The 1940 Census...A Window Back in Time

Participating as an indexer on the 1940 census has led me to reflect on several things that I'd like to share with my fellow Patch readers.

I have loved working on my family history research for many years now, but recently have been involved in a different way.  The 1940 census was just released on April 2.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, is one of the major groups that have taken on the task of indexing the census into a searchable database.  As a member of the LDS church, I have been participating in the indexing project since the release and to date I have indexed nearly 6,700 names.  There are a few interesting observations I’ve made looking back 72 years.

I have chosen to index batches of the Illinois census, as that is where I grew up.  Each batch consists of 40 individuals.  I have indexed counties all across Illinois.  It has given me an interesting view of a wide cross-section of residents in the state of Illinois at the time.

In 1940 the country was still in a depression.  The decade of the ‘30’s had seen unemployment as high as 23.6% in 1932 and in 1940 unemployment was still 14.6%.   One observation I have made is the high number of households that still had lodgers living with them.  Families took in lodgers as a means to bring in extra income.  Often the head of household was the wife, because the husband was in another location, most likely to obtain employment.  To me, this demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice temporary personal comfort to ensure longer personal and family stability.

Another similar observation is the number of households that had extended family living with them.  Most frequently it seemed to be a parent, often widowed, but also included siblings, nieces and nephews.  My husband and I have considered the possibility of my own mother coming to live with us should the need arise.  My mother is close to wanting to retire and will have to live on a very tight income.  I believe it is the family’s responsibility to give as much aide as we can, but our own budget is tight and having my mother move in with us could actually be beneficial to her and us.  In 1940 the Social Security program was in its’ infancy.  It was necessary for families to take care of their own, and they did so willingly.  I know my own grandparents left Illinois for a time to go to Iowa and help out my great grandparents.  Today it seems to be an attitude that some government program has to be there to take care of people.

I have also been able to observe that in 1940 we still had a large population of immigrants and their children that were the first generation to be born in America.  While challenging to index some of the names from the various countries, it is another reminder to me of the personal sacrifices that these parents were willing to make for the benefit of their children.  The American culture became an assimilation of many cultures and I believe is all the richer because of it.

I have also thought a lot about the young men who were finishing up high school or starting a college education, or struggling to work that by 1942 would be filling out their draft registration for WWII.  This generation knew more sacrifice than I have ever known.  They are called “The Greatest Generation” for a reason.

Of all the counties that I have indexed, I have yet to get any batches from Lake County where my family was from.  I am very much looking forward to when the indexing is complete and the census will become searchable.  Some states are already complete.  I can hardly wait to be able to trace my own family lines and add another piece of information to the timeline I have already created for members in my family.  This will be the first census that my Dad will be on, as he was born in December of 1939.  I am excited to be able to see his name as an infant of a few months.

The original purpose of the census is of course to collect data on the population for government purposes and is important to the process of sending elected officials to represent the people in our government bodies.  In my family history research, I have used census records all the way back to 1820.  The records have been invaluable to me as I trace my tree along every branch possible.  I have built a tree whose branches include over 18,000 people.  They are not all direct relations to me, but I enjoy seeing the way people connect, so my branches go pretty wide.

I believe it is important that we stay connected to our past.  Being able to recognize the work and sacrifice of those that came before me reminds me to always be grateful for the conveniences of my day that are only possible because of things done by my parents’ and grandparents’ generations.  It also makes me think of what I want my grandchildren to be able to look back at when they are in my position.  Not that I would want to give up the progress we have made in many areas, but I think my parents and grandparents understood the simple things in life that brought the most meaning and I don’t ever want to forget the lessons I have learned from them. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

MFalls Girl June 26, 2012 at 12:10 PM
I, too, volunteered to index the 1940 index plus other records from LDS. If anyone has any free time it is very easy and would be a great winter volunteer project.
Bryant Divelbiss June 26, 2012 at 11:48 PM
Great Job Michele, interesting insight. Too bad my writing skills are not this good.


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