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!  

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

The Lasting Value of Word Games

Every night, as soon as the newest Wordle puzzle becomes available, I pause whatever I'm doing to see if I can solve it. For those who aren't familiar with Wordle, it's a word game where you try to figure out the five letter word. It's a combination of logic and lucky guesses: the rules are posted, and they're pretty easy to learn, but the bottom line is you get six chances to figure out the word and solve the puzzle. But unlike many other online games, if you can't solve it, you have to wait another 24 hours for the next one to be posted. 

In a way, I find that comforting.  It prevents becoming obsessive about solving it-- you can't play it over and over because there's just one puzzle a day. I feel the same way about the New York Times Spelling Bee: they post the puzzle once each day, and if you can't solve it, you have to wait for them to post the next one. Spelling Bee is a lot more complicated than Wordle, and unlike Wordle, which is currently free, you have to pay a subscription fee to try your hand at the Spelling Bee. But in both cases, these puzzles are thought-provoking, good for your vocabulary, and an enjoyable way to kill some time for a few minutes.    

I've always loved word games. As a kid, I often played Scrabble with my mother. I don't know if she let me win or if I eventually became good at it, but I recall how excited I was when I got a good score-- it made me feel really grown up. I liked crossword puzzles too-- in fact, if a puzzle involved seeking out words, it was generally something I enjoyed.

These days, another reason word games are important to me is they keep me mentally sharp. At 75, I want to make sure I can retrieve words from my memory the way I did when I was younger, or use logic to figure out a word from the clues I've been given. But there's no right age to enjoy word games-- they're good for kids, and they're good for us grown-ups.

I don't know if today's kids play words games as much as we did back when I was growing up. Most of the kids I know spend more time staring at screens than they do engaging in solving puzzles. But I do hope parents are introducing kids to the joy of words, and the many opportunities puzzles can provide to enhance vocabulary while just having fun.

During the pandemic, when so many of us were stuck indoors, it was a nice escape to work on a crossword puzzle or try to solve a word search. But even now that we're back outside, going to work and getting into our daily routines again, I still put aside a few minutes each day to sit in my office and relax with a word game. It's educational, it's a challenge, and it's entertaining. So, if you follow me on social media, perhaps we can compete at Wordle and compare scores with each other. After all, playing word games is a lot more fun than arguing about politics-- and it's a lot better for your mental health!