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2017

March 2017


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U.S. Census Bureau History: Establishment of a Permanent U.S. Census Bureau

William Rush Merriam Portrait

William Rush Merriam was director of of the U.S. Census Bureau
when it became a permanent agency in 1902.

On March 6, the U.S. Census Bureau celebrates its 115th anniversary as a permanent agency. Prior to 1902, U.S. Marshals or enumerators conducted the census and a temporary census office tabulated the data. By the late 19th century, the growing volume of data and possible tabulations—thanks to Herman Hollerith's electronic tabulating machine—made retention of skilled census clerks and supervisors a necessity. In response to the recommendations of census officials, statisticians, and academicians, the U.S. Congress passed the Act of March 6, 1902 Providing for the Establishment of a Permanent Census Office.

Under the leadership of William Rush Merriam, the act directed that in addition to the decennial population census, the agency would also conduct a census of manufactures in 1905 and every 5 years thereafter; an annual survey of cotton production; and other economic surveys. The permanent agency—initially within the U.S. Department of the Interior—officially "opened its doors" at the Emery Building, located at the corner of 1st and B Streets, NW Washington, DC—on July 1, 1902. Following its establishment by President Theodore Roosevelt, the Census Bureau moved to the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor on February 14, 1903. It remained in the Department of Commerce after the agency split into two on March 4, 1913.

Today, the Census Bureau is an international authority on the collection, tabulation, and publication of statistical data. It leads the world in the fields of demographic, economic, and statistical research. Browse this Web site to learn more about the Census Bureau's history, its employees, and the agency's remarkable record of invention and innovation. For example:

  • Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution requires the taking of a census of population every 10 years, beginning in 1790. In 1810, U.S. Marshals conducting the census made the first economic inquiries. Data collection on the nation's agriculture began in 1820, and inquiries of the nation's government entities began in 1840. Today, the Census Bureau conducts quinquenniel economic and government censuses, a decennial census of population, and more than 130 demographic, economic, and government surveys annually.
  • New York City, NY, and Philadelphia, PA, were home to temporary census offices before it moved to Washington, DC, in 1800. Census operations remained in Washington, DC, until 1942, when the agency moved to "Federal Office Building #3" in Suitland, MD. The agency moved into its new headquarters (adjacent to the site on which Federal Office Building #3 stood) in 2006.
  • After working for the Census Bureau during the 1880 Census, Herman Hollerith invented an electrically-powered mechanical tabulator to speed the sorting and tabulation of 1890 Census data. Hollerith's tabulating equipment company became International Business Machines (IBM) Corporation Link to a non-federal Web site in 1924.
  • William Rush Merriam was director of the Census Bureau when it became a permanent agency within the Department of the Interior in 1902. Prior to being selected to oversee the 1900 Census by President William McKinley, Merriam served in the Minnesota House of Representatives and as the state's 11th governor. He retired from the Census Bureau in 1903, and lived in Port Sewall (Stuart County), FL, until his death in February 1931.
  • The Census Bureau began replacing mechanical tabulation and punch cards with computers and magnetic computer tape in 1951, with the purchase of UNIVAC I—the first computer produced for civilian use. A second UNIVAC followed in the mid-1950s, followed by UNIVAC 1105s for the 1960 Census. The Census Bureau retired the first UNIVAC I in 1963 and donated it to the Smithsonian Institute's Museum of American History.
  • Most of the data collected by the censuses and surveys conducted by the Census Bureau are processed at the agency's National Processing Center in Jeffersonville, IN. Depending upon work requirements, the facility can employ from 1,200 to 6,000 employees at its 75-acre campus located across the Ohio River from Louisville, KY.
  • The Census Bureau relies on regional offices throughout the United States to provide local support to conduct its censuses and surveys. After consolidating its field structure on January 1, 2013, the Census Bureau now operates regional offices in Atlanta, GA; Chicago, IL; Denver, CO; Los Angeles, CA; New York, NY; and Philadelphia, PA.
  • Many Census Bureau employees have found fame and fortune in business, entertainment, and academics. Some of these notable alumni include: inventor of electronic tabulation Herman Hollerith, authors Thelma Strabel and Bernard Malamud, National Library of Medicine founder John Shaw Billings, National Geographic Society founder Henry Gannett, survey methodology pioneer Morris H. Hansen, and Lafayette Parker "Pick" Temple, host of the 1948–1961 Pick Temple Giant Ranch television show.

Census Bureau employees in front of the Emery Building

Employees of the U.S. Census Bureau pose in front of the Emery Building located at the corner of 1st and B Streets, NW, Washington, DC.
This was the Census Bureau's headquarters during the 1900 and 1910 Censuses.




Alexander Graham Bell
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This Month in Census History


Inventor of the telephone Alexander Graham Bell was born on March 3, 1847.

Bell's research into hearing and speech and interest in developing the telephone grew out of his work with the hearing impaired.

During the 1900 Census, the Census Bureau hired him as a special agent to write a report on the deaf and blind.

The 1900 Census found that the population of the United States was 76,212,168. You can learn more about Bell's work as a special agent for the 1900 Census here.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
















Census Bureau Seal
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Census Bureau Seal


Congress legislated the permanent Census Bureau in 1902, but the agency's official seal was authorized on March 3, 1899, when it was part of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The seal contains a shield upon which are an open book and the lamp of knowledge emitting rays above two crossed quills. A wreath of single leaves surrounds the shield. Stars in an outer band separate the words "U.S. Department of Commerce" and "Bureau of the Census."

The seal is used on all certificates and attestations required from the Census Bureau.



















Did You Know?


During the 1990 Census, a printing error instructed Spanish-speaking callers in need of assistance completing their questionnaires to call an auto parts store in Kansas.

The Census Bureau provided the store with a Spanish-speaking operator who redirected the calls until the error could be corrected.




Visit https://www.census.gov/history every month for the latest Census History Home Page!

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: October 21, 2019