Why Bother With All of the Censuses?

by Amy Johnson Crow

Posted on January 11, 2013

Our recent list of resolutions for genealogists included "Find all of the censuses." With so many ancestors and so little time, why should you take the time to find someone in every census in which that person was living? Here are three reasons:

1. Each Census is Different

Each census asked different questions. For example, the 1910 census asked mothers how many children they had and how many were still living, but the 1920 census did not. You can find a list of all of the questions for each census year on our "Census Questions by Decade" page.

2. You Never Know Who Will Be in the Household

Sure, you have a general idea of who should be living in the household, but you never know when an unexpected person will show up. Take the Joseph and Anna Erlinger family of St. Clair County, Illinois, for example. They are there with their children in 1910 and 1920 and as a set of "empty nesters" in 1930. But in 1920, there is another person: 88-year-old Barbara Miller, listed as "mother-in-law." If you skipped this census, you would miss details, such as her immigration to the U.S. in 1852 and her naturalization in 1854.


3. Over-achieving Enumerators

Just because enumerators (the people gathering the census information) were given instructions on how to record information doesn't mean they always followed it. Sometimes that's to our benefit! The instruction for the 1900 census said to record the person's month and year of birth. Wallace H. Shermer, the enumerator for the 22nd ward of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, took it a step further and recorded each person's exact birthdate.


The 1940 census is free to search at Archives.com/1940-census. Archives.com members can search all U.S. censuses from 1790 through 1940.

Each census is a little different and you never know exactly what you will find! What are some fun or unexpected things have you found?

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