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Census Takers Get Slant on Human Nature: April 4, 1930

August 26, 2008

[This blog entry is written for the 55th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy, to be posted at CreativeGene.blogspot.com next month.]

Since the topic for this next edition of the COG is “Show and Tell,” I thought I would present a newspaper article I located by chance today; not connected with my own research, but, I think, a thought-provoking read for genealogists and historical researchers everywhere. Those 1930 census records can be pretty useful whether you’re just starting in genealogy or are a seasoned researcher, but what’s the real story behind those microfilmed old pages? Here’s a Pennsylvania journalist’s take on the matter, written just about when the 15th U.S. Census first got underway–April 4th, 1930:

Census Takers Get Slant on Human Nature

Humor, Courage, Pathos, Tragedy–All These and More Encountered by Enumerators in Day’s Work

By Paul Glynn
Special INS Leased Wire

PITTSBURGH, Pa. April 4–To the earnest seeker after truth, or to the student of human nature, is unhesitatingly recommended a day in the company of the 1930 diogenes, a census taker engaged in the compilation of Uncle Sam’s fifteenth decennial census.

Humor–courage–pathos–tragedy. All these and more are met with as the gigantic job of finding the answers to “who, what, when, where and why” and countless other questions goes on.

For instance, the first question, “who is the head of the house,” brings forth a flood of variegated answers, some unconsciously and some consciously humorous.

“My husband thinks he is,” replied one young housewife with a smile. And another not so young, declared with finality, “I am!”

And then there is the question relating to the ownership of property. One answer to the query, “do you own your home,” was:

“We do, that is, we and the people who hold the mortage.”

And at what price would the owner sell?

“Why, as much as we could get, of course.”

Eager interest and an almost total absence of resentment is noted as the enumerator questions each resident. The queries are put in an impersonal, efficient manner, thus adding to the rapidity of the compilation.

Unemployment proved to be about the biggest obstacle in the way of the census takers to date. Several persons were reluctant to tell of the length of time they had been jobless; some refused outright to answer in the latter case the enumerator reported to his chief.

If all efforts by the chief, and then by the census supervisor, fail to bring an answer the case is referred to the United States marshal. Incidentally, the penalty for failure to answer is $100 or 60 days in jail. A fine of $500 or one year in jail or both may be imposed for making false statements to the enumerator. These penalties are prescribed by section nine of the census act and apply to all persons over 18 years old.

Two totally unrelated articles play a large part in the enumeration–Bibles and gas bills!

A great many wives have recourse to family Bibles, some in foreign text, when the question of their husband’s age comes up. In almost all cases the information wanted was noted in the thumbed pages of the worn testaments years ago–and then forgotten.

Last month’s gas bills are aiding uncle Sam in completing the census, especially in foreign colonies in the cities. Spelling of foreign names proved a problem until one resourceful enumerator called for the gas bill.

And there was the name, neatly typed and ready for copying.

_______________________________________________________________________

[Shamokin, Pennsylvania, Shamokin Dispatch, 4 Apr 1930, p. 1, col. 2, and p. 11, col. 1]

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