National Archives 1940s Census, where I live now was Enumeration District 1-106 of Washington, DC. Once I figured out my enumeration district, I was able to find a map (click through for the full size version).

According to the map I live on block 28 of that Enumeration District. The census rolls confirm it:

Now the fun work began, trying to find who lived at my address in 1940. As it turns out, my exact address, 1616 doesn’t seem to have existed back then, but the neighboring address 1618 did exist, and that’s close enough for me.

The building I found was the 281st and 283rd building visited by the Census Bureau on April 1st 1935, and was marked down as R meaning rented.

1940s Census Records

From what I can tell, the only permanent resident with significant information filled out was Mary Louise Lucas, a 28 year old white single woman from West Virginia. Mary was educated through the 4th grade. At the time, she worked as a Stenographer for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation – an agency of the Federal Government created in 1932 that made loans to “banks, railroads, mortgage associations and other businesses”. She worked all 52 weeks of the year in 1939, and was paid a grand total of $1680. WolframAlpha tells us that she would have earned $27,730 in 2012 US Dollars based on the Consumer Price Index.

Many of the rest of the residents were logers, only one of whom gave information other than their name and age:

All of the residents in the building were white – and it seems that all the nearby buildings were segregated by race as well. While it’s hardly scientific, it’s interesting to see what 1940s race relations might have been like simply by reading through the occupations of residents in nearby buildings.

The listed occupations of white logers of a neighboring building are along the lines of secretary, economist, and attorney, working mostly in various government offices.

Nearby African American residents’ occupations ranged from typist and domestic to post office clerk. Sadly, even the highest wage on the list below, that of a binder at the Government Printing Office, was lower than any of the wages from above list.

It was a fascinating project for the evening, and I highly recommend taking a look through the archives to see what your block was like over 70 years ago.