Using U.S. Census Population
This lesson plan was developed by the Office of School Services as part of the Wisconsin Stories teachers guide for the secondary-level classroom. Please adapt it to fit your students' needs.
Since 1790 the U. S. government has taken a census every ten years to enumerate the population and apportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Canvassers recorded information about individuals and households on large sheets called population schedules. To protect privacy, the U.S. Census Bureau restricts access to the population schedules for seventy-two years after a census is taken.
The State Historical Society of Wisconsin's library owns copies of all the surviving population schedules from 1790 through 1920 on microfilm. Population schedules of Wisconsin residents are available for 1820-1920. (The schedules for 1820 and 1830 are included in the schedules of Michigan.)
Why introduce your students to the census? One of the weaknesses of diaries, letters and other traditional historical sources is that they often fail to document the lives of ordinary people. By examining source materials like the census, we can begin to construct a view of history from the bottom up. Social scientists and historians use population schedules to study immigration, ethnicity, families, health, work and economic trends, among numerous other topics.
As with any historical document, there are portions of history missing in the population schedules. It is important to consider the limitations in a particular document or source. Prior to the 1850 census, for example, canvassers recorded only the names of the heads of households on the population schedules and the census did not enumerate American Indians until the late nineteenth century. Some of the suggested classroom discussion questions and activities that follow address these problems.
In selecting population schedules for this web site, we have attempted to illustrate the ethnic diversity of communities across Wisconsin at the turn of the century. Fifteen communities with particularly strong ethnic identities are highlighted. You can examine a population schedule by clicking on any of the communities shown. One or two sheets from the population schedules will not provide an adequate sample of data for most communities. Nonetheless, students will benefit from examining these facsimiles. They will observe the remarkable cultural mosaic existing in Wisconsin at the beginning of the twentieth century. Continuing their investigation, students will note changes in the workforce, family size and structure, and educational levels.
U.S. Census Population Schedules, 1900.
*note* These are PDF (Portable Document Format) files which require Adobe's Acrobat Reader to be viewed. You can download this free program from the Adobe web site.
- Distribute copies of some of the population schedules to your students. Direct students to study the schedules carefully. After a few minutes, use the following questions in a classroom discussion.
- What kind of document are you studying? Who collected the information? Why?
- Are there any parts of the document that are illegible or confusing?
- Who lived in the community? Where did they come from?
- Can you infer what might have brought them to this community? (If you were to move to a new place, what might you look for?) What seems to be the main industry in the community? How did they make their living? Can you find some occupations that people still work at today?
- What can the information in this document tell you about life in 1900?
- Did people have larger or smaller families in 1900 compared with today? Can you think of any reasons why this might be true?
- What could you learn about your own community using federal census records? Would you find any of your relatives?
- Do you need more information to answer any of the above questions or questions of your own?
- If you had to design a new federal census population schedule, what new categories would you add and what categories would you delete?
- Have students calculate the percentage of the people represented on these population schedules who were:
- born in another state,
- born in another country,
- born in Wisconsin.
- Create a pie chart illustrating the results.
- Have students calculate the percentage of the people represented on these population schedules with at least one parent who was born in another country. Then survey your students to see how many had a parent or grandparent born in another country.
- Direct students to select one household and carefully study its members (family size, occupations, ages, level of education, property). For part 1 of this assignment, students should collect the raw data and write a brief description of the household. For the second part, students should answer the following questions:
- Which parts of your description are based on facts?
- Which parts are based on inferences?
- What other kinds of information would be useful? Where might you go to find this information?
- Direct students to examine columns 11 and 12 on the population schedules. First, have your students calculate the total number of births and, second, determine how many of these children were alive. Examining other sources--including world almanacs and encyclopedias--have students investigate infant mortality rates in history. How do these numbers compare with today?
- Direct students to examine column 8 and find some people younger than eighteen years old. Then look at column 19 and find their occupation (if any). How many were "at school"? How many had jobs? Describe these occupations. Have students identify the youngest and oldest people who had jobs. How do these numbers compare with today?
- Direct students to examine column 24. Does it include any people who did not speak English? Where were they from? Did any of their relations speak English? Can students think of any advantages to speaking more than one language?