7 Cool Things You Can Find in U.S. Census Records

Family History
30 March 2020
by Ancestry® Team

Since 1790, population counters have gathered basic facts about the country’s population every ten years—from farms to boarding houses to mansions.

Today, decades of census records offer really rich details about the everyday life—and sometimes extraordinary life events—of generations of Americans. Here are seven very cool things that you can find in U.S. Census records.

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A Pin Setter or a President

Could you have a rat catcher in the family? This census record shows a surprising number of them in 1940.

1940 Census record highlighting three rat catchers.
This 1940 Census record shows quite a few rat catchers.

You can uncover an interesting variety of occupations in your family tree through census records—including many jobs that no longer exist, like an ice cutter in South Carolina or a pin setter like this one at Ten Pin Alley in Massachusetts.

Several pin setter boys working at a bowling alley.
This 1930 Census record lists a pin setter at Ten Pin Alley in Massachusetts.

As you scan records for your family, you might also spot other intriguing occupations. These include:

clowns

lamplighters

soda jerks

computers (the pencil-and-paper kind)

• cowboys (from Texas cowboys to Hawaii cowboys)

There’s even the occasional 19th-century witch.

And at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, there’s FDR as “president of USA.”

1940 Census listing FDR’s occupation, "President of U.S.A."
In this record you can see FDR’s occupation, “President of U.S.A.”

Technology People Used

Census records can give you a glimpse into some of the technology people used in past decades. For instance the 1930 Census asked whether people owned a radio.

1930 Census with overlay of man tuning radio at home.
The 1930 Census asked if people owned a radio set.

The 1930s were part of the golden age of radio. According to the Census Bureau, about 12 million American households—about 40% of the country’s population—owned radios.

Occupations could also give you insights into technology at the time. For instance a record for a switchboard operator like this one in 1930 Missouri shows the telephone companies were still using switchboard operators there to connect callers.

Automatic or dial systems were developed in the the 1920s, but it would be decades before switchboards were phased out.

How Well Off Your Family Was

The census asked for different information from decade to decade, reflecting the concerns of the period. In 1940, as the country was emerging from the Depression, the census asked about income and employment.

While most Americans listed a few hundred dollars, Ronald Reagan was making a good living as an actor: He reported over $5,000 a year in income.

1940 Census listing Ronald Reagan as having $5,000+ income.
Ronald Reagan was recorded as having $5,000+ in income in 1940.

Thanks to Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, you can find granular details about how prosperous people were. You can see inventory owned by manufacturers and industrialists, the value of people’s land, and the number and types of livestock farmers owned and crops they grew.

In 1850, for instance, you can see how many pigs (or other livestock including “milch cows”) a farmer had, and compare it to others, to get a sense for how well off they might have been.

John D. Smith had 200 swine in this 1850 agricultural schedule.
John D. Smith had 200 swine in this 1850 agricultural schedule.

Civil War to World War Vets

The 1930 Census asked whether people had been a member of the military or navy, and what war or expedition they participated in. Back then, there were still veterans who had served in the Civil War.

1930 Census listing a veteran of the Civil War.
This 1930 Census record shows the respondent was a veteran who served in the Civil War.

But the more common war for veterans at that time was World War I. For instance this census record for an African American Chicago taxi cab driver and WWI vet reveals many fellow veterans, including a post office clerk, a railroad cook, and a construction worker.

Census showing cab driver and 3 other respondents were WWI vets.
This cab driver and 3 other respondents on the same page of the Census were WWI vets.

What Someone’s Native Language Was

At the beginning of the 20th century, only a quarter of Americans were native English speakers. Starting in 1900, the Census thus asked what residents’ native language was.

1920 Census record showing the mother tongue for John Smith as “Austrian German.”
This 1920 Census record shows the mother tongue for John Smith as “Austrian German.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, German was the most common native language for foreign-born Census participants. Italian was the second-most common native language.

It was followed by Yiddish, as exemplified by this Polish-born New York City switchboard operator who listed Yiddish as the “language spoken in home before coming to the United States.”

New York switchboard operator has Yiddish as her native language.
This NYC resident and switchboard operator has Yiddish as her native language.

How Old Someone Was When They First Got Married

The 1930 Census got a little personal, asking respondents how old they were when they first got married.

1930 Census listing John Smith of Virginia being 26 at the time of his first marriage.
John Smith in 1930 Virginia was 26 at the time of his first marriage.

On the heels of the roaring 20s, with its flapper culture and expanded opportunities for women, some social commentators thought women were probably marrying later.

That turned out not to be true, likely because more social events and school gave young people more chances to meet, but it got the question on the Census.

In 1930, the median age for women to marry was 21. For men, it was 24. Today, it’s close to 28 and 30.

Changes of Fortune

A lot can happen in the 10 years between censuses. And the differences you find from one census year to the next can take you beyond the snapshot of a single census year to an even richer story.

You might find stories of resilience, of overcoming hardships. For instance if your family appeared in the 1860 Census, their life situation could have looked very different in the 1870 Census, after the hardships of the Civil War.

But you might also find success stories: the first person in your family to attain a certain level of education (which you can see in the free-to-search 1940 census), an intrepid adventurer, or an entrepreneur.

One famous example: Walt Disney. In this 1920 Census record of an 18-year-old Walt Disney he’s listed as a “artist cartoonist,” living in Missouri with his older brothers Herbert, a postal carrier, and Roy a bookkeeper—along with Herbert’s wife and daughter.

The 1920 Census shows Walt Disney as an 18-yr-old cartoon artist.
The 1920 Census shows Walt Disney as an 18-yr-old cartoon artist.

Ten years later, in the 1930 Census, Walt is living in Los Angeles with his wife Lillian. And he’s listed as a “producer” in the “motion picture” industry.

By the 1940 Census, Walt is still in LA, listed as a “motion picture producer.” But now he’s got two children and a home listed at five times the value of his 1930 home.

Disney may be one of the most better-known success stories, but the U.S. Census record collection is filled with stories of trials and triumphs, of individuals and families striving for a better tomorrow.

What Will You Discover?

Almost 9 out of 10 Americans have a relative in the 1940 Census, so many people are able to uncover rich details about their past.

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