OK, I’m probably the 3,000th amateur genealogist-slash-pop music geek to use that post title in the past week. Sorry ’bout that.
I spend most weeks cobbling together images of the past from whatever materials I can find — a calendar entry here; a family photo there; a snatch of personal reminiscence; maybe a YouTube video or an old newspaper story if they’re relevant.
But once in a while I get served up a big bright shining detailed picture of how things were.
When that happens, I just stand back and try to take it all down.
I got one of those pictures last week, when the National Archives released digitized images from the 1940 U.S. Census. It’s not every day you get access to a door-to-door, hand-gathered portrait of America, taken in the minutest possible detail.
Of course, the 1940 Census predates by many years the period I usually cover on this blog — January 1961 to December 1975, the years for which we have my grandpa’s old calendars.
But, format and strict definitions be damned. There was no way I wasn’t looking up my family in those records.
It’s not easy, not yet anyway. The information is sorted solely by census enumeration districts, and there might be dozens of those in any good-sized community. Unless you know your ancestors’ address — which can be used to find their census district — you’re best off waiting until a name-searchable database is built.
Thankfully, my dad knew the address of the apartment my grandpa and my great-grandmother shared back in that time period.
And in Census Enumeration District 22-113 within the city of Springfield, Massachusetts … on page 29 of 46 … all at once was I, several stories high, finding them on the street where they lived.
Some of what the 1940 Census told me, I already knew.
For instance, I knew my great-grandma had long since been widowed, and was living with my grandpa. I am not sure either of them expected the arrangement to last through the early 1990s.
(A note on the form indicates that my great-grandma supplied the census takers with their information. Perhaps they came while my grandpa was at work.)
I also knew my grandparents weren’t married until the following year. If I had to guess, I’d guess they were seeing each other in April 1940 but not yet engaged. Social mores being what they were, I doubt either of them gave a single thought to living together before the wedding.
Other tidbits, new to me, fill in some details of my grandpa’s life when he was (gack) almost 10 years younger than I am now:
- He worked as a draftsman at a company that made candy-wrapping machines. (Actually, I did sorta know that — it’s listed on his resume, as included in this earlier blog post.)
- It was a settled job. Not only had he worked a full 40 hours the week before the census-taker came to call, he had been on the job a full 52 weeks in 1939.
- He made $1,410 in 1939, if the figure in column 32 is correct. That seems remarkably low to me, and I can’t find a good salary inflation calculator to check it.
- But life was more affordable then: He spent $28 per month on rent. (I do not believe he owned a car in those days, either.)
- My grandpa and great-grandma had lived at the same address for at least the previous five years.
- My great-grandma is listed as a home-based music teacher, a pursuit she would continue until the early 1970s. Yet, despite working 20 hours a week, she reported earning no income the previous year. Maybe she earned a pittance from teaching. Or, maybe she figured the census man wasn’t the taxman, and didn’t need a detailed financial report.
We also learn some things about the community surrounding my grandpa and great-grandma:
- My grandpa’s salary was roughly in the midrange of his neighborhood — higher than some, lower than some.
- There were more renters than owners on Rochelle Street, but both groups were represented.
- There were no people of color living on that stretch of the street, nor any divorce(e)s.
- His neighbors on Rochelle Street included a traveling salesman for the Raybestos brake-lining company; a city schoolteacher; a meat-cutter; a laborer for the city Streets Department; and two other men employed at what was presumably the same candy machine factory.
- Only two of the people listed on the page are described as looking for work, a suggestion that perhaps economic times were improving. (No one on the page is listed as performing “emergency work” for federal agencies like the WPA or CCC, either.)
Finally, I can’t help but note the different, more self-consciously clear handwriting in which the last name “BLUMENAU” is recorded, as compared to the writing used on the rest of the page. Maybe they were trying to be sure it was legible for history. Thoughtful of them.
At some point I’ll see if I can’t find my grandma, who was living elsewhere in Springfield in 1940 with her sister and her sister’s husband.
For now I’ll just enjoy the feeling of diving into the huge pool of data and actually finding the household I was looking for.
Not to mention the feeling that maybe in 2052, if the world isn’t irreparably torqued by then, some descendent of mine might look for me in the same way in the 1980 Census, and might feel a similar rush of accomplishment when they finally track me down.
(Here’s a hint, kid: State of New York, county of Monroe, town of Penfield. Look on Timberbrook Lane. Just trying to save you some time.)