From black-smithing to robotics, from muskets to lasers, from an agrarian economy to one increasingly based on services, the Census Bureau and its predecessors have measured our economic activities since the first census of manufactures in 1810. As the nation's economy grew more diverse and complex, the scope of what is now called the economic census expanded to include retail and wholesale trade, construction industries, mining, and a broad array of services.
Early in the 19th century, Congress responded to a rapid increase in industrial activity by ordering census takers - in those days federal marshals - to "take an account . . . of the several manufactures within their several districts, territories and divisions" as part of the census of 1810. As the marshals traveled from house to house counting the population, they asked questions on 25 broad categories of manufactured products and more than 200 kinds of goods.
In successive decades, the census came to include certain non-manufacturing businesses as well, such as retail stores, lumberyards and butcher shops. In 1902, Congress authorized the establishment of a permanent Census Bureau and also directed that a census of manufactures be taken every five years. The 1905 manufacturing census was a milestone, marking the first time a census of any kind was taken separately from the decennial population census.
The Census Bureau conducted the first census of business, covering retail and wholesale trade in 1930. Shortly thereafter, it was broadened to include some service trades. During World War II, the periodic economic census was suspended, with funds directed towards war-oriented surveys. It resumed with the 1947 Census of Manufactures and the 1948 Census of Business.
The 1954 economic census was the first to fully integrate census-taking for the various kinds of business. The census provided comparable data across economic sectors, using consistent time periods, concepts, definitions, classification, and reporting units. For the first time, an electronic computer (UNIVAC I) was used to process economic census data.
The 1905 economic census was the first to be taken by mail, using lists of companies gathered from the administrative records of other federal agencies. The Census Bureau then sent enumerators to collect completed census forms only from non-responding companies. In 1910, the Census Bureau mailed the forms and asked manufacturing establishments to complete and return them by mail. The biennial manufacturing censuses conducted during the 1920s also used mail-out/mail-back enumeration. Since 1963, administrative records have been used to provide basics statistics for very small firms, reducing or eliminating the need to send these firms census questionnaires.
The range of industries covered in the economic census has continued to expand. The census of construction industries began on a regular basis in 1967. The scope of service industries coverage broadened at various points over the following 25 years.
The census of transportation began in 1963 as a set of surveys covering travel, transportation of commodities, and trucks. Starting in 1987, census publications also reported on business establishments engaged in several transportation industries, paralleling the data on establishments in other sectors.
The latest major expansion of the economic census took place in 1992, when the Census Bureau added more transportation industries, plus finance, insurance, real estate, communications, and utilities - a group accounting for more than 20 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.
The 1997 Economic Census [1.62MB PDF] was the first major statistical report to use the North American industry Classification System (NAICS). Developed cooperatively by the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, NAICS replaced the older Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) system, providing for greater comparability with international statistics.
Today, the economic census, together with the separately conducted censuses of agriculture and governments, cover virtually the entire economy. The only economic areas not covered are agricultural services, rail, and employment by private households. In 1995, the agriculture census was transferred to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). The 1992 Census of Agriculture was the last overseen by the Census Bureau.
The first survey of minority-owned businesses covered 1969, and a parallel program began for women-owned businesses for 1977. Now called the Survey of Business Owners, this program presents data according to the new federal standard that allows respondents to report more than one race. The survey also gathers additional characteristics of businesses, including the age and education of the owners and the identification of home-based business and participation in franchising.
Responses to the economic census have been treated as confidential since the 19th century; however, legislation authorizing the 1910 decennial census required that statistics be published so that no particular establishment or its operations could be identified.
In 1954, strong confidentiality provisions were incorporated into the law (Title 13, U.S. Code) that specifies the frequency and scope of the economic census. The law also prescribes penalties for any disclosure by the Census Bureau, or for a respondent's false reporting or willful refusal where response is mandatory. In 1962 Congress extended the confidentiality provisions of Title 13 to also cover copies of census records maintained by companies themselves (Title 13, Section 9a).
The automation of the economic census dates back to the use of tabulating typewriters in 1900, punch card tabulating equipment in 1920, and electronic computers in 1954. Starting in 1987, the Census Bureau allowed selected large firms to report their datea on computer tape. The 2002 economic census was the first to allow virtually any firm to file electronically.
Since 1972, most of the same statistics found in printed reports also have been available to data users in electronic media, initially computer tape. The 1987 Economic Census was the first to be published on CD-ROM. Key 1987 statistics also were published online via CENDATA. The 1997 Economic Census was the first to make all published data accessible on the Internet. For 2002, the economic census switched from CD-ROM to DVD-ROM, but then discontinued all publication on discs for 2007, as broadband Internet access made discs unnecessary. Printed reports, which were the only method of publication for economic census data for more than 150 years, were reduced substantially for 1997 and discontinued altogether in 2007.
For an overview of the manufactures censuses in the 1800s, see Reference Information Paper No. 50, "The Censuses of Manufactures: 1810-1890." [PDF 2.26MB]
The Census Bureau's History Staff writes a history of the economic census following each quinquennial census. The following histories are currently available electronically: