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January 2021

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U.S. Census Bureau History: 1890 Census Fire, January 10, 1921

1890 Census Record

A January 10, 1921, fire in the basement of the U.S. Department of Commerce building in
Washington, DC, destroyed the majority of 1890 Census records. Despite attempts to salvage
burned and water-logged volumes in the months after the fire, most could not be saved, and
were moved into storage where they continued to deteriorate. Only a fraction of schedules
(like this one from Ellis City, TX, survived).

Congress authorized the remaining unsalvageable records be destroyed in February 1933.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

A January 10, 1921 fire at the U.S. Department of Commerce building in Washington, DC, destroyed the majority of the population schedules from the 1890 Census. The fire left an enormous gap in many families' genealogical record. Although alternative records may provide some information, the loss of the 1890 Census schedules remains an insurmountable obstacle for many researchers attempting to trace families between the 1880 and 1900 censuses.

Late in the afternoon on January 10, 1921, employees at the Department of Commerce's headquarters finished their work and left for home. As the building emptied, watchmen were roaming the halls and empty offices when one of them noticed the first wisp of smoke rising from the floor at about 5:00 p.m. Staff contacted the fire department while one of the watchman took an elevator to investigate the building's basement. When the doors opened, he was forced back by dense smoke. Escaping the basement, he activated the building's fire alarm to evacuate any remaining employees from the building. The first fire crews arrived at about 5:30 p.m. Despite the heavy black smoke, crews entered the basement and began pouring thousands of gallons of water into the blazing rooms. One floor above, colleagues cut holes in the floor to flood the basement with even more water. Firefighters extinguished the flames by 9:45 p.m., but continued to douse hot spots until 10:30 p.m.

The next morning U.S. Census Bureau director Samuel Rogers arrived to assess the damage. Before the fire, wooden shelves stacked with the volumes containing millions of 1890 Census schedules filled the basement. After the fire, Rogers stood in ankle-deep water amidst heaps of charred and water-soaked mounds of paper. Luckily, a fireproof vault in the basement survived the fire and firefighters' assault on the flames. Although water breached the vault door, most of the 1830, 1840, 1880, 1900, and 1910 Census records contained inside remained undamaged. Of the 8,919 volumes in the vault that sustained damage, 7,957 were from the 1910 Census. Rogers reported these records could be dried or transcribed to new volumes. Rogers initially expected many of the 1890 schedules would survive, but time was not on the side of the archivists charged with saving the fragile paper that continued to deteriorate in moldering piles for months after the fire.

By May 1921, staff had moved the fire- and water-damaged volumes to temporary storage, but the paper continued to decay. That month, newly installed Census Bureau Director William Mott Steuart instructed agency employees to attempt to save and organize as many of the 1890 schedules as possible. Their attempt preserved a small number of the surviving 1890 Census schedules. In December 1932, the Census Bureau reported to the Librarian of Congress that the unsalvageable schedules should be destroyed. Congress authorized their disposal on February 21, 1933.

An investigation never conclusively determined the cause of the 1921 fire. Potential sources of ignition included the careless disposal of a cigarette or match, faulty wiring, and the spontaneous combustion of sawdust in the building's workshops.

Although most of the 1890 Census records have been lost, you can still learn a lot about the United States and its inhabitants using census data and other genealogical records. For example:

