NARA Releases 1930 Census Records

David Darlington, May 2002

April 1, 2002, was an exciting day for historians, genealogists, and the National Archives. On that day, microfilm records of the 1930 U.S. Census became available at National Archives and Records Administration facilities nationwide.

A brief ceremony was held at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., heralding the release of the census records. John W. Carlin, archivist of the United States, and Charles Louis Kincannon, director of the census, made brief remarks, followed by a joint ribbon cutting. The National Archives' microfilm library was then opened to those wanting to be the first to view the census data. The event was attended by a large contingent of historians and genealogists, as well as members of the national press corps.

Carlin's opening remarks provided some historical context for the census records. The 1930 census survey began on April 1, 1930, just six months after the stock market crash of 1929. At the time, the census was still taken by a door-to-door canvass of households in the United States. Nearly 87,800 enumerators covered 120,105 enumeration districts in the United States, counting 123 million Americans. Census-takers read off a series of 32 questions, and responses were recorded by hand. Many of the questions are familiar: What is your name? Are you single or married? Do you have children? Others reflected the signs of the times: "Does this household have a radio set?" The radio question, Carlin noted, would evolve over the years to reflect technological advances, into questions about television sets and computers. Carlin praised the 1930 census, saying it was "more revealing than any other census" taken before that date, and adding that the census records are "invaluable to those who are researching the demographics and social trends of the 1920s."

Louis Kincannon highlighted some of the more interesting features of the 1930 census. For instance, 1930 was the last time that the same questions were issued to every household in the United States, before the development of the long and short census forms. 1930 also represents the last time the whole census was taken by the nationwide canvass. The subsequent surveys have relied on mailed census forms more than the manual headcount. Despite this limitation, Kincannon noted, the 1930 census was actually completed faster than the 1990 census. Finally, the 1930 census was the last time that the Soundex index system (a system based on the way a name is pronounced rather than how it is spelled) was used. From 1880 to 1930, the Bureau of the Census used the Soundex system to organize census data, making it much easier for current researchers to locate individual households. Unfortunately, Kincannon noted, only 12 states in the 1930 census are Soundex indexed, because the agency charged with creating the Soundex indexes was shut down in the early 1940s.

The record of the 1930 census consists of 2,667 rolls of population schedules and 1,587 rolls of Soundex indexes for 12 southern states, totaling 4,254 rolls of microfilm. Upon the completion of the microfilm record, in 1949, the Bureau of the Census destroyed the original census documents. Statistical summaries collected by enumerators were made public shortly after the census was taken, but privacy laws restricted the information on individuals and families for 72 years. Kincannon estimated, however, "20 million people enumerated in the census are still alive today."

Carlin noted that the National Archives and Records Administration is developing databases and an online census microfilm locator to assist in research. The census records currently have their own web site, http://1930census.archives.gov, which researchers are encouraged to visit before diving headfirst into the National Archives.

After 72 years, researchers finally have access to the census records that, according to Kincannon, informed the government's recovery efforts during the Great Depression. He told researchers to "enjoy" the census records, and hoped that they would "find [their] efforts fruitful." Carlin added, "The records we keep are your records, the records of your family, your community, and your nation."

David Darlington is assistant editor of Perspectives.