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April 2020

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

U.S. Census Bureau History: History of the Census

William Lane Austin Enumerates President<br />
Franklin D. Roosevelt

U.S. Census Bureau Director William Lane Austin visited the White House to be photographed enumerating President
Franklin D. Roosevelt to promote response to the 1940 Census.

Roosevelt's census interview actually took place on April 2, 1940, with census enumerator Raymond Connelly. Along
with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Executive Mansion was also home to personal secretary Marguerite LeHand,
cousin Elizabeth Henderson, governess Elspeth Connochie, and servants—Ida Allen, Armstead Barnett, Ella
Sampson, and George Fields.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Since the United States conducted its first census in 1790, the population of the United States has grown from 3.9 million to approximately 330 million people. With more than 230 years of data, our nation's censuses and surveys serve as a valuable historical record illustrating America's changes and growth.

Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution mandates that the United States conduct a count of its population every 10 years to apportion the number of representatives each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives. On March 1, 1790, President George Washington signed legislation into law—the "1790 Census Act"—assigning U.S. marshals the task of conducting the nation's first census. Marshals and their assistants traveled throughout the 13 states, districts of Kentucky, Maine, Vermont, and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee) using rudimentary forms of their own design to collect the name of each head of household along with a numeric count of every household's free White males aged 16 and older, free White males under 16, free White females, all other free persons, and slaves as of the first Monday of August 1790. At its conclusion, the 1790 Census found that the United States was home to 3,929,214 people. The largest urban places were New York City, NY (33,131); Philadelphia, PA (28,522); Boston, MA (18,320); and Baltimore, MD (13,503).

Twenty years later, Congress added the collection of manufacturing data to the 1810 Census. The census expanded further with the first questions about the nation's agricultural pursuits in 1820. In 1840, Congress added the collection of governments' data about schools and school attendance. Beginning in 1850, marshals listed the name of every free person on the census schedule, and the number of demographic inquiries grew to include questions such as those collecting data about individuals' profession, place of birth, and marital status.

The Census Act of 1880 replaced the U.S. marshals and their assistants—who conducted the censuses since 1790—with specially-hired and trained enumerators. These census enumerators collected so much data during the 1880 Census that it took a decade to complete its tabulation and publication. Anticipating an even greater volume of data in 1890, former Census Bureau employee and inventor Herman Hollerith received a contract to supply mechanical tabulators to speed data processing and tabulation. Enumerators used a separate schedule for each family during the 1890 Census and collected even more detailed data about individuals' family, employment, health, education, and home ownership than in previous years. One hundred years after the United States conducted its first census, the 1890 Census reported the nation had grown to nearly 63 million.

Recognizing the need to maintain a permanent, specially-trained workforce charged with collecting the nation's demographic, economic, agriculture and governments data, Congress made the U.S. Census Bureau a permanent agency in 1902. The Census Bureau could now plan population censuses every 10 years as well as mid-decade censuses and surveys, including more frequent censuses of manufacturers and special censuses of war commodities during World War I.

Following the 1929 Stock Market Crash and start of the Great Depression, the 1930 Census included both a "standard" questionnaire collecting demographic, citizenship, occupation, employment, and veterans status data, and a supplemental questionnaire that collected additional data to help the government better understand the impact the economic crisis had on America's workers. The 1940 Census was the first in which the Census Bureau used statistical sampling to collect additional data about the population without unduly increasing the overall burden on respondents and data processing. While visiting each household, the enumerators asked 5 percent of the nation's population (i.e., those people whose name fell on the schedule's "sample lines") questions like parents' place of birth, mother tongue, veterans status, and for women, the number of marriages, age at first marriage, and number of children ever born. Subsequent censuses added sample questions like means of transportation to work (1960), Occupation 5 years ago (1970), ancestry/ethnic origin (1980), and grandparents as caregivers (2000). In 2005, the annual American Community Survey replaced sample questions on the decennial census questionnaires. As a result, the 2010 Census used a single, 10-question form for the nearly 309 million people it counted.

