A Personal Look at the 1950 Census

Because we need a break from plague and murder. Recently, the U.S. Census released scans of the 1950 Census data collection forms. All of them–it’s a lot! So I decided to see if I could find my father’s father (“Mad Biologist” isn’t a very last common name!). While I was able to find a couple of cousins, such as my father’s uncle, easily, finding his family was difficult. I had to figure out where they lived in 1950–Brooklyn, NYC–and then comb through dozens and dozens (and dozens…) of pages.

The reason it’s hard for machine learning to read the documents is, being 1950, they’re all handwritten, and Census workers’ cursive handwriting in 1950 was… diverse, thus my labor-intensive approach. That, however, did give me an opportunity to learn a lot about his old neighborhood. I’m not going to show the actual record because that would expose my TOP SEKRIT! identity, but a few things were really interesting.

First, when you look at the individual sheets, you realize just how labor intensive this undertaking must have been–every household was contacted in person: we used to be able to mobilize for large scale events, even in peacetime.

Second, the amount of segregation in 1950 was astonishing. I’m not talking about black-white segregation (which was obvious unfortunately), but by ethnicity. In one building, everyone would be Jewish. Not, as in, ‘there are a lot of Jews in this building’–every single household was Jewish* (note: I’m Jewish). A block away, everyone was Italian. Or Irish. Or non-Jewish Eastern European. It is amazing in its near totality.

Third, the detailed questions were interesting:

  1. were you living in the same residence a year ago?
  2. did you live on a farm a year ago?

    were you living in the same county a year ago?

    where did you live a year ago?

    where were your parents born (U.S. or other country)?

    highest grade of school attended

    have they attended school in the last month?

    if looking for work, for how many weeks?

    how many weeks were you employed last year?/li>

    how much did you earn in wages or salary last year?

    how much money did you receive in interest, dividends, rents, or pensions last year?

    if a household head, how much income was generated by other household members (wages & other income)?

    (if male), did he serve in the armed force, including either World War I or World War II?

Very old school.

Fourth, the way they decided to do in depth data collection is simple: every fifth recorded person was asked the preceding questions. You’ll be interested to know that my aunt–age 5, at the time–was not a World War I veteran. She also had zero income and worked no hours in that week either. She had, though, successfully graduated kindergarten!

Finally, on a more serious note, the economic diversity at the microscale was much broader than we typically see today. On my father’s building floor, these were the following occupations: food industry salesman, clothing salesman, ‘notion jobber’ (essentially a clothing buyer), tinsmith, garage attendant, partner in a C.P.A. firm, and comptroller. Some were owners, but some were wage employees. Pretty diverse economically!

So if you had family here in the U.S. in 1950, I suggest digging into the data. It’s really fascinating. And, despite what some reactionaries might want to believe, it’s really not 1950 anymore…

*It’s possible some weren’t, but every last name that I read, I’ve only seen among Jews in the U.S. By the way, I’m Jewish, so calm down–I can write this.

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