Genealogists, fire up your computer: The 1940 census is online

For those who are fascinated by time capsules and family trees, a new treasure trove opened up online for the first time Monday when the National Archives released the 1940 census.

After 72 years hidden by a legal cloak of confidentiality, 3.8 million digital images of what Census enumerators found in 1940 became available to anyone with a computer.

The National Archives, a federal government agency, partnered with, a family history website owned and operated by Inflection, a Silicon Valley company, to create to the 1940 census website. Previous data dumps were on microfilm.

But the importance of the release goes beyond just its greater public availability.

About 21 million people who were alive in 1940 are still alive today--a testament to the power of new drugs, new medical techniques and improved water and sanitation. (In 1940, about 45% of all Americans lived in a home that lacked complete plumbing facilities, compared to 2% in 2010, census figures show). Despite that longevity, 1940 remains terra incognita to most of the country.

For the United States, 1940 was the last catch of breath between the decade of the Great Depression and the nation’s resurgence brought about by World War II, already underway in Europe and Asia.

There were just 132 million Americans in 1940, compared to about 309 million counted by the 2010 census. In 1940, 90% of those counted identified themselves as white, with only 72.4% picking that race 70 years later. The percentage of African Americans grew slightly, to 12.6% from 9.8%, while other ethnic groups including Latinos and Asian Americans became increasingly visible over the decades.

Where people lived also changed as the U.S. population followed the sun, moving west and southwest. In 1940, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois were the most populous states. By 2010, California, the heir to the great migrations from bankrupt farms, and Texas joined New York at the top of the list.

By 2010, agriculture had dropped out of the top five industries; it was second in 1940, with at least 18.5% of the population still tied to the farm.

The top industry in 1940 was manufacturing, which fell to fourth by 2010, employing 10.6%. The phrases “rust belt,” and “exporting jobs abroad” entered the lexicon to explain the decline of manufacturing jobs and the resulting impact on formerly powerful economic engines like parts of the Northeast.

Still, some things appeared to get better.

Just 5% of Americans in 1940 could boast of having a college degree. By 2010, 28% were alumni of a college. Women were earning more, narrowing, but not closing the gap in income with men. In 1940, women earned 62 cents for every dollar a man earned. But in 2010, it was 74 cents.


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