By Jutta Seibert.
On Friday, April 1, the National Archives released the 1950 census in digital format. Confused? Didn’t the Census Bureau just release data from the 2020 data? Aren’t 1950 census data yesterday’s news?
Let’s take a closer look: Article I, Section 2 of the US Constitution mandates a population count every ten years to determine the number of representatives and direct taxes for each state in the Union. Thus, we have a snapshot of the US population once a decade, starting in 1790. Population counts are released as soon as possible after the decennial enumeration. The summary data are published by the Census Bureau. However, names, addresses, and data units too small to preserve anonymity are not part of the publicly available data. The so-called “72-year rule” protects individual census answers for 72 years.
Last week, on April 1, 2022, 1950 census records passed the 72-year threshold and entered into the public domain.
In principle, enumerating the population to determine equitable representation is a straightforward mandate, but the census, its questionnaires, and its results have been disputed again and again. Today’s census forms are noticeably different from the 1950 census form and bear little resemblance to the forms used in 1790. Enumerating the population is a monumental and expensive undertaking, and Congress has taken advantage of its census mandate to learn more about the nation. Questions were added and dropped as they became obsolete. For example, the 1930 census captured the presence of radio sets in a household, the age at first marriage, languages spoken in a home, and English language proficiency.
Other census questions were and remain contentious, such as questions about personal wealth, citizenship, and race. The 2020 census did not include a citizenship question, despite pressure by the Trump administration, but it was a standard question for many years and part of the 1950 questionnaire. Answers to questions probing individual estates were generally considered unreliable and have repeatedly been changed. Today, the home ownership questions are the last reminders of Congress’ interest in the financial well-being of the general population.
The census question probing the racial makeup of the nation has persisted throughout the Census’ history with few changes apart from the addition of “racial” categories. For the first time, the 2020 census asked people of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin to fill in their ethnic as well as racial identity. In future years the question about sex may be disputed, and other options may be added as our understanding of this category evolves. For now, only the “male” and “female” categories are recognized answers.
Can we at least be sure that everyone is counted, even if we don’t agree how individuals should be counted? People have been left out of the census for many reasons. For example, American Indians were not counted until 1860 and even then, only those American Indians who had “renounced tribal rules” were enumerated. The 1850 and 1860 censuses enumerate only “free” people. The enslaved population was enumerated in separate slave schedules under the names of their enslavers. They remain to this day nameless in the census records. Other reasons for counting errors include lack of trust in the government and underpaid enumerators.
Despite their many flaws and shortcomings, census records offer unique insights into the composition of the US population and are popular among family historians who mostly access them through genealogical databases, such as Ancestry. The Villanova community has free access to Ancestry Library through Falvey Library. Alas, the complete 1950 census records will not be available in Ancestry Library until later this summer as indexing and correcting computer-generated data remains a time-consuming process. For those who cannot wait, there are the records just released by the National Archives. The digital copies of the microfilmed records offer interesting research opportunities.
Start with your grandparents or great grandparents. Was somebody in your family a residential student at Villanova College? Then take a look at the records of tract D-97, 23-216, Radnor Township, Delaware County, which have just been released. They record the resident population of the College and the Augustinian Monastery as enumerated on April 4, 1950. The College had considerably expanded after the end of the second World War, thanks to the GI bill, and counted more than 800 residential students and many more non-residential students who were counted at their place of residence. The residential student population was all male and all white, except for two Chinese students. While only a comparatively small number of foreign students were enrolled in those years, many of them hailed from Latin America and may have identified as Mexican, Chicano, Puerto Rican, or Cuban on the most recent census form. A small number of female students were enrolled at the College, but none of them lived on campus until the College of Nursing became an autonomous unit in 1953. Try to find Father Daniel Falvey, OSA, after whom the Library was named and who served as the College Librarian in 1950 among the residents of the College. Can you tell us where and when he was born? It’s on the record! Let us know if you would like to learn more about the census.
- AncestryLibrary (ProQuest)
Provides access to a range of databases with biographical information. Includes census data, vital records, directories, voter lists, immigration records, images, and more.
- 1950 Census Website (National Archives)
- 1950 Census Summary Data Report (Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1951, US Census Bureau)
- United States Census Explorer (US Census Bureau)
- 2020 Census Results (US Census Bureau)
- 2020 Census Questionnaire (US Census Bureau)
Jutta Seibert is Director of Research Services & Scholarly Engagement at Falvey Memorial Library.