Newly released census offers time travel to 1950

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Images of the 1950 federal census were made public earlier this year, and those of us who enjoy family research have been delving into this trove from 72 years ago.

The release was determined by a 1978 law that stipulated the federal government would not release personally identifiable information about an individual to any other individual or agency until 72 years after it was collected for the decennial census.

Why the 72 rule? Apparently 72 years was the average lifespan at the time. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The 1950 census can be reviewed on or NC LIVE through local library websites. The enumeration offers a glimpse of what life was like—who lived where, what they did for a living, who was part of a given household.

The enumeration paints a picture of America precisely at mid-century. Harry Truman was in the White House. Less than ten percent of Americans owned a TV set. A full third did not have a telephone or full indoor plumbing. And Baby Boomers were being born right and left

Even so, the U.S. population, was less than half what it is today. People generally stayed put. Neighbors were more than likely born in the state in which they lived.

What folks did for a living sheds light on a bygone era. Many were doing farm work, though some occupations were particularly colorful: fountain work at a drug store, telegraph operator, pin setter at a bowling alley, butler, floor lady, poultry keeper, coal hauler.

If you were born before April 1, 1950, your name appears on this census along with members of your household and, of course, the neighbors. As genealogists know, census records provide a written “snapshot” of a neighborhood that can provide important clues about social, business and family relationships.

It’s important to note the date a particular census was taken. In 1950, the official census date was April 1. One of the first names I looked up was my husband who made the census by a few weeks. He was born in March that year.

It reminded me of the 1880 census in which a column of data was included about sickness and disability. My great grandmother was noted to be “confined.” Sure enough, my great uncle arrived a few days after the census taker’s visit!

As with most U.S. censuses, 1950 offers information that’s not available anywhere else.

Some questions focused on the home itself. Did the person own or rent?  Was the home a ranch or farm? Had they lived there a year ago?

Agricultural questions were an emphasis. Who was involved in farm work, and had they been doing that for long? Was the home situated on three or more acres?

Not surprisingly, military service was mentioned. Who had served in the military in World War I or II?

In fact, the 1950 enumeration is the last snapshot of America before the Korean War. Officially, that began that June with the invasion of South Korea by the North Korean People’s Army. If you had a friend or relative who perished in that conflict, the 1950 census is all the more poignant.

Some questions asked of residents were fairly invasive. How much schooling was attained by each household member, and did he or she finish that last grade? How much money did the person make? How much money did relatives living in the household make? What job did the person hold last year? How much money did he or she make from interest, dividends, rents etc.?

Even more personal were questions about marriage and family.  How many years since this person was last married, widowed, divorced or separated? Has the person been married more than once? How many children had a woman birthed? How many were still living?

The 1950 census was, by and large, an old-school enumeration. It was the last time census takers personally visited most households with large multi-family census sheets. During the 1960 and later censuses, households received enumeration forms in the mail and mailed them back to the Census Bureau.