  • When the 1890 Census was collected as of June 1, 1890, the U.S. population was 62,979,766—a 25.5 percent increase from 1880. The population would grow 21 percent more by 1900, reaching 76,212,168, and increase another 21 percent to top 92.2 million in 1910.
  • For the first time in 1890, census takers enumerated each household on its own schedule. The 1890 Census questionnaire collected more information than any census before it, including inquiries about each household or household members' address; name, age, sex, and race; marital status; number of children born and surviving; parents' place of birth; whether a naturalized citizen; profession/trade; months unemployed during the census year; and literacy. New inquiries included those about ownership and indebtedness of farms and homes and detailed military service questions. The race question expanded to include "Japanese" for the first time with "White," "Chinese," "Negro," "Mulatto," "Quadroon," and "Octoroon." More than 46,000 enumerators carried instructions that provided guidelines for conducting the interview, recording acceptable responses, and the use of appropriate abbreviations.
  • Archivist only managed to save a small fraction of the total number of 1890 Census schedules after the 1921 fire. Three rolls of microfilm contain the surviving schedules and schedule fragments as follows:
    • Roll 1: Perry County, Alabama (Perryville Beat No.11 and Severe Beat No. 8) [fragments 1-455].
    • Roll 2: District of Columbia. Q, 13th, 14th, R, Q, Corcoran, 15th, S, R, and Riggs Streets, Johnson Avenue, and S Street [fragments 456-781].
    • Roll 3: Muscogee County (Columbus), Georgia; McDonough County (Mound Twp.), Illinois; Wright County (Rockford), Minnesota; Hudson County (Jersey City), New Jersey; Westchester County, (Eastchester); and Suffolk County (Brookhaven Twp.), New York; Gaston County (South Point Twp. and River Bend Twp.) and Cleveland County (Twp. No. 2), North Carolina; Hamilton County (Cincinnati) and Clinton County (Wayne Twp.), Ohio; Union County (Jefferson Twp.), South Dakota; Ellis County (J.P. No. 6, Mountain Peak, and Ovilla Precinct), Hood County (Precinct No. 5), Rusk County (No. 6 and J.P. No. 7), Trinity County (Trinity Town and Precinct No. 2) and Kaufman County (Kaufman) [fragments 782-1,233], Texas.
  • Although fire and water destroyed the majority of the 1890 population schedules, approximately 75,000 special schedules enumerating Union Army veterans of the American Civil War and their widows survived. The U.S. Pension Office requested the "special census" to help veterans locate comrades who could testify in pension claims as well as help the office determine the number of surviving veterans and widows eligible for benefits. Along with name, rank, and address, the schedules (like that for President Rutherford B. Hayes) also collected dates of enlistment and discharge, battles fought, and injuries sustained.
  • When the 1890 Census schedules arrived at the Census Bureau, clerks used recently invented electronic tabulators to process the data. Recognizing that the amount of data collected every 10 years was overwhelming census clerks who had been counting data manually, the Census Bureau awarded a contract to inventor Herman Hollerith—a former Census Bureau employee—to supply electronic data processing equipment to speed the count of data from the 1890 Census. Hollerith's patented technology was so successful that the Census Bureau was able to sort, tabulate, and publish thousands of pages of data 18 months sooner than a lesser amount of data had been published following the 1880 Census. Hollerith's tabulating machines and punch cards proved so efficient that the Census Bureau used improved versions of the technology into the 1950s, when it replaced mechanical tabulation with computers and computer tape.
  • The 1890 Census revealed that the United States' population had grown so rapidly and been settled so completely between the California Gold Rush and 1890 that U.S. Census Bureau director Robert P. Porter declared that a "Frontier Line" could no longer be marked on a map. (The official Census Bureau designation of "unsettled" or "frontier" was an area that had a population density of less than 2 people per square mile, not including "Indians not taxed."). Echoing Porter's remark at an 1893 American Historical Association conference at the Chicago World's Fair—Historian Frederick Jackson Turner Link to a non-federal Web site famously stated that, "Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line . . . The frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history."
  • More than 100 years before the loss of the 1890 Census schedules to fire, many early census records—including George Washington's 1790 Census record—were likely destroyed when the British Army burned public buildings in Washington, DC, during the War of 1812. According to the National Archives, records lost to the fires of August 24, 1814, include the 1790 Census schedules for Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia.
  • The genealogical community's loss of the 1890 population schedules to the 1921 fire is exacerbated by the loss of other records from the same census. The 1890 Census included many special schedules to collect statistics about mortality; crime, pauperism and benevolence; special classes (i.e., deaf, dumb, blind and insane); transportation; and insurance that were destroyed by fire in 1896. At the time, Census Bureau officials were not concerned about the loss since the data had already been collected and published.
  • Equally as catastrophic to genealogists and historians as the 1890 Census fire was a fire July 12, 1973, at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO. The fire burned out of control for 22 hours. When firefighters finally extinguished the flames, 16 to 18 million Official Military Personnel Files containing the military service and health history for people discharged from the United States armed forces between 1912 and 1964 had been destroyed. An investigation concluded that like the 1921 fire at the Department of Commerce building, the National Personnel Records Center fire may have been caused by the careless disposal of cigarettes. Veterans attempting to reconstruct their lost service records should submit a completed NA FORM 13055, Request for Information Needed to Reconstruct Medical Data to the National Personnel Records Center.

1890 Census Fire Aftermath

Careless smoking in the basement of the U.S. Department of Commerce Building on the evening of January 10, 1921, may have caused a fire that destroyed the
majority of the 1890 Census Records. The National Archives microfilmed surviving records in 1942 and 1953. Record fragments are available from Alabama, the
District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, and Texas.

Image courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.

Did you know?

The 1890 Census fire renewed urgency to build a fireproof building to store our nation's important documents.

The 1926 Public Buildings Act authorized construction of the National Archives and on February 20, 1933 (one day before Congress authorized destruction of the surviving 1890 Census records), President Herbert Hoover lay the cornerstone for the building. Construction was completed in 1937.

View larger image


A January 1921 fire at the U.S. Department of Commerce destroyed the majority of 1890 Census schedules. Had it not been for Washington, DC's brave firefighters, the damage to millions of census records from other decades stored nearby could have been catastrophic.

One year earlier, the 1920 Census found 50,771 people working as firefighters or fire department personnel in the United States. More recently, estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that 335,500 people worked as firefighters in 2019.

Our nation's firefighters are certainly kept very busy! The U.S. Fire Administration reported there were more than 379,600 residential and 103,600 nonresidential building fires in the United States in 2018. That same year, the U.S. Census Bureau's Annual Survey of Manufactures reported that heavy duty truck manufacturers (NAICS 336120)—which includes firefighting vehicles—had annual sales of $31.4 billion and employed 27,936 people in the United States.

Clerk operating Hollerith machine
View larger image

Hollerith Machine

On January 8, 1889, Herman Hollerith received Patent 395,781 for his mechanical tabulation machine.

Hollerith's equipment sped data processing while lowering the overall cost of tabulation. His tabulators earned him contracts from railroad companies and the governments of Russia, Canada, Norway, and Austria as well as a medal at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

In 1896, Hollerith formed the Tabulating Machine Company in Washington, DC, and again provided tabulating equipment to the Census Bureau for the 1900 Census. Following mergers, Thomas J. Watson Link to a non-federal Web site joined the company, and became president in 1914. Under Watson, revenues soared and global operations expanded.

In 1924, the company became known as the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM).

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: February 16, 2023