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Someday I’ll be funny again, I promise.

2012 May 11
by Jan

I’ve been working as a volunteer to help construct a name index for the 1940 census data that was just released by the US Census Bureau. With a name index, you’ll be able to search by a person’s name, rather than just paging through all of the records in the geographical area for the person you’re searching. This, I think, is a worthy goal, so I’ve been putting in a few hours here and there helping out as a volunteer.

Here’s what you do when you transcribe data for the census: You look at a page of records that was handwritten by some census worker back in 1940. This worker talked to the head of the house or the lady of the house (occasionally one and the same, although not terribly often, because this was 1940, after all) and found out a few bits of salient information. Who lived there. What their ages were. Their names. Their relationships to the head of household. Their birthplaces. Their marital status. He wrote all of this down in what I can only assume was his best penmanship, and then he went to the next house and he did it all again.

And I sit here in 2012, looking at his best penmanship — and this census worker got tired by the end of the day, I can tell you that, because sometimes his best penmanship was no more than a child’s scrawl — and trying to decipher it. I type it into little boxes and it gets sent off and processed. So that some far-flung descendants of these 1940 people can know who their ancestors were a little bit better.

There are stories in these scrawls. House number 175 has two women living in it, both in their 70s. Sisters. One listed W for “widow.” One S for “single.” House number 176 has no fewer than ten people under what I can only hope was its expansive roof; the head of household, his wife, their six children, and two lodgers. One has to wonder how those lodgers felt about sharing accommodation with six children under the age of 14. House 183 has a woman with a D for “divorced” and three small children. There must have been a man there at some point, with an M for “married.” Did he leave by choice? Did he go out for cigarettes one day and never come back? Did she kick him out? Is that D a D of triumph or a D of despair?

And there are so many Ws. W for Widow. It takes me less than a second to enter the code that signifies a gaping, ragged hole in someone’s life.

Sometimes when the census taker’s scrawl is particularly bad, I compare notes with the 1930 census records to get the correct spelling, and that sometimes is the hardest. I see that William Smith of Butler County had a young wife of 25 in 1930, and he’d just started a family, with two small children listed in the census. But in 1940, Mrs. Smith has been converted from an M into a W, and there are four children left behind, names and ages listed in cold rows of text. I can put these records up side by side on my computer screen. 1930, new father of two. 1940, gone. Remembered by his family, and by me, 70 years later, living in a future he couldn’t have even imagined.

I didn’t know Mr. Smith, though. Or Mrs. Gabbard or Mr. Robison or any of the other people I’ve looked up. They’re stories to me, apparitions from the past. Not really real.

But then I thought I’d look up my great-grandmother. She’s been gone for a long time now, but I thought it would be interesting to see her census record. Interesting to see what was recorded about her life. So I pulled it up, and there it was, 1930, Muskingum County. Husband still alive. Five children, including my grandmother, aged 5 at the time.

Seeing their names there, listed out in black and white, took my breath away.

It seemed so fundamentally wrong to me that I could look at this data, taken down from my great-grandmother in 1930 while she was trying to manage her family and her household and probably thinking of nothing more critical than making dinner for everyone that evening, and know. Know that all too soon she’d turn into a W, and raise her children alone. And that one of them would grow up and get married and have eight children of her own, and would love her children and her grandchildren more than anyone really has a right to be loved, and then she’d get old, because we all get old if we’re lucky enough, and she’d start to forget things, and then more things, and she’d start to recede from her own life, like a low tide rushing out to sea.

I wanted to put my hand on the screen and reach through to 1930. I wanted to see my grandmother, aged 5, and tell her that she’s going to have an amazing life, a beautiful life, a life worth living. I wanted to tell her that because it’s not right for me to know this and for her not to know, not in 1930 because it hasn’t happened yet and not in 2012 because she can’t remember. Her story is long and lovely and complicated, and it shouldn’t be possible to compress it down into a single line on a census form. It shouldn’t, but it is.

Every single record in the census is a story like that, full of love and loss and triumph and tragedy and joy and full also of the mundane brilliance of an everyday life, and sometimes when I am typing it in, five lives per minute give or take, I think that I cannot stand it.

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3 Responses
  1. Jeff Schowinsky permalink
    May 11, 2012

    Enjoyed reading this – I absolutely love going through old census records, and am also working on indexing the 1940 census, as well as using software from the LDS (of which I am most certainly not a member, but do utilize their expansive resources) to help index other data, most recently an Indiana state census from the 20′s which was remarkable for the number of women named Minnie and men named Homer. I also find myself wondering about the possible stories behind the odd situations you often seen on the pages. I definitely feel that urge you’re describing to somehow reconnect with ancestors that I never could have met, especially when they are persons who endured much more hardship and hard work than I ever will, and I feel very much indebted to them.

  2. Monica permalink
    May 11, 2012

    Wow, Jan, just wow.
    I’m dazzled by your writing, more and more each year.
    Somewhere there is the perfect place to publish this essay.

  3. Mike Baker permalink
    May 12, 2012

    You have stumbled on the stock and trade of the family historian. I routinely track families from one census to another realizing haw fragile a family line can be. A child or mother or father will disappear between census years and I’ll go “oh, she/he died.” My wife will ask me who and I will tell her realizing that it happened over a hundred years ago.

    I don’t think most of those people would be offended at the intrusion we make into their lives. In most cases I would think that they would be pleased that someone took note of their struggle, their joys and their sorrows. I know your grandmother would.

    Also, you are a strong woman and it does not take much investigation on your part to realize that you are a product of a long line of really strong independent women in all of your lines. Grandma Hemmer lost her husband and was thrust from financial security into abject poverty in the middle of the Depression. Grandma Baker’s family was totally destitute during the Depression, operated a bakery in her basement and personally worked out a deal with the local banker to avoid losing the family home. Her kids came within one day of totally running out of food. Grandma Baker raised eight kids, putting all through Catholic school even though the expense had to be nearly crippling. I talked to your Grandma Bednarczuk and she had similar stories to tell.

    All of your ancestors would be pleased that you remember them and proud of the strong independent woman you’ve become.

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