Counting America: A history of the census

RIGHT: A page from the 1880 Census of Hamilton Township.

By Executive Director Amy Leiser
Monroe County Historical Association

Every 10 years, the United States government conducts a census. A census is a regularly occurring official count that collects the economic, demographic and social data of a population. The information is collected, analyzed, and used in a variety of ways, including determining how much federal funding a community is eligible to receive to realigning congressional districts. Another example includes many family historians who use older census reports to research their ancestors.

Known as a decennial census, the first census was conducted in 1790. Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution of the United States reads, "The actual enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of 10 years, in such manner as they shall by Law direct."

The first U.S.census was relatively simple compared to today’s forms, and the process has changed in interesting ways over the decades. In the first census, the government did not provide printed forms, so census takers (known as marshals) used whatever paper they had available. Marshals went from door-to-door, counting individuals in each of the original 13 colonies and the districts of Maine, Vermont, Kentucky and portions of present-day Tennessee. Households supplied the name of the head of the family as well as the number of people living in each house. Only the head of the house had his or her name placed on the census; other individuals living under the same roof were described as: free white males of 16 years and older; free white males under 16 years; free white females; all other free persons (by sex and color), and; slaves. The cost of the 1790 census was $44,000.

The censuses of 1800 and 1810 did not differ greatly from the 1790 census. By 1820, the census provided separate columns for counting the number of free colored persons verses the number of slaves. The government provided uniformly printed blank documents for the first time in 1830, ensuring that consistent information was gathered.

The Census Act of 1840 created a centralized census office with Congress’s requesting new information on social matters of individuals such as, "deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper or convict.” In addition to these mental health and social inquiries, questions pertaining to industry and commerce were also added. Marshals were instructed to take, “great care… in performing this work of enumeration, so as at once to secure completeness and avoid giving offense.”

While each census contains invaluable information, the 1850 census is a favorite for family historians and researchers. Considerable changes were made to the forms, and for the first time, detailed information about each and every individual (including names and ages) in a household was collected.

Information from the 1860 Census was used during the Civil War to calculate military strength and manufacturing abilities of both the Union and the Confederacy. Education was a new addition to the 1870 census with marshals indicating whether a person had attended school within the last year and if they “cannot read” and/or “cannot write.”

Native Americans received updated census questions by 1880. The U.S. government surveyed Indians, inquiring about their Indian name (with an English translation), tribe, language, time spent on a reservation, whether they were “full or half-blood,” and whether they wore “citizen’s dress.”

The 1890 census has a sad story. All censuses were stored on pine shelves in the basement of the Commerce Building in Washington D.C. In 1921, a fire destroyed a majority of the 1890 census records; less than 1 percent of the total census survived. Questions and accusations surrounding the fire were rampant. Sadly, on February 21, 1933, Congress authorized the destruction of the surviving 1890 census records. Ironically, President Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone for the National Archives building one day before Congress’s decision to destroy the 1890 census.

The censuses for 1900, 1910, and 1920 did not change greatly, although for the first time, a copy of the 1910 census was distributed to people living in large urban areas two days early so individuals could not only become familiar with the questions, but could have time to prepare their answers.

The effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s triggered the Census Bureau to add formal inquiries about each individual’s employment, migration, and income status. The first “long form” of the census was developed for the 1940 census, while the first computers were used in 1950 to tabulate figures up to one million times faster than by hand.

In 1960, the census was distributed for the first time via the U.S. Postal Service. Individuals were instructed to complete their information and either mail the form back to the Census Bureau or to hold onto the form until a marshal could pick it up.

Individuals of Hispanic or Spanish descent were not asked to identify themselves until 1970; however, this question was asked of only 5 percent of the population. Ten years later, in the 1980 census, the question was added to 100 percent of the surveys. Questions regarding underrepresentation and undercounting plagued the census during the 20th century. By the 1990 census, efforts were made to improve both the coverage and counting of the entirety of the US population. While there continued to be issues, improved technology assisted the Census Bureau to count better all individuals, including attempting to count the homeless population.

Ten years ago, the Census Bureau had an aggressive advertising campaign to encourage support of the 2000 census. The government spent more than $167 million to promote the 2000 census in 17 languages using a variety of media outlets, including television, radio, print, and the Internet. The Census Bureau reported that its campaign reached 99 percent of U.S.citizens and that the 2000 census slogan, "This is your future. Don't leave it blank" had been seen or heard an average of 50 times per person.

At the time the first census was taken in 1790, the population of America was 3,929,214 individuals. In 2000, the population had increased to 218,421,906. Interestingly, New York City has always ranked first in urban population since the first census was recorded in 1790.

The year 2010 marks the 23rd decennial census conducted in America. The Census Bureau, following its commitment to confidentiality, waits 72 years before releasing a census report to the public. On April 2, 2012, the 1940 census will be made available to the public. The U.S. census tells much more than the number of people in a community; it tells the history of a nation.

U.S. Census Bureau