Genealogy Basics: The 1920 Census

Today we’re continuing the discussion on census records and looking at the 1920 census.  The 1920 census was enumerated beginning 1 January 1920.  Let’s look at the actual census record to see what information can be extracted from this census.  Using my great-grandpa Edward’s census listing, let’s look at what can be discovered about his family:


Edward Bell Conwell, Sr. family listing on the 1920 U.S. Census

Edward B. Conwell, Sr. is listed here with his wife, Zella, and children Edward B., Milford, Mildred and Frank.  Breaking the census listing down into three parts will help us view the information a little easier:


Section #1 of Edward Bell Conwell, Sr. family listing on the 1920 U.S. Census

Columns #1-#4 contain information on the abode:

  • Street of person’s abode
  • House number or farm
  • Number of dwelling house in order of visitation by enumerator
  • Number of family in order of visitation by enumerator

I see that Edward and his family are still living on Indiana (the street name got partially cut off but it does say Indiana), the street they were living on in 1930 when the census was taken, but they’ve changed house numbers.  So this is another address that I can go look up to see if the house is still standing.  Add that to my list of genealogy things to do.

Column #5 is the name of each person whose place of abode on January 1, 1920, was in this family (surname first, then first name and middle initial if there is one) and column #6 is the relationship of the person to the head of the family:

  • Conwell, Edward B. – head
  • Conwell, Zella – wife
  • Conwell, Edward B. – son
  • Conwell, Milford – son
  • Conwell, Mildred – daughter
  • Conwell, Frank – son

Columns #7-#8 are “tenure” data:

  • Home owned or rented
  • If owned, free or mortgaged

From this we can see that Edward Sr. was renting the home they were in.

Columns #9-#12 are personal description data

  • Sex
  • Color or race
  • Age at last birthday
  • Single, married, widowed or divorced

This is pretty self-explanatory information.  Great information to get off this census is the age at last birthday and their marital status.

Columns #13-#15 are citizenship information:

  • Year of immigration to the United States
  • Naturalized or alien
  • If naturalized, year of naturalization

Again, by this time all my family was U.S. born so none of these columns apply.

Moving on to part #2 of the census record:


Section #2 of Edward Bell Conwell, Sr. family listing on the 1920 U.S. Census

Columns #16-#18 are education information:

  • Attended school since 9/11/1919
  • Whether able to read
  • Whether able to write

The three youngest children all attended school in 1919.  Grandpa Edward was 15 at the time this census was taken and it seems was not attending school.  I happen to know from verbal history that, like a lot of older children during this time, he was working to help support the family.

Columns #19-#24 are nativity and mother tongue information:

  • Place of birth (of person)
  • Mother tongue (of person)
  • Place of birth (of father)
  • Mother tongue (of father)
  • Place of birth (of mother)
  • Mother tongue (of mother)

This is also really great information because, if I didn’t already have places of birth for each person and their parents, this census provides it.  Keep in mind this information is only as good as (1) the person giving the information and (2) the person writing the information down.  But it gives you a clue where to look.

This census enumerator has taken the time to list each person’s birth location and the birth locations of their parents (as provided by the person providing the census information).  As you can see, everyone was U.S. born and most were born in the Midwest in either Kansas, Missouri, Indiana, Illinois or Ohio.  It seems, though, that the enumerator didn’t complete all the boxes for the mother tongue information.  It would be nice if the enumerator was consistent and filled in all the boxes available but that obviously doesn’t always happen.

Column #25 is whether the person is able to speak English or not.  The entire family was able to speak English.

Moving on to part #3 of the record:


Section #3 of Edward Bell Conwell, Sr. family listing on the 1920 U.S. Census

Columns #26-#28 are occupation information:

  • Trade, profession, or particular kind of work done as spinner, salesman, laborer, etc.
  • Industry, business, or establishment which at work, as cotton mill, dry goods store, farm. etc.
  • Employer, salary worker, wage worker or working on his own account

From this we can see that Edward Sr. was working as a laborer and Edward Jr. was listed as an office boy in a packing house, but column #28 is somewhat confusing.  According to the census instructions I located here, the codes for this column were either Em for employer, W for a salary or wage worker and OA for a gainful worker that is neither an employer nor a salary or wage worker.  Someone who had no occupation was supposed to have that column left blank.  But the enumerator has listed both Edwards as simply “E”.  Knowing that Grandpa Edward was always an employee and never an employer and seeing that both Edwards were listed as currently working, process of elimination dictates that they were both either salary or wage worker (most likely wage workers) and should have been listed with a “W” in that column.

Column #29 is the number of farm schedule, which doesn’t apply to this household.

The 1920 census can contain some great information for genealogists.  There are several ways to access the census records, from using Ancestry.com (if you don’t have a paid subscription to Ancestry, check out your local library or Family History Center for free usage opportunities) for indexed images to using some of the non-indexed sites and paging thru the census record pages one by one.  I prefer the indexed version, however, going through page by page can wield treasures of its own.  Additional family members have been discovered in this manner and it can also give you a picture of who was living around your ancestor.

Next week: the 1910 census!  And be sure to check back later this week for a very special edition of Around the Town Thursday!  I’ve got a special treat in store 🙂

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About Danni 111 Articles
Join me on my genealogical journey where I hope my experiences, discoveries, mistakes and successes will help you on your journey. We'll throw in some bits of history for a little flavor and that is what makes up Talking Box Genealogy.

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