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Highlights Archives

1940 Census Records Released

A stack of census records in the Society's library

After 72 years, genealogists have struck a gold mine of information about America's past. Earlier this month, the staff of the National Archives and Records Administration released the 1940 census, and it has sparked additional interest in exploring family history. Genealogy has recently received welcomed attention due to websites like or and the television show, "Who Do You Think You Are?," in which celebrities explore their family history.

The Significance of the 1940 Census

Lori Bessler, a reference librarian for the Wisconsin Historical Society who also teaches genealogy classes, explained the significance of the 1940 Census. "The 1940 Census came at a decisive time in our nation's history — as families were recovering from the Great Depression and just before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the USA entered World War II," said Bessler. "This census also was the first census that asked and recorded more details of American life." For example, according to the National Archives and Records Administration, almost half of the 65 questions regarded the characteristics of a family's home, such as the presence of a radio, flush toilets, whether principal lighting equipment was electric, gas or kerosene, or if there was running water.

"The 1940 census was the first in which census takers asked a random sample of the population an extra set of detailed questions, including mothers' and fathers' birthplace, the mothers' language, veteran status, occupation, industry and class of worker and, for women who were married, whether they had been married more than once, age at first marriage and number of children ever born," said Bessler.

To gather even more information about population and migration, census takers asked questions regarding the residence five years earlier, income, highest level of school completed, and detailed questions on unemployment. Because the 1940 census is not name indexed yet, Bessler recommends that people visit, "to get started and take the quiz to help find information — knowing the enumeration district is key for the 1940 census."

Resources for Searching for Your Ancestors

Several sponsors, including, National Archives, ProQuest,, and, are encouraging volunteers from genealogical and historical societies to help create a searchable index of the 1940 census through the 1940 U.S. Census Community Project.

"Also, the Society has one of the top five genealogy collections with a focus on North American History and has a phenomenal collection of city directories," added Bessler. "Our staff also has the expertise and can identify resources, such as diaries, address books or obituaries, so that people can depend on us to make their search easier." For example, an obituary can provide clues about a person's family and where they lived, which are essential details for searching census records. Censuses then can show whether people owned a home, where they were born, who their siblings were, and because of the variety of questions in the 1940 Census, what American households were really like.

For additional information or questions, go to our genealogy page,, or call the library reference desk at 608-264-6535.

:: Posted April 16, 2012

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