In celebration of the release of the 1940 census this Heritage Hunting column over the next few weeks will concentrate on the genealogical values and pitfalls of using all census records.
Who talked to the census taker and how reliable is his information? As with so many census questions, the answer in both cases is "we don't know."
But the newly released 1940 census is different in this respect — the census taker had to record the name of the person giving information on each family. That will help tremendously in assessing the reliability of information eventually recorded.
But for pre-1940 censuses we don't know whether the enumerator talked to the head of household or a minor child in the family. It is even possible that a neighbor provided information.
In 1850 and 1860 census takers had to determine "whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper or convict."
The 1850 and 1860 instructions addressed the possibility that questions about these classifications "might give offence" and that the enumerators "had better refer to the county record and not make the inquiry of the family. With the county record and his own knowledge he can seldom err."
That statement seems quite incredible in view of all the errors genealogists have discovered in censuses. There also is no way to know whether the family gave the classification, the enumerator took the time to consult an unidentified county record, or he took it upon himself to identify someone in the household as "idiotic."
Instructions changed substantially by 1870 although they cautioned to "avoid giving offense." Where the two previous censuses left it to the enumerator's knowledge, this year the neighbors got into the classifying act. "The fact of idiocy will be better determined by the common consent of the neighborhood than by attempting to apply any scientific measure of the weakness of the mind or will." Woe be unto the poor man whose behavior might have been a little odd and whose neighbors didn't like him.
In 1880 the government stressed the importance of being polite to citizens. "Enumerators will do well not unnecessarily to obtrude the compulsory feature of the enumeration. It will be found in the vast majority of cases that the persons called upon to give information will do so without objection or delay."
Despite that, the government knew everyone wasn't going to be truthful. Enumerators were not required "to accept answers which he knows or has reason to believe are false."
When someone gave information that was "obviously erroneous" the instructions directed that the enumerator "should enter the facts as nearly as he can ascertain them by his own observation or by inquiry of credible persons."
Enumerators once again were directed in how to ascertain the mental status of citizens. "Fathers and mothers, especially the latter, are disposed to conceal, or even to deny, the existence of such infirmities on part of their children." In those cases the enumerators were to inquire of the neighbors — and here is the big deceit — "and it should be entered on the schedules equally as if obtained from the head of the family."
Apparently the government also expected citizens to lie about the value of their work products. The enumerator was told to report the "facts as he can nearly ascertain them" if he thought a citizen were giving false information.
Some enumerators were unable to resist adding a little gossip or personal observation — and we don't know which it is. For example, in 1880 one of the enumerators for Linn, Iowa, wrote "Lazy Cus" in the "occupation" column by Joel Bruner's name.
In Suffolk, Mass., Mary Leary's occupation was listed as "general servant" with the extra comment "husband in prison." Her husband was then listed as a "worthless drinker." Did Mary spill her woes to the census taker or did the neighbors gossip? Ahhh, the mysteries and unanswered questions we get from censuses.
Next week we'll look at how the census dealt with racial descriptors and how they reflected society's views.