Several weeks ago, I posted an article on the importance of humanizing data so that people better understand the stories that lie behind the numbers. Sometimes these data can help us uncover profound truths about ourselves as well as provide insights into society as a whole.
The internet has been all a buzz about the recent release of the 1940 Census data. After 72 years, the confidentiality of the 1940 Census has been lifted, and all of the information within it is now available to the public. What makes this decade’s release of past census data special is that all of it is online for free, in JPEG image format, for our viewing pleasure. Everything from people’s names, income, and what they did for a living 72 years ago is available for any pajama-wearing internet surfer. No more dealing with microfilm, magnetic tape, or online genealogy subscriptions, things that can be annoying and require effort to glean any insights from. For the casual genealogist, like myself, this was good news.
I have been spending the past few weeks since the release hunting down some of my relatives in 1940, many of whom were living in rural Minnesota seven decades ago. Some of them grew up in another country. Many were unemployed. My great-grandfather owned a shoe repair business.
Along with the simple amusement one gets from knowing such things, this genealogical exercise has uncovered some deeper truths as well. As it turns out, there is plenty of drama and inspiration to be found in the seemingly average lives of people at this time.
The year 1940 was a major turning point in our nation’s history. The Great Depression was winding to a close and Americans were keeping a close eye on the escalating conflict in Europe and Asia that would soon envelope the United States. The 1940 census would be the last snapshot of American life before post-industrial society radically redefined the very nature of the county and what it means to be an “American.”
This time was a turning point for my family as well. It would be the last decade where farming was the primary way of making a living for many of my ancestors. Some of whom, who had never left Minnesota a day in their lives, would soon find themselves half-way around the world fighting for their country in places they have only heard of in books or saw in movies. My grandfather was just 19 years old, still living with his family, and just met my grandmother. Unbeknownst to both of them at the time of the 1940 census, she was pregnant with my dad. In the next few months, they would be quickly swept up into marriage and raising children far before either of them wanted to even think about doing either (and then be swept into a World War only to be asked to make further sacrifices). It’s hard for such stories to not put one’s own life into perspective.
The free, online availability of the 1940 census data has made casual genealogy easy, but the insights gained from it are anything but casual or superficial. I highly encourage others to take a few hours to uncover some truths of their own.