The Census Bureau, 72 years after the 1940 census, put the raw data from the 1940 census up on the web last year. It is completely fascinating.

It’s also tricky, for me anyway, to find my ancestors’ information. My partner has an easier task for her grandparents: they lived in New York City, and the New York Public Library helpfully posted 1940 phone books expressly to help people navigate the 1940 census (thanks, New York Public Library!). No such luck for Burlington, Vermont. But by asking my parents, I was able to find my dad’s parents, 7 years before my dad was born, when it was just my grandparents and my aunt. Among the interesting tidbits:

* My grandfather was listed as unemployed (and seeking work) at the time of the census; in 1939 he had only been employed 30 weeks. He had been unemployed for the four weeks preceding March 30.
* In 1935 they had lived in Alburg, Vermont on a farm.
* My grandfather’s profession was listed as ‘weaver’ at ‘woolen mill’. I knew him as a watchmaker, though I imagine he was just an all-around handyman.
* As of 1939, his salary was $630. Looking around a bit, I found a Social Security Administration document from 1947, which says that the median family income in 1939 for a family with 3 people, with a male head of household under age 35 (my grandfather was 30) was $1,373. So as of 1940, it looks like my grandparents weren’t doing so well. I’ll be curious how that changes when the 1950 census data become available in 2022.
* Both my grandmother and grandfather had fourth-grade educations.

There are a couple things to note about this. First, my method for chasing down the census records was basically ad-hoc; I asked my parents, who asked my aunt, who guessed what their street address had been when she was seven years old and was basically right on the money. Even with that information, the census data aren’t terribly easy to navigate. With luck, you can use an address to get an Enumeration District, which is basically the terrain that a single census-taker covers. But even within an ED, there are a lot of scanned census forms to peruse. This seems like a case that would derive a lot of value from some crowdsourcing: people using the 1940-census site would be able to tag individual records or pages with whatever information they want to contribute: street addresses, names, etc. Over time, it ought to be possible to write SQL queries against raw census data (“SELECT * FROM 1940_data WHERE state = ‘Vermont’ and LastName = ‘Laniel'”).

Even in my partner’s case, which is less ad-hoc, not everyone had a phone in 1940. What would we do if we wanted to look up the census information of someone alive in 1940? I’m sure there’s a well-known way to bootstrap oneself to a family tree, but I’m not familiar with it. And I’d vastly prefer a SQL query to a complicated bootstrapping process.