1950 Census: Availability Hinges on Volunteers

Genealogists and family researchers have been anxiously awaiting the release of the 1950 census. And despite the challenges of preparing the records for release in the middle of a pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau is still projecting the unindexed records will be made available on schedule.

While you wait, this is an opportunity to learn more about what makes the 1950 census unique, including who was included, how participation was encouraged, what form was used, the types of questions asked, and how and when the records will be released. Then we’ll explain the challenge of indexing all that data and how volunteers, like you, can help.

Constitutional Requirement

The Enumeration Clause in the Constitution Article I, Section 2, Clause 3, requires only that the decennial (recurring every 10 years) census be an accurate count of persons. The word “enumeration” simply refers to the counting process. Enumerator means a census taker.

While not a Constitutional requirement, the census has evolved over time and it now collects a variety of demographic, agricultural, and economic data determined important for allocation of federal funding.  

Individuals Counted

1950 Census Taker (photo credit, National Archives)

The 1950 census encompassed the continental United States, the territories of Alaska (statehood granted Jan. 3, 1959)  and Hawaii (statehood granted Aug. 21, 1959), American Samoa, the Canal Zone, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands of the United States, and some of the smaller island territories.

Americans abroad were enumerated for the first time in 1950. Provisions were made to count members of the armed forces, crews of vessels, and employees of the United States government living in foreign countries, along with any members of their families also abroad.

Slogan

Slogans and advertising campaigns have rallied the country to complete the census over the last century. The messages speak to an individual’s opportunity to contribute to the results that determine each state’s number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and inform how billions of federal funding are distributed to communities for critical programs and services, such as public roads. In 1950, the slogan was “Helping the Census Helps Uncle Sam. Make Sure You Count in America’s Future.”

1950 Schedule

In 1830, Congress authorized use of a uniform, U.S. Government printed census “schedule,” commonly referred to as the census questionnaire or form. 

Prior to enactment of this law, between 1790 (the first Census) and 1820, U.S. Marshals conducted the census. They were responsible for supplying their own paper and writing headings on it related to the census questions. The census takers only asked a handful of demographic questions, and processing and tabulating questionnaires occurred at a local level. 

Form P1, 1950 CENSUS OF POPULATION AND HOUSING. This form consisted of two pages, one that collected detailed information regarding housing and the other about population.      

In addition to population and housing data, in 1950 a separate survey collected information about residential financing. It was a controversial and separate operation, which collected information on a sample basis from owners of owner-occupied and rental properties and mortgage lenders. Many people refused to answer these questions due to the sensitive nature of the topic. 

Questions Asked

In 1950, all Census participants were asked 14 questions, which was fewer than the number of questions in 1940. Persons 14 years of age and over answered six other questions. A 5 percent sample of all those surveyed were asked 22 supplemental questions. 

The first 14 questions were: 

  1. Name of street, avenue or road where the household is located
  2. Home or apartment number
  3. Serial number of dwelling unit
  4. Is this house on a farm (or ranch)?
  5. If no, is this house on a place of three or more acres?
  6. Corresponding agriculture questionnaire number
  7. Name
  8. Relationship to head
  9. Race
  10. Sex
  11. How old was this person on his last birthday?
  12. Is this person now married, widowed, divorced, separated, or never married? Enumerators were to enter “Mar” for married, “Wd” for widowed, “D” for divorced, “Sep” for separated, or “Nev” for never married
  13. What State or country was the person born in?
  14. If foreign born, is the person naturalized?

For persons 14 years of age and over, the additional questions asked were:

  1. What was this person doing most of last week – working, keeping house, or something else? Enumerators were to record “Wk” for working, “H” for keeping house, “U” for unable to work, or “Ot” for other
  2. If the person was “keeping house” or “something else” in question 15, did the person do any work at all last week, not counting work around the house? (Including work-for-pay, in his own business, working on a farm or unpaid family work)
  3. If the person answered “no” to question 16, was he looking for work?
  4. If the person answered “no” to question 17, even if he didn’t work last week, does he have a job or business?
  5. If the person was working, how many hours did he or she work in the last week? What kind of work does the person do? What kind of business or industry is the person in? Class of worker the person is

Scheduled Release

The National Archives releases the census to the public 72 years after the day it was taken. In 1950, the Census Day was April 1. Therefore, the census will be released to the public on Friday, April 1, 2022.  

When the records are released, they will be accessible via the National Archives’ website. However, the records are not expected to be indexed by name yet, nor will they for several months to follow. That means the only way to initially search the 1950 census will be by Enumeration District, which represents a geographical area that is covered by a single census taker. You will also need to know where your ancestors lived in 1950 to find them. 

Searching census records this way is cumbersome at best, but if you want to give it a try you will need to use the National Archives’ 1950 Enumeration District map collection as an aid or utilize Dr. Stephen Morse’s and Dr. Joel Weintraub’s free Unified Census ED Finder. 

Most family researchers prefer to search the census by name. The time it will take to index the census by name for use on websites such as FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com all depends on how many volunteers dedicate their time to the effort. It’s not a small undertaking, the estimated population in the U.S. in 1950 was slightly more than 150 million. 

To put the indexing project into perspective, in 2012, FamilySearch began indexing the 1940 census. More than 163,000 volunteers and several genealogical organizations contributed their time to the effort, and the census, excluding Puerto Rico, was indexed in 4 months. 

Volunters Needed

Indexing is an incredibly important, selfless act of service that can benefit many. Indexing projects are underway all the time at the National Archives and for organizations such as FamilySearch.

As a volunteer indexer, you decide how many records you want to index. It all adds up, even if you index just five records at a sitting. Your indexing adds to everyone else’s work and before you know it, an entire census can be indexed. 

Of course, the 1950 Census indexing project won’t start until 2022, but in the meantime, if you want to contribute as a volunteer citizen archivist visit FamilySearch.org or National Archives.

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