Overheard on CNN.com: 1940 census records help readers learn about relatives, history
Census Bureau employees process microfilm records, circa 1940. Online records mean no more traveling to microfilm archives.
April 11th, 2012
03:18 PM ET

Overheard on CNN.com: 1940 census records help readers learn about relatives, history

Editor's note: This post is part of the Overheard on CNN.com series, a regular feature that examines interesting comments and thought-provoking conversations posted by the community.

Many people are taking a peek into the past after the release of 1940 census records. In a CNN.com opinion piece, Michael S. Snow, a historian with the U.S. Census Bureau, offered his thoughts on why that might be the case. Readers shared their enthusiasm in the comments section, providing some fascinating stories about genealogy and discovery.

We'd like to hear from you about what you've found. If you've learned something interesting about the history of your house after digging through the archives, please share your story at CNN iReport.

Why the huge interest in the 1940s census?

One reader said she hoped to learn about relatives she never got to meet.

Buffalogal013: "I have been waiting for the 1940 census for the longest time. I was very excited to see its release, though disappointed that it wasn't searchable in the state that I needed. Still I was able to 'meet' my Dad's parents and a couple of his siblings who both died before I could remember them and find my Mom's parents and grandparents. (I had not met her father's parents.) It was interesting to see how my Mom's father's mother - who had emigrated from Italy in 1913 - had Americanized her name between the 1930 and 1940 census and became a naturalized citizen. It was a neat moment."

With some detailed research, another commenter discovered a family member.

Guest: "I have been trying to find the identity of my grandfather for years. The 1940 census was pretty much my last hope. I had a last name and an idea of his first ... and I found him! I couldn't care less that it wasn't searchable. I just went through line by line in the area my grandmother lived in and bingo! Further research confirms that my father was named after him, just without the last name.

For others, the thrill was in learning a bit more about the details of how people lived.

damageddude: "The most interesting things I discovered was how little money my grandfathers made. For the one who lived in an apartment building I was able to see that many people in their building and surrounding buildings earned around the same. In 1940 my grandparents, father and uncle were living in the same walk-up in a six-family that my grandparents were living in when I was a small child 30 years later. The neighborhood was, and still is, Brooklyn middle class (Bensonhurst). Yet my grandfather was raising a family of four on a little over $2,000 a year (low $30,000 in today's dollars). Of course they didn't have what we considered essentials such as a car (they never drove) or a phone (unless it was unlisted)."

The responses to the census formed treasured keepsakes for one reader.

Epifany4u: "I was able to locate information on my maternal grandparents before my mother was born. It was amazing how much of a picture I was able to draw in my mind's eye of what their life was like from just a few lines of data. What brought a tear to my eye was the realization that my grandmother was the person actually answering the census taker's questions. I printed out a copy of the page, made copies on nice paper and mailed a copy to each of my family members as a keepsake. I will say that, unfortunately, printing the image turned out to be problematic. The image file they use is one that none of my graphics applications could open. And there was no way to view the complete page. I ended up piecing together 90-100 small screen captures to rebuild it outside of the site. By the time I was done, the file was over 4 (megabytes), but it was worth it!"

Some urged caution in drawing too many conclusions from the census data, prompting the following responses:

civility1st: "... My training is in science, so you'd think I'd be the one to be criticizing the data collection methods, and the problems with making inferences about society from looking at the census data. How funny that I turn out to be the person thrilled to see this data become accessible! Don't you historian types see that most people aren't looking at this from the socioeconomic institutionalized "history of the victor" perspective?! They are looking for Great-Grandma Mildred because they want to see if that rumor that she had Great-Uncle Billy before she got married to Great-Grandpa Harold is really true! So go ahead and grouse about valid and reliable data collection methodology, but keep it to yourself and don't rain on the parade here."

gremlinus: "If you have training in science, you should know you always question methodology both of collecting and analysis. Your results are only as good as what you started with. So stick with what you know. First of all you can't get information like you're using as an example from census data. Plus since it's self-reported, often people in the 1940s weren't going to tell you there was a single mother in the house. I am trained in both natural and social sciences, and I think census data is useful, but you have to be careful with it. It supplements other resources like city directories and fire department layouts of houses and the like, but it's not a miracle revelation of life in the '40s. It might give some insights into patterns of job distributions in neighborhoods (but we have those records already often) or perhaps level of education among households. It packages some things nicely, but most of the info is available elsewhere."

A love of genealogy bonded many readers together.

MargaretEDavis: "When I retired from my job, I started to research my family. Before that I only knew my grandmother's and grandfather's names. My mother was alive at that point, and she helped guide me through a lot. I traced my father's father's side back to 1737; I knew who they were finally. I traced my father's mother's side back to almost the 1600s. I had a lot of help. Once I connected these two grandparents up to someone, then I found my 'cousins' had plenty of information on them helping me get so far back. My mother's side of the family also - once I traced my maternal grandmother back to her roots - I found that a lot of research had already been done. I don't know what other people think, but it is a thrill to go through the census and then the birth certificates, the marriage licenses and death certificates that you find in these old, old records. I am not stopping. I am going to go as far as I can. And believe me, when you go through records and are allowed to touch papers that are from the late 1700s, it is a thrill."

One person said the discovery of a world beyond textbooks led to a love of history.

Techsupp0rt: "In school, I hated history. When I grew up, I found out that it wasn't history I hated at all; it was the way I was taught history that I hated. (For example, all of eighth grade was spent learning about the Civil War, because the teacher was obsessed with Confederate culture. ... Hick town. We had to sing war songs most of the year, and I don't remember a damn thing other than those songs). It was all so dry and boring. I found that I got much more into it when I changed my learning style. Instead of sitting with some boring textbook, I like to find journals and discourses. Reading about the daily life and worries of long dead people is far more interesting to me than who won what war when, who was president at whatever time, etc., etc. Reading through journals from real people, you learn about those things. Reading about what people struggled with then leads me to researching the stuff in the boring textbooks. I do remember one other thing from eighth-grade history, and it was my most important history lesson. It was from the first day of class. (The teacher) asked us why we bothered to learn history at all. Surprisingly, the answer wasn't "because torturing 13-year-olds is fun," it was because history repeats itself. If we don't learn it, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes."

What have you discovered from the census and from history? Share your opinion in the comments area below and in the latest stories on CNN.com. Or share your own findings via CNN iReport.

Compiled by the CNN.com moderation staff. Some comments edited for length or clarity.

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soundoff (2 Responses)

    "In school, I hated history. When I grew up, I found out that it wasn't history I hated at all; it was the way I was taught history that I hated. (For example, all of eighth grade was spent learning about the Civil War, because the teacher was obsessed with Confederate culture. ... Hick town. ,< says it ALL.

    April 11, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • government cheese

      You can tell you didn't learn much.

      April 15, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |