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U.S. Census Bureau History: The 1950 Census

1950 Census Enumerator

The United States conducted the 1950 Census, 72 years ago this month. On April 1, 2022,
the National Archives and Records Administration released those census records to the public
providing a glimpse into the life of every American on April 1, 1950.

On April 1, 2022, the National Archives and Records Administration released the 1950 Census records to the public. To keep responses to the census confidential, schedules are kept strictly confidential for 72 years from Census Day. With the release of the 1950 schedules, the public has an opportunity to use individual households' responses to the census to better understand the life of Americans on April 1, 1950.

In 2012, the National Archives released the 1940 Census schedules. The schedules provided a snapshot of the nation as it struggled to emerge from the Great Depression and provided the last population count before the U.S. entry into World War II. Ten years later, the release of the 1950 Census records on April 1, 2022, depicts a very different nation. The 1950 Census shows the beginning of the "baby boom" that witnessed the U.S. population grow by more than 70 million people between 1940 and 1970. It will illustrate the impact of internal migration as a second wave of the "Great Migration," which saw millions of African Americans leave poverty and segregation in the southern United States for greater opportunities in northern, midwestern, and western states. For many family genealogists, the 1950 Census is also the first enumeration in which they will find themselves or their parents and grandparents, as it is the first census to include people born between April 2, 1940, and April 1, 1950.

The 1950 Census included the 48 states, the District of Columbia, and territories of Alaska, Hawaii, American Samoa, the Panama Canal Zone, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and several other smaller islands. The census also attempted to count Americans living overseas (including the armed forces, government employees, and their families), and crews of vessels at sea. To reach Americans in all of these areas, the U.S. Census Bureau hired nearly 150,000 census takers in the months leading up to Census Day—April 1, 1950. Enumerators went door-to-door carrying schedules and instructions to assist with completing the forms. In selected areas, the Census Bureau allowed households to self-enumerate for the first time in the history of the decennial census. Enumerators delivered individual census schedules to each household, asked recipients to complete them on their own, and returned at a later date to collect the forms.

In 1950, every stateside household provided responses to questions on the population and housing schedules. The population questionnaire included standard questions like name, address, age, sex, and race. Additional questions were asked of a 20- and 3.5-percent sample of the population. Sample inquiries collected data about a person's previous addresses, education attainment, veteran status, employment, marriages, and—for married women—the number of live births. The housing questionnaire (which was not microfilmed and is not part of the April 1, 2022, release) included inquiries about the type of living quarters (house, apartment, trailer, tent, etc.) and its condition, availability and type of kitchen and bathroom facilities, radio and television ownership, heating and cooking fuels, amount of rent or mortgage, etc. When enumerators visited a household with infants born between January and March 1950, they also completed an infant card. Data collected by the infant cards were used as part of the Infant Enumeration Study to improve the censuses coverage of children in the census. On American Indian reservations, the enumerators completed the population and housing schedule for each family as well as the Indian Reservation Schedule. The Indian Reservation Schedule included inquiries such as other names used, tribal and clan affiliation, degree of Indian blood, ability to read, write, and speak English and other languages, and participation in Indian ceremonies in 1949.

The Census Bureau produced a number of census schedules for use outside of the continental United States. These schedules included many of the same inquiries as the stateside schedules, but had area-specific modifications. For example, the 1950 schedule for Alaska omitted the designated sample question lines and instead asked all Alaskans many of the stateside sample questions. In Hawaii, the Census Bureau modified the schedule to ask families about their place of residence on "Victory in Japan Day"—August 14, 1945. Forms for American Samoa and Guam were shorter (25 lines), did not include sample questions, and collected less personal characteristics data when compared to the stateside schedule. There were no sample questions on the U.S. Virgin Islands schedule, while the schedule used in Puerto Rico was printed in Spanish. Overseas Americans were enumerated on a much abbreviated schedule with the assistance of the U.S. Departments of Defense, the U.S. Department of State, and the Maritime Administration.

The Census Bureau initially processed census schedules using mechanical tabulation equipment built by Census Bureau technicians or rented from the International Business Machines Corporation that were reminiscent of the machines introduced by Herman Hollerith for the 1890 Census. Huge volumes of data were transcribed from schedules to paper punch cards—approximately 200 million for the stateside population and housing schedules alone—and "fed" to mechanical sorters and tabulators that tallied the data. This laborious and time-consuming process sped up considerably following the installation of UNIVAC I—the first commercial computer built for a civilian federal government agency by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly. Dedicated in June 1951, UNIVAC I was soon processing 1950 Census data by converting information contained on paper punch cards to computer code stored on magnetic computer tape. Tabulations that required five or more lengthy sorting operations on mechanical equipment could be rapidly completed in a single run by UNIVAC I.

