Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Women's History Month 2018: Getting The Most From The Census

I know, I know. You already know everything about the decennial US federal census. I get it. The census is one of the first documents family historians are taught to use. But do you really know everything about the census?

I don't.

The other day another researcher asked me about an early 20th century enumeration and if a woman living at college would be enumerated at the school or at home. Automatically without thinking, I replied "she would be enumerated at the school." But then I thought about it. I turned to the enumeration instructions for that census and found out that I was wrong. In my haste to answer I neglected to refer back to the record's instructions.

Often we feel frustrated by what we find or don't find in the census and we don't think about how we could learn more about that census enumeration. For today's post, I'm going to encourage two things.

1. Read the census enumerator's instructions. I provide the link below to find these.
2. Consider reading the various census reports, government publications, and academic papers about the census to get a better understanding of and help interpreting what you find.

For example, consider some of these titles available on the digital library website,  Hathi Trust.
  • Occupational progress of women. An interpretation of census statistics of women in gainful occupations (1922)
  • The Family Status of Breadwinning Women. A Study of Materials in the Census Schedules of a Selected Locality (1922. Women in Passaic, New Jersey)
  • Women in the fruit-growing and canning industries in the State of Washington; a study of hours, wages, and conditions (1926)
  • Women in gainful occupations, 1870 to 1920. A study of the trend of recent changes in the numbers, occupational distribution, and family relationship of women reported in the census as following a gainful occupation (1929)
No, these do not list individual women but they take census statistics and interpret them which in can help you to understand what women were doing at a particular time and place.

Here are a few more academic paper examples found on the periodical index website JSTOR that examine what the census tells us (or fails to tell us) about women.

So what I'm saying is that if all you know about the census is where to find it, take some time to learn more. Read the enumerator's instructions. Seek out articles on websites like the FamilySearch Wiki. If you can't find her in the census, start thinking about some of the reasons why you might not be finding her and then seek to learn more about that census enumeration, including any problems with the digitized images  found on the website you are using (transcription errors, for example). Search that census on another website to see if that solves the problem. Then once you found her, truly seek to understand what the census says about her, even if it's not as much as you would like. 

US Census Bureau - Census Instructions

Social Explorer - Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses From 1790 to 2000

Hinckley, Kathleen W. Your Guide to the Federal Census for Genealogists, Researchers, and Family Historians. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2002.

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