for Local History:
** CENSUS RECORDS
records are invaluable sources for investigating population
changes, family structures, immigration and economic
patterns. Students can use them in conjunction with
old maps to gain a clearer picture of the texture of
past life. Many primary source documents that have been
preserved over time, like diaries, letters and other
traditional historical sources, document the lives of
extraordinary or privileged people. In contrast, source
materials like the census, track "ordinary" as well
as "extraordinary" individuals. Examining such records
allows us to begin to construct a more interestingly
inclusive view of history. Population schedules can
be used to study immigration, ethnicity, families, health,
work and economic trends, among numerous other topics.
The U.S. has counted its
population every 10 years since 1790, in order to apportion
seats in the House of Representatives. Thus, in each
census, Americans from the famous to the unsung and
the infamous appear, including local residents, villains,
and favorite figures of literature, politics and the
As with any historical document, there are gaps in the
coverage of the population schedules. The US Census
between 1790 and 1840 is a fairly simple list of the
heads of households, with combined numbers indicating
others in the household. The census did not enumerate
American Indians until the late nineteenth century.
The 1890 U.S. Census was destroyed by fire in 1921.
By law, the records from
the federal population censuses are confidential for
72 years. Thus, April 2012 is the scheduled date for
the National Archives to open the 1940 records to public
In Massachusetts the population
was counted every ten years from 1855 to 1945, but only
the original population schedules for the 1855 and 1865
census still exist. All other Massachusetts
State census years are lost or destroyed. The
originals, as well as microfilmed copies, are located
at the Massachusetts
General Teaching Tips:
Because they are "tabular data", census records
can be typed into a spreadsheet or database program
and then sorted, sifted, categorized and analyzed by
students to determine demographic trends. Historical,
artistic and literary figures can be searched for and
found in census records, as well as individuals who
lived and worked in the local community. Online census
indices and scanned census documents can make the process
of searching easy. The 1880 Census is searchable, and
freely available online at www.familysearch.org
Note: these questions
are most suitable for post-1840 census data, when information
was gathered about each member of a household, not just
the head. Since the information on each census varies,
research and discussion questions must be adapted accordingly.
See link below for sample census forms.
- What year was this
- Where was this census
taken (Street(s), Enumeration District, Town, County,
- What is the identification
or page number of this census sheet? Does there seem
to be more than one page numbering system in place?
- What is the name of
the person who wrote down the census information (canvasser)?
- How many family groups
are listed on this sheet? How can you tell?
- Who is the oldest person
on the sheet?
- Who is the youngest
person on the sheet?
Critical Thinking Questions
- What was the average
age and range of ages of residents on this sheet or
in this town?
- Compare the percentage
of residents that were male or female.
- What percentage of
residents are foreign born? What percentages of residents
come from which countries?
- What is the literacy
rate among adults on this sheet or in this town?
- What is the most common
occupation? (Look up any unfamiliar occupations).
- What is the apparent
average life span in this town in 1910?
- What is the typical
family structure in this town?
- List families by type
of work (farming, specific trade, merchant, etc.).
Examine the kinds of occupations for men and women.
Are they sex-typed? Compare with modern family structure
and gender roles.
- Tally the number of
families and of household structures. Often the families
exceed the number of homes, and in addition, many
homes had only one bedroom. Let the students think
about what those numbers mean and discuss questions
of personal privacy, family groupings, homelessness,
and comparisons with today.
1900 Federal Census Sample
1900 Federal Census Worksheet
Resources and Websites
Federal Census Indices and Transcriptions" Online
Listings by volunteer subscribers, organized by County.
Various Massachusetts towns are represented, but not
in the 2000 Census". U.S. Census Bureau. Statistics,
comparisons, facts about people, business, and geography.
Downloadable data can be imported into spreadsheet or
U.S. Census transcribed. Find your ancestors using
this fully searchable and browsable site.
States Historical Census Data Browser". Provides
data from census records and other government sources
for 1790-1970. Users can view extensive population-
and economic-oriented statistical information at state
and county levels, arranged according to a variety of
categories. Also includes an essay on the history of
the census. Note: this is aggregate data, not data about
Record Abstracts". These printable files clearly
list the fields on a given federal census schedule,
and can serve as worksheets for transcribing census
Model Lesson Materials
and African Americans 1780-1820". Uses the 1790
census to examine the evidence of Native American and
African Americans in Deerfield, MA.
House in the Census: Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder".
Uses the 1880 and 1900 census records to document the
life of author Wilder.
Occupation, and Death in Nineteenth-Century Wisconsin"
Wisconsin Historical Society. Secondary level lessons
in which students they practice methods used by social
historians using 1850s federal census and mortality
U.S. Census Population Schedules, 1900" Wisconsin
Historical Society. Secondary level lessons and suggested
Census" Students utilize census information to infer
and interpret information from their community. This
lesson was developed by a Canadian organization called
Youth Source: Youth and Heritage Learning Source, but
the approach can be adapted to use with local Massachusetts
1900 Federal Census
Examine copies of a few
pages of the population schedules for your town. After
studying the schedules carefully, respond to the following
questions in writing or in discussion:
- What kind of document
are you studying?
- Who collected the information?
- Are there any parts
of the document that are illegible or confusing?
- Who lived in the community?
Where did they come from?
- Can you infer what
might have brought them to this community? (If you
were to move to a new place, what might you look for?)
- What seems to be the
main industry in the community? How did people make
their living? Can you find some occupations that people
still work at today?
- What can the information
in this document tell you about life in 1900? Did
people have larger or smaller families in 1900 compared
with today? Can you think of any reasons why this
might be true?
- What could you learn
about our community using federal census records?
Would you find any of your relatives?
- Do you need more information
to answer any of the above questions or questions
of your own?
- If you had to design
a new federal census population schedule, what new
categories would you add and what categories would