According to the Census Bureau's publication—The 1950 Censuses: How They Were Taken—statistics from the 1950 Census filled approximately 108,000 pages, including 41,000 pages of population data, 32,000 pages of housing data, and 35,000 pages of agriculture, irrigation, and drainage data published between June 1950 and the end of 1955. These publications can be found at the Census Bureau's publications library. You can use these data along with the records released by the National Archives and Records Administration to learn more about the United States, your city, and your family on April 1, 1950. For example:

  • The April 1, 2022, release of the 1950 Census records will not include images of the 1950 housing schedules. The 1950 Census of Housing—the second housing census following 1940—collected data about the nation's housing stock. Inquiries included the housing unit's age and condition; availability, type, and features of the home's kitchen and bathroom; radio and television ownership; type of heating equipment and fuel; the property's value, rent and/or mortgage; and cost of utilities. The Census Bureau published the aggregate data collected by the housing schedule following the census, but it is unclear why the questionnaires were not microfilmed. The Census Bureau also did not microfilm the Infant Cards and Overseas Americans schedules.
  • In addition to the 1950 population and housing schedules that all households completed, there were a number of special schedules used to enumerate populations in specific geographic areas. When going door-to-door, census takers carried Infant Cards to help the Census Bureau study the undercount of young children. In addition to the general population schedules, census takers also completed approximately 33,000 Indian Reservation Schedules for residents of certain American Indian reservations. The Crews of Vessels and Overseas Americans schedules counted Americans who were not living in the United States or did not have a usual place of abode within the United States at the time of the census. The Census Bureau collected additional data from residents of the U.S. territories of Alaska, American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, the Panama Canal Zone, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Learn how census takers were instructed to complete these schedules in the Enumerator's Reference Manual and Supplement to the Enumerator's Reference Manual Link to a non-federal Web site.
  • Between 1940 and 1950, the United States grew 14.5 percent, to 151,325,798. New York, NY, Chicago, IL, and Philadelphia, PA, remained the nation's largest urban places. With a population of 1,970,358 in 1950, Los Angeles, CA, surpassed Detroit, MI, to become the nation's fourth largest city. Western states saw enormous population gains with California's population growing an astounding 53.3 percent since 1940, while Arizona and Nevada's populations grew 50.1 and 45.2 percent, respectively. The nation's foreign-born population decreased from 11.4 million in 1940 to about 10.1 million in 1950. The Black population grew from nearly 12.9 million to 15 million; the American Indian and Alaska Native population grew from 333,969 to 343,410; and the Japanese and Chinese populations registered populations of 141,768 and 117,629, respectively. With a population of 16,239,925, children under 5 years of age comprised the nation's largest age cohort. About 147.4 million people reported they were native or naturalized citizens of the United States. More than 74.4 million Americans aged 14 years and older reported being married, 9 million were widowed, and about 2.4 million were divorced.
  • Housing data from the 1950 Census showed that the United States was home to 45,983,398 dwelling units—a 23.2 percent increase from 1940. Nearly 34.2 million of these dwelling units reported having exclusive or shared use of a flush toilet within the structure, while about 11 million reported having "other" or no flush toilet facilities. Approximately 73 percent of homes had access to a bathtub or shower; the majority of heated homes—14,483,420—reported using coal, while 25,069,94 cooked with gas; 94 percent of dwelling units had electric lights, 80.2 percent had mechanical refrigeration, 95.7 percent owned a radio, and 12 percent owned a television.
  • The 1950 Census was taken during a year filled with famous "firsts" and historic events. Harry S. Truman was president. U.S. State Department official Alger Hiss was convicted of espionage and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested for selling nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union; American consumers received their first "charge cards"; the Korean War began; actor James Dean got his first paid acting job; the median value of the American home was $7,354; the first [wired] television remote controls and processed cheese slices became available; Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton integrated professional basketball; Charles Schulz published the first Peanuts comic strips; and Yogi Berra and Joe Dimaggio led the New York Yankees to a world championship. In the decade ahead, Dwight D. Eisenhower would be elected as the 34th President of the United States; Sam Phillips opened Sun Records and "discovered" the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley; author Ernest Hemingway received the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes; the world's first nuclear submarine—the USS Nautilus—launched at Groton, CT; Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, AL, bus; and the American flag added two stars with the admittance of Alaska and Hawaii as the 49th and 50th states.
  • 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 counted 331,449,281 people—a 7.4 percent increase since 2010.
  • Did you know that the 1950 Census was the first to be tabulated using UNIVAC I—the first computer built for and installed at a civilian government agency? The Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation (later part of Remington Rand Corporation) built UNIVAC I and dedicated the computer at a ceremony attended by company and Census Bureau officials on June 14, 1951. UNIVAC I could not "read" the paper punch cards used by the Census Bureau since 1890, so a card-to-tape converter transferred the punch card data to magnetic computer tape. In 1954, the time-consuming process of converting punch cards to tape was replaced following the Census Bureau's development of the Film Optical Sensing Device for Input to Computers (FOSDIC). After microfilming census questionnaires, FOSDIC "read" the images, converting pencil-filled dots to computer code that it stored on computer tape. The Census Bureau continued operating computers with direct links to UNIVAC I until decommissioning its last UNISYS mainframe computer in 2010.
  • Has the National Archives and Records Administration's 1950 Census records release gotten you interested in studying the records of famous sports stars, politicians, Civil Rights leaders, authors and poets, and even notorious criminals? You may be interested in our Famous and Infamous Census Records webpage. You will find hundreds of frequently searched records—maintained by the National Archives—including those for: presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan; movie stars Judy Garland, "Groucho" Marx, and Charlie Chaplin; authors Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe; activists Helen Keller and Malcolm X; industrialists George Washington Carver and Milton Hershey; scientists Rachel Carson and Albert Einstein; aeronautic pioneers Neil Armstrong and Amelia Earhart; musicians Johnny Cash, Irving Berlin, and "Fats" Domino; athletes Roger Marris, Knute Rockne, and Lou Gehrig; and gangsters Al Capone, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Thornton, and John Dillinger. Visit often for updated records following the 1950 Census release!

