Family Tree Friday: 1940 Census – Following the instructions (of the enumerators!)

This week’s blog post comes once again from guest blogger Diane Petro, Archives Technician in the Research Support Branch at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.  Diane is working on reference activities relating to the upcoming 1940 census release.

Actor Tyrone Power talking with a census enumerator.

Researchers often go to the Instructions to the Enumerator when trying to interpret a question on the census.  But what did census enumerators do when they had a question?  The unidentified enumerator in the photo appears to be listening carefully to Tyrone Power’s answers. But did every enumerator follow the instructions? At the end of the canvas for the 1940 census, the Bureau of the Census sent a confidential questionnaire to a sampling to 115,433 enumerators, and 16,025 of them sent back completed questionnaires.

The following table is from: Records of the Bureau of the Census (RG 29), NN369-58 Entry P-26 Box 4: Scrapbook pertaining to the 1940 Census of Houseing, 1940-1948.  (Historical report of 1940 Census Volume 4 to Forms HC-327 to HC-359 No Volume #.  File-16th Decennial Census 1940 Historical report of 1940 Census, Volume 4.)

Table XIII: Miscellaneous Questions Asked Enumerators and Their Replies

In enumerating on the Population schedule, did you:

  • Write directly in ink and turn the schedule in without copying any of them? (5,244 Answered Yes)
  • After copying some of them? (9,463 Answered Yes)
  • After copying most all of them? (272 Answered Yes)

Or did you enumerate in pencil and later go over your work:

  • In ink on the same sheet? (388 Answered Yes)
  • Copy in ink on another sheet? (163 Answered Yes)
  • Did not answer the questions? (495 Answered Yes)

Did you read the entire set of Instructions before you began to enumerate?

  • (12,256 Answered Yes)
  • (857 Answered No)
  • (2,912 No Answer)

Did you usually look up the instructions immediately? (14,946 Answered Yes)

Use your best judgment without looking up instructions? (785 Answered Yes; 294 No Answer)

When you found after you left a Household that you had not filled in all answers to all questions that should have been answered, did you ordinarily:

  • Call back to get the correct information? (14,799 Answered Yes)
  • Enter what you thought the answer would have been? (465 Answered Yes; 761 No Answer)

This survey shows that while most enumerators did follow instructions set forth by the Census Bureau, a few of them were not so careful.  When you are searching through the census records and come across inconsistencies, keep this in mind.

5 thoughts on “Family Tree Friday: 1940 Census – Following the instructions (of the enumerators!)

  1. i am trying to trace my native american roots and i am running into road block after road block any information that anybody could i give me would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Tamara,

      You might want to start researching your Native American ancestry by looking at the resources on our website: We have a lot of information about the records we hold relating to Native American heritage, as well as further resources that might help you in your research. Do you know the tribe of your ancestry? If you do, you may be able to find more information by contacting them directly.

      Best of luck with your research,

  2. I have been ‘attempting’ to trace my wife’s father’s family for our genealogy files. I have been able to find them on the 1930 census, but not back to any other records. I know that they were here before 1920, but can find nothing including Ellis Island files or the Castle garden records. Where should I try next. I have found everyone else in our families, but no success in my wife’s father’s.

    1. Hi Robert,

      It’s really common to run into this kind of “brick wall” while doing research. Have you tried looking for immigration records for other ports? While New York was certainly one of the largest port, it wasn’t the only one. Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston were also quite active. I’d try expanding your search to include some other ports. We have the records on microfilm, and you can access them online through

      When you’re looking at census records (any record, to be honest!), make sure you try all possible spelling variations – even ones that don’t make a lot of sense. The information was all taken down orally, so the census taker could have misunderstood the name. Also, these records can be difficult to read, so it’s possible it was just misindexed. As a last resort, you can always go through the county or town your ancestors were living in line by line. It’s a lot of work, but I’ve had a lot of success with this method. Of course, if they were living in New York City, I wouldn’t start with this method!

      Good luck with your research,

      – Katherine

  3. I have been attempting to trace my family tree ,I know they moved to Reading,PA ,Berks county in 1938-1940 from Tamaqua ,PA with 3 of my older brothers. I am not having much luck. Please help me if you can.

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