After 72-year wait, 1940 U.S. Census records released online
A "Test Census" taker prepared for the 1940 door-to-door Census in South Bend, Indiana, in 1939.
April 2nd, 2012
02:35 PM ET

After 72-year wait, 1940 U.S. Census records released online

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN

(CNN) - Personal, historic details of more than 132 million people were released online through the 1940 Census Monday, providing the public with free access to a slice of American history.

The National Archives and Records Administration unlocked the records after a mandatory 72-year waiting period and released more than 3.8 million digital images in collaboration with Archives.com.

Earlier Census records were made available to the public, but not all of them are searchable online free of charge, said Megan Smolenyak, family history advisor at Archives.com. Monday's release marks the first time researchers, genealogists and history hunters can find detailed records online in one place for free.

The 1940 Census was conducted as the Great Depression was winding down and before the country’s entry into World War II, reflecting the economic tumult of the era and the New Deal recovery program of the 1930s.

See more LIFE magazine photos of 'test' Census takers preparing for 1940

"The 1940 set is really special because of the time it captures, which was so pivotal in American history," Smolenyak said. "It's not only for people seeking information about their families; for people 72 and older it provides a snapshot into their early lives."

In an era when households consisted of multiple generations of families, the records include names, ages and occupations of everyone in the home, she said. The 1940 Census also marked the first time people were asked detailed questions about their homes and whether they had a radio, “flush toilets,” electricity or running water.

Start your search

For now, the site is not searchable by names. Starting a search requires an approximate address from April 1, 1940, to find the right “enumeration district,” or geographic area covered by a census taker. (Address sources could include birth, marriage and death certificates, employment records, scrapbooks, Social Security application information or the 1930 census.)

The enumeration district can then be plugged that into a search engine to browse Census records from that area.

In an era before mail-order surveys and online questionnaires, census workers went door-to-door to collect information. Questions new to the census included residence five years earlier, income, highest level of school completed and detailed questions on unemployment history, meant to measure the effects of the Great Depression.

The records reveal a snapshot of history.

Occupations listed as examples for the occupation question included frame spinner, salesman, laborer, rivet heater and music teacher. Examples of industries included cotton mill, retail grocery, farm, shipyard and public school. The 1940 Census counted 5.1 million farmers, compared with 613,000 farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers tallied in the 2010 American Community Survey.

In 1940, a supplementary census asked veterans if they served in the World War, Spanish-American War, Philippine Insurrection or Boxer Rebellion. The supplemental schedule also asked about participation in two national insurance plans: Social Security and Railroad Retirement.

Monday's release shows more details about the 1940 Census data, which was already searchable online, and shows how much the country's population and demographics have changed.

The country's population grew from 132 million in 1940 to about 308 million in 2010. New York was the most populous state in 1940 with 13.5 million people; during the most recent census in 2010, California earned the top spot, with 37.3 million people. New York City, the country's most populous city, had 7.3 million people in 1940, compared with 8.2 million people today.

The 1940 Census also found that 89.8%  of the population was white and 9.8% was "Negro." Other options for race included Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Hindu and Korean - the 1940 Census didn't collect information on the Hispanic population.

The 2010 Census found that 72.4% and 12.6% of the U.S. population was single-race white and black, respectively, and that 4.8% were Asian, 0.9% were American Indian or Alaska Native and 2.9% were two or more races. In 2010, 16.3% of the population identified as Hispanic, which can be any race.

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soundoff (39 Responses)
  1. Levoneh Rodiguezk

    Definitely imagine that that you said. Your favorite reason seemed to be at the internet the easiest thing to take note of. I say to you, I certainly get irked even as folks consider worries that they just do not know about. You controlled to hit the nail upon the highest and also outlined out the entire thing with no need side effect , other folks could take a signal. Will likely be again to get more. Thank you

    August 6, 2012 at 7:52 am | Report abuse |
  2. Dawn Cox

    How can I access census records?

    April 30, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Report abuse |
  3. JoeSmitters

    I like that pic for some reason.:)

    April 6, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  4. luckyponytoo

    What the government has released is the images, so if you are looking for your family, be prepared to leaf through them manually to find them. There are several genealogy organizations working to create digital indexes so that people will be able to search for people via computer. One is Family Search, where any volunteer with an interest in genealogy can help create the index. I transcribed a couple of pages of the Delaware census last night. I can't wait until they have some states available that I have more interest in. Best of all, this index will be available FREE to the public, along with the images, once the index is complete, unlike most other genealogy sites such as Ancestry. There are projects for transcribing dozens of other types of records of genealogical value as well if you get bored with the Census. 🙂

    April 3, 2012 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
  5. AEJ

    I was born in 1940. I hope this census can tell me what my parents were doing
    before they disappeared into the abyss of WW II...

    April 3, 2012 at 10:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Lini

      sdmom22You think you're telling me soitmheng I don't know? But it's not about what was or is, it's about what's right. I am simply happy that my children can be counted for what they are and that is of mixed race heritage. If you think I'm worried about how the world sees them, guess again. They are proud young ladies. Proud of being Black and Hispanic. If asked, you think she doesn't say she's Black? LOL!

      August 3, 2012 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
  6. ResearchR

    Took less than an hour to find the my son's great grandparents. Original hand writing is much more personal than a list made up by some editor. Of course you have to start by KNOWING something about you family. I will find the rest with no problem.

    April 3, 2012 at 8:31 am | Report abuse |
  7. Line one...