Over its 230 year history, the decennial census has recorded the United States' remarkable growth from its origins as a rural, farming nation in 1790 to the world's third largest country (behind China and India), which provided goods and services valued at $21.73 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2019. Participate in the 2020 Census to make sure you are counted in the history of your family, community, and nation.

You can learn more about the history and evolution of census taking in the United States using data and census records. For example:

  • Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution requires the taking of a census of the nation's 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 each year.
  • The United States conducted its first census as of the first Monday of August, 1790. U.S. marshals and their assistants who took the census visited every home in the states and territories to collect the population data. Some of these U.S. marshals included: Allan McLane responsible for the 1790 Census in Delaware and later Collector of Customs for the Port of Wilmington; Pennsylvania's first U.S. marshal Clement Biddle; Virginia's U.S. marshal Edward Carrington; and Georgia's U.S. marshal Robert Forsythe, who would become the first federal law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty on January 11, 1794. Learn more about these and the other marshals who conducted the first census at our U.S. Marshals Web page.
  • Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson oversaw the United States' first census in 1790, and reported the results to President George Washington on October 24, 1791. In 1790, the population of the United States and its territories was 3,929,214. Following the 2020 Census, Census Bureau Director Dr. Steven Dillingham and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur L. Ross Jr. will report the state population counts used to apportion the number of seats each state receives in the U.S. House of Representatives to President Donald J. Trump by December 31, 2020.
  • From 1790 through 1820, the U.S. marshals and their assistants conducting the census used whatever paper they had available to hand-draw schedules, like this 1810 schedule containing data for President John Tyler and President Martin Van Buren's 1820 schedule. In 1830, Congress authorized the printing of the first uniform, printed schedules to collect census data. Printed schedules helped marshals clearly list and organize data for each household, like that of President Andrew Jackson in 1830 (Page 1 and Page 2). As shown in author Louisa May Alcott's census record, marshals began listing the name of every person living at each address in 1850. In 1880, specially-hired and trained enumerators collected data from families like that of accused axe murderer Lizzie Borden, President Chester Arthur, Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, and suffragette Susan B. Anthony. In 1940, the census form included sample question asked of approximately 5 percent of the population, including Rosemary Kennedy, sister to President John F. Kennedy. The 2020 Census is currently underway and uses a form on which approximately 330 million people will answer 9 questions, including name, sex, age and birth date, Hispanic origin, and race.
  • From 1790 (under Thomas Jefferson) through 1850, the Secretary of State oversaw each decennial census, although some appointed a Superintending Clerk to oversee daily operations. The U.S Department of the Interior supervised the censuses from 1850 to 1900. The U.S. Census Bureau became a permanent office within the Department of the Interior in 1902. It moved to the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor following its establishment by President Theodore Roosevelt on February 14, 1903. Today, the Census Bureau is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, its home since the Departments of Commerce and Labor split into separate agencies on March 4, 1913.
  • Americans often associate the post-World War II "Baby Boom" years (1946–1964) with rapid population growth. The United States' population grew 14.5 percent between 1940 and 1950 and another 18.5 percent by 1960. However, during the 19th century, the United States' population witnessed even greater population growth, gaining an astonishing 32.7 percent or more each decade from 1800 to 1860, and 21 percent or more from 1870 to 1910. More recently, the nation's population grew 9.7 percent between 2000 (281,421,906) and 2010 (308,745,538). The 2020 Census is estimated to count approximately 330 million people—a 6.9 percent increase since 2010. If that estimate is correct, 2020 will record the smallest census-to-census population increase in the nation's history.
  • Census records are valuable resources for genealogical research, but many researchers are disheartened to learn that records from several censuses have been destroyed. Many 1790-1810 census records were destroyed when the British burned Washington, DC, during the War of 1812. When researching family members from this period, genealogists may be able to find information using the 1840 Census of Pensioners and military records at the National Archives. To learn more about these records, read Genealogical Records of the War of 1812. Similarly, most of the 1890 Census records were destroyed in a 1921 fire at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Records from the 1890 "Veterans Census" which enumerated Union veterans (including President Rutherford B. Hayes) and their widows survived the fire and may fill some gaps in your family's genealogical record.
  • Census records are confidential for 72 years, after which the National Archives releases them to the public. In April 2012, the National Archives released records from the 1940 Census to the public online. Records from the 1950 Census will be released in April 2022. Record from the 2020 Census will not be publicly available until April 2092. Individuals who need a certified copy of their own census records from 1910 to 2010 can request them from the Census Bureau's Age Search Service.
  • The Census Bureau hires a huge workforce of temporary employees—approximately 500,000 for the 2020 Census—to conduct house-to-house and telephone interviews, provide translation assistance, and process questionnaires. Included among these employees who assisted with counting the nation's population and industry are telephone pioneer Alexander Graham Bell; geographer Henry Gannett; and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. Beginning in 1870, the Census Bureau embraced hiring a diverse workforce that was representative of the communities it counted. Learn more about some of the notable women and minority employees who worked for the Census Bureau at our Census Supervisors and Employees Web page.
  • Did you know that you can use census data and records to enhance your understanding of American history? Visit our Home Page Archives for examples of using the census to tell stories on topics like the Olympics, the American Civil War, Baseball, Women's Suffrage and many others.

