How to use the 1940 Census Web site

April 3, 2012

So many people have headed to the National Archives and Records Administration’s online posting of the 1940 Census right after the site launched Monday at 9 a.m. that it crashed almost immediately. According to a tweet from the National Archives Monday night, the site got 22.5 million hits from around 1.9 million users by mid-afternoon after going live at 9 a.m.

The site is back up and running smoothly as of Tuesday morning, and the National Archives Web site indicated that it would be making Web site improvements throughout the day.

If you want to find something — or someone — in the 1940 Census, there are two easy steps you have to follow.

First, you have to know, roughly, where you want to look. The census is organized by what’s called an “enumeration district,” which is the way that the U.S. census divides the country. To do that, the National Archives site has a tool that lets you focus in on the state, county and — in some cases — street level of any part of the country.

With that number in hand, you can look at the census lists from a given district to find the records you’re researching. In my case, I looked for my grandfather’s family in Hawaii and found his parents’ and siblings’ demographic, education and employment information. For example, it lists that my great-uncle was a “delivery boy for a tire repair shop” in 1940, when he was 22. (My grandfather — then a high-schooler — has no occupation listed on this census, but confirmed that this information is accurate.)

There are also other funny little tidbits to pick up from the census forms. For example, my family is from Hawaii, so the examples for “Industry” include “pineapple cannery, dry-goods stores, sugar-cane plantation, etc.” For D.C., those listed industries are a bit more standard: cotton mill, retail grocery, farm, shipyard, public school.

Unfortunately it’s not possible to look up individuals by name right now, as it takes a lot of effort to digitize the census records. According to a note on the site, the Archives are currently working on a volunteer initiative to make a name index “available for free.”

Those interested in helping with that effort can visit the 1940 Census Community Project.

Related stories:

The Verge: 1940 US Census online project already underway

1940 Census released: A look at what has changed

With 1940 Census release, a look at the decade’s art, music and style

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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