The 1880 census was carried out under a law enacted March 3, 1879. Additional amendments to the law were made on April 20, 1880, and appropriations made on June 16, 1880—16 days after the actual enumeration had begun.
The new census law specified the enumeration would be supervised by a body of officers, known as supervisors of the census, specifically chosen for the work of the census and appointed in each state or territory, of which they should be residents before March 1, 1880. Each supervisor was responsible for recommending the organization of his district for enumeration, choosing enumerators for the district and supervising their work, reviewing and transmitting the returns from the enumerators to the central census office, and overseeing the compensation for enumerators in each district.
Each enumerator was required by law "to visit personally each dwelling house in his subdivision, and each family therein, and each individual living out of a family in any place of abode, and by inquiry made of the head of such family, or of the member thereof deemed most credible and worthy of trust, or of such individual living out of a family, to obtain each and every item of information and all the particulars." In case no one was available at a family's usual place of abode, the enumerator was directed by the law " to obtain the required information, as nearly as may be practicable, from the family or families, or person or persons, living nearest to such place of abode."
At its conclusion, the 1880 census reported the U.S. resident population to be 50,189,209, a 26 percent increase from the 1870 census.