1850 Census Painting

From 1790 to 1840, U.S. marshals only listed the name of the head of each household followed by a numeric listing of the home's other residents
by age and sex. Beginning in 1850, marshals (like the one depicted in Francis William Edmonds 1854 painting, "Taking the Census")
listed the name of every person living within the home along with their demographic information.

In 1850, U.S. marshals counted 23,191,876 people in the United States. One hundred years later, the 1950 resident population grew to 151,325,798.
The U.S. Census Bureau expects to count approximately 330 million people during the 2020 Census.

Paid Advertising

The 2000 Census was the first decennial census to use a paid advertising campaign to encouraging Americans to return their census questionnaires. The campaign attempted to reach every adult living in the United States with television, radio, print, outdoor, and Internet advertising in 17 languages.

The 2020 Census advertising campaign began in January 2020. It includes more than 1,000 ads that are expected to reach 99 percent of households in the United States through digital and traditional media advertising, public events, and partnerships.

The "Shape your Future. Start here." campaign assures Americans that the census is easy, safe, and important to their families and communities—thanks to the ability to respond by mail, telephone, and online.

National Processing Center staff
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National Processing Center

Data processing at the U.S. Census Bureau's National Processing Center (NPC), has changed considerably since these clerks worked in its card punch division in 1960.

Between 1790 and 1880, tabulations were laboriously compiled by hand. The introduction of mechanical tabulation in 1890 greatly sped processing and accuracy.

UNIVAC I replaced mechanical tabulators in the 1950s, but still relied on punch cards for data input.

The 1960 Census replaced punch cards with Film Optical Sensing Device for Input to Computers (FOSDIC) which translated microfilmed questionnaire images into computer code.

Optical character and optical mark recognition replaced FOSDIC in 2000.

For the 2020 Census, the Census Bureau employs the latest data capture technology (CEDCap) to process census forms with limited clerical intervention.

George Washington Portrait
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Did You Know?

On March 1, 1790, President George Washington signed the 1790 Census Act into law.

The nation's first census was taken as of the first Monday in August (August 2), 1790. U.S. marshals collected the name of the head of each family and the number of people in each household in the 13 states; the districts of Kentucky, Maine, and Vermont; and the Southwest Territory.

Upon completing the count, marshals forwarded the data for 3,929,214 people to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

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: December 08, 2021