Sunday, April 22, 2012

Golden Nuggets in the 1940 Census

Three weeks ago, the 1940 census debuted and this event celebrated the fact that it is the first census to be initially offered online for free. As per regulations, 72 years must pass before a US Census is made public. Since I’ve been seriously studying my roots since 1978, I’ve seen the release of the 1910, 1920, and 1930 censuses. For the 1910 and 1920, I searched for family by using the Soundex version. I remember waiting anxiously for the microfilm I had ordered from the National Archives to be delivered to local libraries to gain additional knowledge about my family. The 1930 was different because it was also offered online via certain subscription services such as Ancestry and Rootsweb. Being a member of both, I waited for the scanned pages online and the census' subsequent indexing.

I’ve heard many of my genealogical friends exclaim that they were interested in seeing their parents listed in a census for the first time. Being a little older than some of my peers, I had that experience with the 1920 census. Since I personally knew many people in this census, I was originally not that excited regarding its release, but that would change, as I had an opportunity to learn about certain aspects that made this particular census rewarding. Initially, I was going to only look for my parents and then I was going to wait for the index, as many of the people I desired to identify in the census would require the use of an index.

April 2 came and went – I tried unsuccessfully accessing the census web site that evening, but it was impossible to get through. Early on Tuesday, April 3, I finally gained access and found my parents. Knowing my hometown’s geography made this search easy. Even though my parents lived in another section of town prior to my birth, I was able to find them and in the process I stumbled upon others that I personally knew. During that first look at the census, I passed the names of parents of my classmates, my first grade school principal, and people with whom I had attended church.

I finally found my parents, but there were no real surprises; however, there were a few bits of interesting information. One item was the value of my parents’ first home. Prior to adding onto their original structure several times as their family grew, the original house was extremely small and not valued very much. The entry listed its worth as $300. My house payment is over twice that amount – so a piece of real estate valued that low was surprising.

When my parents sold the home in 1951, it garnered $7,500 – 25 times its 1940 value. That’s quite an increase in value in such a short period of time. Our last home nearly doubled in value in 16 years. Had it increased 25 times, I think I could have retired right then and there – but such was not the case.

In understanding the value of my parents’ first home in 2012 dollars, I needed to understand the buying power of a 1940 dollar. Not all things will correspond, as other factors such as property value and the minimum wage need to be consulted to make an accurate comparison; however, not always are property values available.

According to genealogist Philip Hermann (2012), the spending power of $1.00 in 1940 is equivalent to $16.26 today. Unfortunately, that places my parents’ domicile at below the poverty level as in today’s finances it was worth $4,878. Luckily, they were able to get more out of the property when they eventually sold it.

Another issue in which my mom was particularly interested was my father’s income in 1940. His wages were listed as $1400 for 1939. This averages to $28 a week and a whopping 70 cents an hour for my dad. While this doesn’t sound like much, the federal minimum wage in 1939 was 30 cents – so I guess my dad was doing pretty well at the time by comparison. When I started working in an hourly job in 1973, the minimum wage was $1.60 per hour.

When you adjust for inflation, my father was making the 2012 equivalent of $22,764 as a skilled laborer. This is lower than the minimum salary wage of $23,660 of today; however, it is still better than today’s full time minimum hourly wage which equates to $15,080. The 30¢ minimum wage of 1940 provided a yearly wage of $624. In 2012 dollars, that is $10,146.26 or $4.88 an hour.

To put income into context, 1940 prices averaged as follows (“Money and Inflation 1940’s,” 2005).

Item1940 Price
New House$3920.00
New Car$ 850.00
A Gallon of Gas$ 0.11
Men’s Suit$ 24.50
Refrigerator$ 239.00

Finding People in the 1940 Census

Searching the census seemed to be easy enough, if I had a clue where people lived at the time of the census. Ancestry provides city directories which are helpful in locating addresses and the enumeration districts for 1930 are useful if the family hadn’t moved. A third party tool constructed by Drs. Stephen P. Morse and Joel D. Weintraub found at is invaluable in providing the 1940 enumeration districts.

Armed with this data, I was fortunate to find all of my parents’ siblings, my three living grandparents, two living great-grandmothers, my stepfather, my stepfather’s stepmother, and certain siblings of my grandparents and great-grandparents. For now, I think that is all I can easily find without relying upon a full index – for which I can wait, but I am happy with some of the data I culled from the 1940 census.

There are several areas that make this census special and were not offered in previous versions. They include the following aspects of the subject: the identity of who was providing the information, educational attainment, wages, and 1935 location.

The Identity of Person Supplying the Information

The latter is extremely helpful when determining whether questionable information was provided by the subject or someone else in the household. The person who supplies the information is identified by either an “X” or an “X” in a circle. I specifically learned this important piece of information from Judy G. Russell’s blog, The Legal Genealogist.

I found two errors of fact regarding educational attainment for my uncle and my stepfather. Knowing that my mother was the only one in her family to graduate high school, I found it unusual that her oldest brother was listed as having attended four years of high school. His second wife provided that information and she did not know my uncle at the time he attended high school. My mother verifies that he only attended the 11th grade.
My aunt supplying the info for her and my uncle.
For my stepfather, he is listed as finishing two years of high school; however, living under the same roof with him from 1966 to 1973, I knew that he had only finished 9th grade when he quit school and joined the labor force at the local steel mill at the age of 14. His father-in-law was the individual who supplied that information and he probably answered what he thought was correct.

