What America Looked Like: The 1940 Census

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Images of various households taken during the 1940 Census, assembled by the National Archives and the United States Census Bureau.

With clipboards in hand, almost 120,000 census takers traveled to all forms of households imaginable (from houses to campsites) to complete the 1940 enumerations. As seen in the gallery above, their work helped to provide a snapshot into the respective national diversity and living conditions across the country.

These collected images show just how broadly the terms "family" or "household" could apply. Census takers visited closer and more easily reachable locations, such as the farms of the Midwest or the brick mansions of Eastern suburbs, but they also ventured into far-off corners of the country like Alaska and Puerto Rico. No voices were to be left unheard, not even those found in trailers and trains. As an article from the New York Times archive states, the 1940 census was designed to be "the most complete statistical inventory of the nation's resources ever attempted."

However, what stands out most about this particular census is its attempt to evaluate the continuing consequences of a decade-long depression. In order to do so, the census introduced new questions about employment status and engagement with New Deal programs, such as the Works Progress Administration and the National Youth Administration. In fact, almost half of the census dealt exclusively with individual participation, or lack thereof, in the so-called "public emergency work." 

Although the WPA did succeed in providing millions of jobs to the unemployed, New Deal program participation slowed towards the end of the 1930s and was eventually shut down during the early 1940s. Still, at the time of 1940 census, over 2.5 million people had been recruited for public emergency work (it is worth noting that more than 2 million of them were men). And aside from New Deal programs, almost half of the 1940 labor force was employed by either manufacturing or agricultural industries. Most men in the general work force were between 25 and 34 years of age, whereas most women were between 20 and 24 years of age.

Take these figures and compare them with those of the present day: 10.4 percent of employees work in the manufacturing industry (agriculture is far down the list), and most men and women in the civilian labor force are between 45-54 years.

Extracted from the Census Bureau's online database, here are a few more comparisons between 1940 and the present day to better understand just how much the U.S. has changed, for better or worse.

  • In terms of education, the U.S. has certainly seen dramatic improvement. Only 24.5 percent of Americans had finished high school in 1940, whereas 85.6 percent today graduate or earn a GED. Just 4.6 percent of Americans had a college education then, compared with the present day's 28.2 percent.
  • The domestic population has become much more diverse; there are nine different census categories of ethnic heritage (including two for Hispanic and Latino origins) to describe Americans as opposed to the three 1940 divisions of "black, white, or other."
  • Women are still paid less than men -- a well-known and often-protested fact. In 1940, women earned 62 cents for every dollar made by a man compared to the present 74 cents; a mere 12 cent increase has been accomplished in the past 72 years.

Statistics like these, provided by the Census Bureau, emphasize which areas have improved and which areas leave much to be desired. But along with this sweeping overview, censuses provide an intimate glance into the lives of many Americans. If not for the census, how would we able to find a record of how a whole nation looked and lived on a single day?

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Madeleine Kruhly writes and produces for The Atlantic.

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