    Seen on the 1st line of a job application for "Sanitation Engineer".

    April 3, 2012 at 5:25 am | Report abuse |
  8. Jean E. Ologist

    If you think you're just gonna' pop in there and find what you want, guess again. It's a real ordeal... not surprising since the government is running the show.

    April 3, 2012 at 5:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Sybaris

      Uh, when the census was taken there was no such thing as a laptop or digitized data of the caliber we have now. These records will soon be digitized and you can move on to whine about something else.

      April 3, 2012 at 8:26 am | Report abuse |
  9. DJ

    This census information offers a wonderful opportunity to explore 1940's America. As a student of history, I believe
    that this decade was perhaps the most important decade of the 20th century because winning WW11 changed
    the course of the USA on a global basis. The people of this census report are the very ones who struggled for and won the freedom that we all enjoy today. Without their efforts our present day life would be totally different.
    I want to learn more about them. This census report is terrific.

    April 3, 2012 at 4:20 am | Report abuse |
    • steve

      well said. if it were not for the people of that time, germany would have taken over.

      April 3, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  10. DJ

    Dapper Dan says that the 40's were a more simple time, unlike our modern hetic lives. I'm sure people of that era might disagree with you Dan. An almost 10 year Great Depression period was still winding down only to be replaced by the turmoil of WW11. They aren't called the "Greratest Generation" for nothing.

    April 3, 2012 at 3:51 am | Report abuse |
  11. Cookie

    Ancestry just got the Census record last night. I don't know in what form they came, but I do know that in past Census Records they had to spend many man hours translating the records. They will all, as soon as possible, be put in a name search form. You just have to give them a little time for that.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Dapper Dan

    Republicans are gonna ruin this country, let's face it Bush did a great job destroyin this great nation. If another Republican is elected as President, the will be anarchy in the streets, cats and dogs livin together kinda stuff..Wake up people!

    Obama 2012

    April 2, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  13. iceload9

    Not searchable by name? How much work is it to digitize and OCR this? Once again we paid billions for a computer system that can be run from your ipod.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • vcatron

      With the records just being released to the public it will take time to index the record into a searchable form. Do you believe that this is done overnight? Guess again. I have dealt with census records for years and the fun part is decyphering some enumerators handwriting.

      April 3, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
  14. bobby

    Great a new source 4 id thieves ur great great great grandmama charged ur card

    April 2, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Dapper Dan

    I'm sure living in the 40s must have been an exciting period. Spmetimes I listen to the 40s channel on XM just to get a taste of the music back then. Things were simpler then compared to today's hectic lifestyle. No Internet, no hip hop, no tv just the good ol radio shows.. wow, how things have changed.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lived it

      Simpler? If by "simpler" you mean "tougher" and/or "leaner" then you got it right.

      April 3, 2012 at 5:22 am | Report abuse |
  16. mbjrp36

    Many people worked crap jobs left to immigrants today, and they had pride in their work.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • mbjrp36

      All Union men too.

      April 2, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Seriously ?

      "All Union men too."

      April 2, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • luckyponytoo

      Back then, many of us *were* the immigrants doing the crap jobs.

      April 3, 2012 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
  17. AFRet05

    The new laptop (or old laptop) isn't the issue. The servers are having the problem due to all the data requests.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Hillman

      They "expected" 225,000 hits. They got 100 times that. There are more than 500,000 volunteers waiting to assist in the indexing.

      April 2, 2012 at 9:54 pm | Report abuse |
      • Sue

        The same thing happened for the 1930 census....be patient

        April 2, 2012 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Tim

    I wonder if they're using 1940's technology to run the website...

    April 2, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • RabiaDiluvio

      It is a government website, not a dotcom. You are lucky they have a few extra gerbils running in the wheels that keep the servers powered.

      April 2, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
      • RabiaDiluvio

        They are still in the process of making the images available. If you want to search Guam you're good...otherwise you have to wait a bit.

        April 2, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
  19. David

    America was great due to the Europian countries that came here. Today, the unwanted and uneeded foreigners we dredge up are taking it down. Blame government.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • RabiaDiluvio

      European. Clearly the Evil Foreigners have killed your spelling.

      April 2, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  20. RabiaDiluvio

    Thank you, Irrelevant Man. I am sure there is a job in the government for you somewhere...perhaps the Department of Redundancy and Redundancy. If you put in a few years you might even make it to Secretary of Heaping Mounds of Useless Paper.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
  21. DC

    It's amazing how so few people are employed in manufacturing or agriculture today. Our modern economy is so information and service based, but if your actual needs came down to food or facebook, which would you choose? We ought to get back to producing what's actually needed instead of consuming what's not.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • The truth of the matter...

      We already have what's needed. That's why we are able to enjoy the luxury of consuming "what's not".

      April 3, 2012 at 5:27 am | Report abuse |
  22. r

    Yeah,well, I have a great new laptop and the info is taking forever to come up.

    April 2, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • tom

      Your laptop has nothing to do with it. Obviously, their servers are overloaded with people trying to access the data. Not surprising. Wait until things quiet down in a few days.

      April 2, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
      • Tim

        Hey, Merry Christmas! Oh, but you can't open your presents until New Year's. Sorry! We decided to have them delivered via cargo ship instead of air mail. We thought we'd be ok but who knew?

        April 2, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • RabiaDiluvio

      With hundreds of thousands of salivating genealogists who have been waiting YEARS to fill info gaps, you are lucky if you can even access the server.

      April 2, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |