1940 Census Reveals Snapshot of American Life

The 1940 census was released online in its entirety by the National Archives and Records Administration and has provided a fascinating look at life in the United States in the post-depression, pre-war era of “The Great Generation.”

When the 72-year confidentiality ban was lifted Monday and the records were put online, making it possible to see what was the most extensive census questionnaire to date, over 22 million viewers caused government servers to slow to a crawl. In an effort to disseminate the information, the Census Bureau has taken the raw data and with it, created a very rich website exploring life in the 1940s.

For example, it points out that On January 31, 1940, Ida May Fuller became the first person to receive social security benefits. It also provides key comparisons between the 1940 and 2010 census, such as percentage of college-education (4.6% then, 28.2% now). Top industries show that manufacturing led in 1940, and in 2010, educational services, health care and social assistance dominates the workforce.

For many who lost fathers and sons during World War II, the census is the last documentation of those men with their families. Genealogy buffs and amateur researchers will find plenty of information to pour over. And while searching the database by name is not possible at this time, records can be accessed by address.

Looking at the answers to the 81 questions asked on the 1940 census (as opposed to the 10 questions asked on the 2010 census) gives you an opportunity to see how much this country and its population has changed (5.1 million farms in 1940, 610,000 farms in 2010), and how much it stayed the same (four out of five of the top populated cities in America in 1940 remained so in 2010.)

Very few families are untouched by this newly-released census. This 1940 census is a great opportunity to research your own family’s, city’s and nation’s roots.

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