Genealogy Basics: The 1940 Census

Census records.  Every genealogist uses them at one point or another.  They’re a great source of information as long as you keep in mind the possibility for errors to be found within the census records.

The United States has taken a federal census every 10 years since 1790.  The first census enumeration contained a limited amount of information.  Each following enumeration asked for a little more information each time.  Today we’re going to take a look at some information you can find in the census records.  Since you always want to start with the latest record available we’re going to start with the 1940 census and work our way back.

The 1940 census was enumerated in April.  Let’s look at a copy of a census record for my family.  I know my grandfather was living in Kansas City, Missouri when the 1940 census was enumerated.  Here’s a copy of the record, broken down into two parts so it’s readable:

First half of Edward Bell Conwell, Jr. family listing on the 1940 U.S. Census


Second half of Edward Bell Conwell, Jr. family listing on the 1940 U.S. Census

Columns #1 and #2 are the location information:

  • Street, avenue, road, etc.
  • House number (in cities and towns)

The house he’s listed at is still standing and I was fortunate to spend summers there growing up as a child.

Columns #3-#6 are household data:

  • Number of household in order of visitation
  • Home owned or rented
  • Value of home, if owned, or monthly rental, if rented
  • Whether the household is on a farm

It surprised me to discover that grandpa Edward’s house is listed as rented and he was paying $18 per month rental fee.  I was always under the impression that he was purchasing the house.  Add finding out when he purchased the home to my list of things to research.

Column #7 is the name of each person who’s residence was in the household at the time of enumeration and column #8 is the relationship of the person to the head of household.  Grandpa Edward is listed with his (first) wife, Ada J., and…SURPRISE!…mother-in-law, Stella (so if I didn’t already know Ada’s maiden name, I could have gotten it from this census).  Grandpa Edward didn’t talk much about his first wife, so I never knew that mother-in-law resided with them.

Edward Conwell listed with wife, Ada J., and mother-in-law, Stella Correll

Columns #9-#12 are the personal description fields:

  • Sex
  • Color or race
  • Age at last birthday
  • Marital status

Grandpa Edward and Ada were 35 and 36, white and married, while mother-in-law, Stella, was 58, white and widowed.

Columns #13 and #14 are questions regarding education:

  • Attended school or college since March 1, 1940
  • Highest grade of school completed

While Grandpa Edward completed high school, Ada completed seventh grade and Stella completed fourth grade.  None attended school during the year.

Column #15 is the person’s place of birth and column #16 is whether the person is a U.S. citizen or foreign born.  The whole family was born in Missouri and they were all U.S. citizens.  Columns #17-#20 are questions regarding the residence:

  • The city, town or village having 2,500 or more inhabitants or “R” for all other places
  • County
  • State or territory/foreign country
  • Whether the residence was a farm

I can’t say these columns were very informative since they were either left blank or filled in with the words “Same Place”.

Columns #21-#34 are all questions about employment status (for persons 14 years old and over):

  • Was this person at work for pay or profit in private or non-emergency government work during the week of March 24-30?
  • If not, was this person at work on, or assigned to, public emergency work (WPA, NYA, CCC, etc.) during the week of March 24-30?
  • If not at work or assigned to public emergency work were they seeking work?
  • If not at work or assigned to public emergency work did they have a job, business, etc.?
  • If the person answered no to any of the previous questions, indicate if they were engaged in housework, school, unable to work or other
  • If at private or non-emergency government work (from column #21), number of hours worked during the week of March 24-30, 1940
  • If seeking work or assigned to public emergency work (from column #22 or #23), duration of unemployment up to March 30, 1940 – in weeks

That last section is pretty large.  Sometimes the columns are fully completed, sometimes they’re not.  In this case, the columns are mostly filled in and I learned that Grandpa Edward was working for pay and Ada was keeping house.  Yet another surprise, Stella is listed as working for pay as well.  As we move down the census form we discover that Stella is working as a seamstress in the wholesale clothing industry and Grandpa Edward is working as a plumber in (of course) the plumbing industry.  Both Stella and Edward are listed as “PW” under class of worker, which meant they were a wage/salary worker in private work (a chart of symbols/explanatory notes for the 1940 census can be found here).

The final columns are questions regarding income:

  • Amount of money wages or salary received (including commissions)
  • Did this person receive income of $50 or more from sources other than money wages or salary?
  • Number of farm schedule

It’s interesting to see that Grandpa Edward was making just over $1300 per year in 1939.  Stella wasn’t doing too bad as a seamstress at just over $575 per year.  They were not included on a farm schedule.

The 1940 census contains a wealth of information for genealogists.  There are several ways to access the census records, from using (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.

Have you made any surprising discoveries about your ancestors from the 1940 census?  What piece of information are you glad the government included on this census?

Next up, what’s on the 1930 census?

About Danni 116 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.