7 Amazing Facts About the U.S. Census

Family History
4 September 2020
by Rebecca Dalzell

With the 2020 Census underway, you’ve probably received a mailer asking you to fill in the brief questionnaire. Completing it is a civic duty as old as the United States itself. The 230-year-old national count, held every decade, is a vital cultural snapshot that reveals who we are as a country. It also has a fascinating story of its own. Here a 7 amazing facts.

1 The U.S. Census is older than Italy.

The first U.S. Census took place in 1790, 71 years before the unification of Italy. George Washington was in his first term as president; Thomas Jefferson, his secretary of state, oversaw the count.

The U.S. Census has been around longer than 37 U.S. states, predating the Louisiana Purchase and the Oregon Treaty.

The first U.S. Census was in 1790 (shown here is the record for Paul Revere).
2 A small army of temporary workers is needed to complete the count.

For the 2020 Census, the U.S. Census Bureau aimed to hire 500,000 people—about the size of the population of Miami.

Census takers have to update address lists to include new houses and expanding towns, then make sure everyone in a household gets counted. They scour maps, knock on doors, and conduct interviews with residents.

3 Census data is kept secret for 72 years.

When you fill out the 2020 Census, you'll give your name, address, sex, and age. But don't worry, that information won't go public until 2092.

To protect our privacy, Congress passed a law in 1978 to make census records confidential for 72 years, though you can still request your own records before that date.

The 1950 Census is the next to be released, in 2022.

Truck drivers having coffee at a diner
The 1950 Census will be the next one to be released.

The 1950 Census asked respondents for their birthplace, race, occupation, and marital status, and was the first to enumerate Americans living abroad.

It could reveal illuminating details about relatives in the Army or Navy who were stationed overseas.

4 The census was a pioneer in data-processing technology.

For decades, Census Office clerks counted the population by hand, a long and often inaccurate process. The 1880 Census had a rudimentary tallying system, but even that couldn't keep up with the reams of data: It took seven years to complete.

A former Census Office employee, Herman Hollerith, came up with an electronic punch-card system in time for the 1890 Census. Though it was the largest census ever at the time, the 1890 count finished ahead of schedule.

Hollerith went on to sell his electronic tabulating machines to foreign governments and railroad companies, and founded the company that became IBM.

5 Census records include celebrities, sometimes before they got famous.

The goal of a U.S. Census is to count as much of the population as possible. This includes notable people such as inventors, entrepreneurs, artists, and even U.S. Presidents.

The 1880 Census lists Thomas A. Edison, who had recently demonstrated his incandescent lightbulb, as an Ohio-born scientist living with his wife and three children in New Jersey.

The 1910 Census captures entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker shortly before she became one of the country’s first female African-American millionaires; she listed herself as a self-employed manufacturer of hair goods.

Prominent citizens such as Madam CJ Walker, known widely as the first African American female millionaire are in census records.

In 1920, there’s Walt Disney as an 18-year-old “artist cartoonist” on Bellefontaine Avenue in Kansas City.

Seven-year-old Eunice Wayman, aka Nina Simone, the singer, songwriter, and Civil Rights activist, shows up in the 1940 Census as the youngest of John and Mary Wayman’s six kids in Tryon, North Carolina.

6 The Census directly impacts the future of your community.

Census data ensures that all Americans have fair representation in Congress. The Constitution mandates the decennial census to apportion seats in the House of Representatives.

The 435 seats are divided among the 50 states based on the population reported in the census. After the 2010 Census, for instance, Texas gained four seats and New York lost two.

The U.S. Census also informs how the federal government distributes money around the country, since grants are often based on population and demographic data like residents’ age and race.

7 Census records can reveal rich details about your family story.

The U.S. Census asks different questions from decade to decade, covering everything from personal wealth to literacy and native language. In 1930, it even asked if the home had a radio (40% did).

Census records can reveal rich, even quirky details about your family story. Maybe someone in your family had an unusual job like a rat catcher or a pin alley employee, grew up speaking Yiddish, or served in the Civil War.

Census records can reveal unusual occupations for your ancestors like a pin setter.

What will you discover?

You never know what fascinating details the Census will reveal about your family story.

Explore the U.S. Federal Census collection on Ancestry® to find out.