Thursday, March 31, 2022

Why I'm Excited about the 1950 Census

April 1 is not just April Fools Day this year. It's also a day that many historians (including me) have been awaiting for a very long time: it was 72 years ago when the 1950 census was conducted, and now, finally, that census will be made available to researchers, genealogists, and anyone else who wants to find out what their relatives were up to back then.  (I have no idea who decided upon 72 years, but that's how long before a census can be made public.)

Perhaps you weren't around in 1950; or perhaps you have relatives who were.  In my case, I was three years old at the time, one of many kids who was part of the post-war Baby Boom. From what I've been told, my mother and father lived in a small apartment; and now that their first child was growing (and they eventually hoped to have another), they knew they needed a bigger place to live. I don't know if they had moved yet (the census will tell me), but they certainly were getting ready to.

For obvious reasons, I don't recall much about the first three years of my life-- there may be old photographs of me somewhere, but all I've found up to now are a few baby pictures from when I was one year old, and a few from when I was five or six... but nothing from when I was three.  I do have a lot of questions about those early years, especially about my relatives-- most of them are gone now, so I can't ask them, but it's amazing what you can learn from old census documents.

As a media historian, I'm also eager to look up some people who are not related to me at all: celebrities, baseball players, radio stars, TV announcers:  TV was still a new mass medium in 1950 and many homes didn't even have their own set. I recall that both of my parents loved listening to the radio, and growing up, there were radios in several rooms of our home (including a radio on the kitchen table). My mother loved the songs from the old country, the ones her mother had sung to her, but few radio stations played Yiddish folk songs. Fortunately, my mother also loved big band music, and lots of stations still played that in the early 1950s. I remember hearing some excellent vocalists and big bands during my childhood.   

Most of the census documents that were previously available -- especially the ones from 1890 through 1930-- tell the stories of people long since deceased. And while the 1940 census did include a few folks who might still be alive, the 1950 census will probably have a lot more. That means many of us will be able to ask questions of those people, as we look back on an era that was so different from the one we're now in.

My recollection is that the early 1950s was a simpler, more trusting time, compared to today. As a culture, everyone was more polite: people said "please" and "thank you" more, and cursing in public was considered a major no-no. People seldom questioned what was in the newspaper (my father always said,"They wouldn't print it if it wasn't true."), and everyone was excited to watch the newest TV shows. On the other hand, gender roles were very rigid, the politics were quite conservative, and the kids who wanted to be rebellious did so by becoming fans of rock and roll-- which was a new and controversial genre (and our parents thought it was just noise... so inferior to Big Band music).

So, I'm sitting here, and I can't wait for some of the census records from 1950 to be rolled out on sites like there are so many people's lives I want to learn more about-- where they lived, where they worked, whether or not they were married, and so much more.  It's interesting to realize that the information from the 1950 census was written down by "an army of 140,000 census enumerators, equipped with fountain pens and government forms" (according to the Washington Post). I doubt the folks who did it had any idea that 72 years later, some of us would be accessing the digitized, online version of their hard work. So, is there anyone from the 1950 census you're curious about? If so, let me know what you find out!  

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