Dive Into Newly-Released 1950 Census Records
Family secrets or your house's history await. But it helps if you can read cursive.
Looking to learn some family history? Curious about who used to live in your home? Looking to kill some time over the holiday break? The federal government is here to help.
In April, the U.S. Census Bureau released its 1950 Census, as required by a federal law calling for full release of each decennial census (and all its personal details) 72 years after it is completed. You can digitally page through the forms a Census enumerator filled out while going door to door, or search the index. The handwritten forms reveal precisely who lived at each address in the country as of spring 1950.
Your first instinct might be to search for your parents or grandparents. With relative ease, I was able to track down my grandfather, Ralph Jannene, living in Marshfield. Using the six questions asked of all residents age 14 or older, I learned that he was a 33-year-old mechanic working 60 hours per week in a tractor repair shop. With another roomer, he was living with a couple that was only six years his senior. The description of his landlord’s occupation indicates he likely doubled as my grandfather’s boss and possessed similar workaholic tendencies.
Searching by street address is a little more complicated, but thankfully a volunteer group has done much of the hard work already. Using a web interface generated by census gurus Stephen P. Morse and Joel D. Weintraub and several volunteers, one can use a drop-down interface to track down the specific “enumeration district” that contains the targeted address. The district is a digital stack of paper that contains all of the addresses in a given area. Within a matter of minutes, I was able to find the residents of my Lenox Street home and all of their neighbors. I then paired that with the Milwaukee Public Library‘s Newsbank archive of the Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel and online obituary to learn that Ralph L. Bauer was a World War II veteran and mechanical engineer with Bucyrus Erie and later Harnischfger. He patented a piece of equipment used in mining shovels.
If you’re having a hard time searching the census records, you can try a private company like Ancestry which does its own indexing of the records. But even their efforts aren’t foolproof. Neither the Census Bureau nor Ancestry indexed my paternal grandmother and I don’t have a list of possible addresses to track down. It’s also possible that she simply didn’t answer the door for the enumerator on any of their visits, a shortcoming that still plagues censuses today.
The 2020 Census, the most recently conducted, is still the subject of controversy. The City of Milwaukee is one of several dozen cities and states contesting the results. The city believes it was shortchanged by approximately 16,400 residents. It will be 2092 when we find out exactly what was submitted, but unlike the 1950 release, it won’t be handwritten. The process now results in an electronic document.