Not Another 1950 Census Article
April 01, 2022
You will most likely be looking at the newly released US Census by the time you read this. The release will be in its infancy, so it won’t be thoroughly indexed, and there may be bugs to work out. But you’ll be closer to better understanding your family’s life in 1950s America.
Every census reveal is an exciting event in the genealogy world. Those waiting for the 1921 UK Census that was recently released know the feeling. I remember when the 1930 US census came out and all of the celebration, indexing, and overall sense of discovery (heck, I think I even have a t-shirt commemorating it).
And lucky for us, there is a vibrant genealogy education community that has provided us with articles, lectures, and videos with information to conduct better searches on the 1950 census as we prepare for the release. Legacy Webinars has also helped us prepare with webinars like this one from Dear Myrtle and Russ Worthington and an upcoming webinar by Lisa Louise Cooke.
But this isn’t going to be another one of those 1950 census articles.
Instead, I want you to think about something along the lines of “I’ve looked at the census, now what?” For most researchers, you already know that you will find a family member in the 1950 census. You probably created that list months before the release date. Yes, there are probably some who aren’t sure if the family member had died and looking to the census to verify an absence, but for the most part, you know who you are looking for and expect to find them.
Once you find your family, you will note the information, save the census to your computer and/or family tree.
What will you do next? Is our census search just about finding people on the census, recording them, and then moving on to the next record?
Once you found your family in 1950, what will you do next? The answer should be “analyze and build on what I've found.”
How do we do that? It starts with transcribing the information and using the enumerator instructions to understand our ancestor’s answers. One problem with the 1950 Census is we won’t know who answered those questions, so we can’t determine how accurate the information is.
Once we have transcribed and studied the answers in conjunction with the enumerator’s instructions, we need to ask ourselves what these census answers tell us about our ancestors and what other records help complete this picture of their lives.
Ask research questions and then seek out the answers. Consider what the census tells us beyond a name, age, and race. For example, you might learn of a street address. The street address helps to answer where our ancestors lived, but we may want to know more about that place. What type of home is it? Is it a house or an appointment? Are they institutionalized or at school? We could follow up that address from the census with a look in our family photo collections for that house or a historical map (even the enumeration district map). We might want to look up that address today and see if a photo or description of the house exists online (if a house, maybe it’s on a real estate website) or Google Maps.
We need to look at our family in the census and verify we have all the relevant records for them, such as vital records or if they are one of the men asked about military service in the supplemental questions, any relevant military documents. Remember, our families in 1950 have just experienced a world war, and their lives were impacted both at home and on the battlefields.
Once we transcribe, read the enumerator instructions, ask research questions, and gather pertinent documents, we need to write up our findings. Even if the idea of writing makes your eyes cross, write up a simple paragraph stating what the 1950 census tells you about their life during that time. Adding personal photographs and newspaper articles from the 1950s can also help that story.
The release of the 1950 US census is exciting, but don’t let it become another record that is looked at and forgotten on your family tree. Make the most of what it has to tell you about your ancestor in that snapshot in time.
Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.