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Staycation: Find Your Family in the 1940 Census

April 20, 2012

It looks like a rainy spring weekend here in Washington so rather than play in puddles, how about spending some time discovering your family history?

The 1940 census was released online earlier this month, unveiling information about 132 million Americans right before World War II. Each handwritten page — more than 3.8 million images in all — was scanned into a computer; the results reveal your parents/grandparents/great-grandparents’ salaries, occupations, educational background and more.

For now, the results aren’t searchable by name since each handwritten document must be read through one at a time. But if you know your family address in 1940, it’s not too hard to track down your relatives.

My paternal grandmother (who was 8 in the census) knew her own address, of course, and she could also rattle off my then-12-year-old grandfather’s address (and his telephone number!) off the top of her head, even 72 years later.

With that information, I was able to track down the enumeration district, which gave me a set of 20-30 images to scroll through until — bingo! — I spotted familiar names. It’s not the most efficient process, but it’s worth a little effort.

It was a touching moment to find my grandmother alongside her immigrant parents in the census; I never met my great-grandfather and my great-grandmother died before I was able to form any conscious memory of her. But in the 1940 census, there they are in Chicago: my German great-grandmother Maria, a former nun with only an 8th grade education, and my great-grandfather Yreno, a Mexican immigrant unemployed at the time of the census, previously an assembly worker in the steel mill who made $300 the previous year.

Finding my grandfather, who died earlier this year, and his family was an equally special moment.

There he is, 12 years old, with his four siblings (only one of whom is still alive today) and his parents, neither of whom I ever met.

Even without knowing your family’s specific address, it’s possible to track them down in the 1940 census. It just may be a lot more time-consuming. I’m sure that eventually, the entire system will be computerized and searchable by name, which will make the entire process much easier, but if you have the ability to find your family today, do it.

I’m glad to have these records, my grandmother is thrilled to see these documents she’s never laid eyes on, and it’s an amazing time to reflect on how far we’ve come as families and as a nation.

So stay dry this weekend and spend some time with the 1940 census instead!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Cindy permalink
    April 20, 2012 9:14 am

    Thanks so much for letting us know about this! I found my 80 year old dad’s family and am still looking for my mom’s. I can’t wait to show them! The video was really interesting too.

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