Article for MCHS newsletter, Vol. 23, No. 1, 2010
As I’m writing this, the 2010 Census form has arrived in people’s mailboxes throughout the nation and, hopefully, has been filled out and returned. The Census Bureau has lined up enumerators, who will soon hit the streets to count people who haven’t returned their census forms. The official day of the census is April 1, 2010, although it’s obviously impossible to count everyone who lives in the United States and its territories in one day, which is why the forms were delivered to homes in mid-March.
The local weekly newspaper, the Morrison County Record, has published numerous articles over the past few months on the importance of filling out the census. These articles have primarily focused on the critical role the census plays in determining the number of representatives states get in Congress and the amount of funding they receive from the federal government. Those reasons alone ought to make citizens eager to complete their census forms, but, alas, there are folks who still need convincing. (The fact that it is illegal not to fill out the census doesn’t seem to bother some people.)
Staff of the Morrison County Historical Society needed no convincing. In fact, as soon as we received our census forms, we pounced on them and had them back in the mail within a day or two of delivery. If we’d been given the opportunity, I’m sure we would have filled them out and handed them back while the mail carrier was still in the neighborhood.
The census is important to historians because it provides primary research material. In 72 years’ time, the data we submitted on the 2010 Census will be made available to the public, and our ancestors and other researchers will comb through facsimiles of these forms looking for information. It does not take a crystal ball to know this; we get requests for past census data at the Weyerhaeuser Museum on a weekly basis. Future researchers aren’t going to be any less curious about the past than we are now.
Because reading past census data can be difficult due to the handwriting of enumerators, MCHS staff members were careful to print clearly when completing the 2010 Census. We don’t want anyone puzzling over whether we’ve written a ‘j’ or an ‘i’.
The 2010 Census is short in comparison to earlier censuses. Ten questions in ten minutes was its selling point, yet each museum staff member had issues with particular questions on the census and would have preferred to provide more information than was allowed. Alice wanted a box to write in unlisted relationship options; Ann Marie wanted to fill in full middle names; and Mary wanted the race and cultural association questions reworked. It makes us wonder if historians are ever consulted when census forms are designed.
Past censuses, while certainly more intrusive by today’s standards, contain a wealth of interesting data that mirrors the concerns of their eras. The 1790 Census asked for the following:
“Name of family head; free white males of 16 years and up; free white males under 16; free white females; slaves; other free persons.” [U.S. Census Bureau, Factfinder for the Nation, June 2008]
American Indians were not counted in the 1790 Census or any census through 1850 because their treaty-formed lands were held in trust by the United States government and, as such, were not taxed. Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which established the census, states this clearly and also indicates that those who were not “free Persons” (i.e. slaves) were to count as three-fifths of a person for enumeration purposes:
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” [U.S. Constitution, Article 1 Section 2: http://www.usconstitution.net/xconst_A1Sec2.html]
The 1870 Census asked the following:
“Name; age; race; occupation; value of real estate; value of personal estate; birthplace; whether parents were foreign born; month of birth if born within the year; month of marriage if married within the year; school attendance; literacy; whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic; male citizens 21 and over, and number of such persons denied the right to vote for other than rebellion.” [U.S. Census Bureau, Factfinder for the Nation, June 2008]
The “rebellion” is a reference to the Civil War, which ran from 1861 through 1865. The terms “insane” and “idiotic” likely had a widely agreed upon meaning within the larger society at the time, but have since fallen out of favor as descriptors for mental illness and developmental disabilities.
Literacy, the basic ability to read and write, appeared on every census between 1840 and 1920, but transformed into a question about the “ability to speak English” on the 1930 Census. A couple of other items on the 1930 Census stand out, including a question on the tribal affiliation of Indians and “whether of full or mixed blood,” plus whether the household owned a “radio set.” This appears to have been the first census to ask specifics about American Indians. The radio set question aimed to determine how much technology had infiltrated homes. Can you imagine how households would respond to that sort of question today?
Because the personal data on the census is not released for 72 years, the latest enumeration for which we have access is the 1930 Census. All of those seemingly intrusive questions are benefiting today’s historians and genealogists, who are anxiously awaiting the release of the 1940 Census on April 1, 2012. We’ll have to wait until 2082 before our carefully completed 2010 Census forms see the public light of day again.
By Mary Warner
Copyright 2010, Morrison County Historical Society