Additionally, I noticed that this mark was missing for some of my family members. Although the census taker was required to identify the source person, it didn't always happen.

No source identified with my double great/great-great Aunt and Uncle

Educational Attainment

Knowing that both my parents were the only ones of their respective families to graduate high school, I was curious of how much schooling my grandparents and my father’s siblings had. I already knew of my mother’s three siblings, but not my father’s.

My dad’s oldest sister Nathalie (or Nath as she was known) was only listed as attending grammar school without a requisite number of years. This could mean she attended anywhere from first grade to completing eighth grade. Their sister Blanch attended through the seventh grade and their sister Ruth had attended up through the eighth grade.

As for my grandparents, my mother’s parents completed a grammar school education, which was common in their generation. My father’s mother only finished the sixth grade. I have some of her correspondence and her grammar and spelling had some issues and the lack of a more formal education was probably to blame.

I would have thought my grandfather’s sister Martha Leppzer would have had more education, as her parents had enrolled her in a girls’ school in Roxbury, Massachusetts. She is listed as only completing the fifth grade. Her uncle, John Merriman, sadly only attended up through the second grade. His wife, who was also my grandmother’s sister, went as far as the sixth grade – like my grandmother.

One of my living great-grandmothers (Marie Katherine Manewal Schad) finished eighth grade and the other (Ida Samantha Staley Brakeall) attended through the sixth grade. My grandfather’s cousin who was adopted as his sister (Marie Hasson) is listed as attending high school; however, no corresponding years were listed.

1939 Income

As I previously mentioned my father’s income, I was curious of the wages made by other men in my family. I remember my mother telling me that certain family members made more than my father, so I decided to make the comparison. I found some surprises in the data.

To Me
FatherLathe Hand - Airbrake$140050$22,764
StepfatherPiercer Operator – Steel Mill$162035$37,625
GrandmotherMatron – Westinghouse Electric**$66050$10,732
UncleShipper: Steel Mill$90048$15,252
UncleInspector: Steel Mill$100052$16,620
Uncle±Laborer: Pipe Mill$110036$24,845
Uncle±Machinist: National Steel$144640$29,398
Uncle±Steel Roller: Steel Mill$396340$80,552
Great Uncle±Chemist: Sterling Steel$200052$32,520
Great Uncle±Skilled Laborer: Steel Works$250044$46,195

  *Income was adjusted to 50 weeks worked at 2012 values.

**My grandmother worked at the Westinghouse Airbrake and not Westinghouse Electric.

±Uncle by marriage.

This exercise put incomes into context. All of the above were in the McKeesport, Pennsylvania area with the exception of my uncle Raymond Baldridge who had the highest salary of the bunch. He lived in suburban Detroit.

In addition, another great uncle (John F. Leppzer who was married to my grandfather’s sister) living in Barberton, Ohio was listed as having $0.00 income in 1939, although he worked 52 weeks as an electric foreman. His wife, my great aunt Martha, provided the information. I discussed this with their granddaughter (my second cousin) and she believed that since her grandmother was a very private person, she would not have released her husband’s salary. Mystery explained.

Location in 1935

With the family members I’ve found so far, nothing unusual or unknown has been revealed. I imagine when I start searching the indexes for others, I will find valuable information in this area. Although my family was fairly stable (regarding location – the jury is out on mental state), this will be an invaluable tool for those tracing a family’s migration pattern between censuses.

I hope you have as much fun as I have while browsing the 1940 census records. Remember, as with any data source, it may contain mistakes of fact. These could be transcription errors by the census taker, ignorance of the facts by the person supplying the information, and/or a lie perpetrated by the family member - sometimes this occurs in regard to ages. Keep this in mind, and to paraphrase Judy Russell, it is only one source among many that you may have.


Hermann, P. (2012, April 18). The value of a 1940 dollar. The Weekly Genealogist, 15(16).

Money and inflation 1940’s (2005). The People History.

Morse, S.P. & Weintraub, J.D. (2011). Unified 1940 census ED finder.

Russell, J.G. (2012, April 9). 1940 census just one source. The Legal Genealogist.

The sixteenth census of the United States of America (2012), Washington, DC: National Archives.


  1. May I offer a very unscholarly ... "wow!"? Having found your blog via GeneaBloggers, I spent some time browsing through the posts. The depth of research and analysis is far beyond much of what's being written in genealogy blogs. You've made me rethink my approach to looking at the history surrounding the people I'm tracking in my family history. To date I've been scanning for the big events, and missing so many of the details that would give me a much better understanding of their lives.
    Now that I've readjusted my "reading glasses," I'll be more focused on studying the details. And I'll be happily following your blog.
    Thanks for posting!

  2. Donna:

    A big thank you for those kind words. I appreciate your comments and am glad that you find the blog helpful. I don't post that often, as I like to do more of an in-depth analysis. Glad that has been helpful. Thanks again.


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