From black-smithing to robotics, from muskets to lasers, from an agrarian economy to one increasingly based on services, the Census Bureau and its predecessors have measured our economic activities since the first census of manufactures in 1810. As the nation's economy grew more diverse and complex, the scope of what is now called the economic census expanded to include retail and wholesale trade, construction industries, mining, and a broad array of services.
Early in the 19th century, Congress responded to a rapid increase in industrial activity by ordering census takers - in those days federal marshals - to "take an account . . . of the several manufactures within their several districts, territories and divisions" as part of the census of 1810. As the marshals traveled from house to house counting the population, they asked questions on 25 broad categories of manufactured products and more than 200 kinds of goods.
In successive decades, the census came to include certain non-manufacturing businesses as well, such as retail stores, lumberyards and butcher shops. In 1902, Congress authorized the establishment of a permanent Census Bureau and also directed that a census of manufactures be taken every five years. The 1905 manufacturing census was a milestone, marking the first time a census of any kind was taken separately from the decennial population census.