1950 Census Questionnaire Headings

The 1950 Census population questionnaire asked 20 questions of all people in each household, including name, address, relationship to the head of household, race, sex, age, marital status, etc.
Enumerators asked additional sample questions of 20 percent and 3.5 percent of the population. Some of the sample questions included parents' place of birth, educational attainment, employment,
veteran status, and—for married women—number of children ever born.

This Month in Census History

Between 1790 and 1820, Census Day was in August. It moved to June from 1830 to 1900. In 1910, households provided their data as of April 15.

In 1920, Census Day moved to January 1 because officials believed the earlier date would improve the accuracy of the agriculture census conducted at the same time as the population count.

Census Day moved to April 1 in 1930, and has remained their ever since. Two years ago, the 2020 Census found that the nation's population was 331,449,281.

1950 Enumeration District Map of Bergen, NJ
View larger image

Census Maps

The Census Bureau first used enumeration district maps in 1880. Meticulously drawn by Census Bureau cartographers and geographers, these maps depicted the area an enumerator was expected to cover during the census period. The maps' coverage could range from a few city blocks in densely populated urban areas to entire counties in rural areas.

Census officials obtained locally sourced maps created for the U.S. Post Office, land offices, soil surveyors, local governments; as well as those published by commercial printers. Using these base maps as their guide, Census Bureau cartographers and geographers then added necessary information to help enumerators develop routes that brought them to every housing unit in their assigned areas.

In addition to the wards, precincts, incorporated areas, urban unincorporated areas, townships, census supervisors' districts, and congressional districts that appear on some maps, enumeration district maps—like this 1950 enumeration district map for Ridgewood, Bergen County, NJ—included streets, boundaries, and water features to help the enumerator find their way. Many other features could be included on maps to help an enumerator find addresses, such as railroads, fences, prominent buildings or landmarks, and natural features.

Following their release on April 1, researchers viewing the 1950 Census will find the information needed on the schedules to identify and find each household's corresponding enumeration district map. Learn more about and search these maps at the National Archives Finding Aids for the 1950 Census webpage.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

1950 Census confidentiality advertisement
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For the Record

In 1950, the Census Bureau assured all Americans that the data they provided would remain strictly confidential. Even mentioning a resident's age to someone who did not have a work-related need-to-know could land a census employee in very serious trouble.

All Census Bureau employees are sworn to uphold the provisions of Title 13, U.S. Code, which protects the data collected by the census. Employees violating the law face severe penalties, including up to 5 years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine.

The 1950 Census records are being released by the National Archives on April 1, 2022, because 72 years have passed since Census Day, 1950. This 72 Year Rule restricts access to decennial census records to all but the individual named on the record or their legal heir.

After 72 years, the records are released to the public by the National Archives and Records Administration. For this reason, the National Archives released the 1950 records on April 1, 2022; 1960 Census records will be released on April 1, 2032; and the 1970 Census will become available April 1, 2042.

Worried about your record from the recent 2020 Census? Those records will not be released to the public until April 1, 2092. If you need to obtain a copy of your own 2020 record, you can request a certified copy by completing form BC-600.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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: April 28, 2022