Who Lived in Your House in 1940?

Here’s a splendid diversion if you’re a data nerd, a history buff, or even just like good detective work: Tell the story of the family that lived in your house in 1940. 

A bit more background.  If you are in the United States, you probably remember participating in the Decennial Census in 2010.  These forms are kept confidential for 72 years—roughly an average American’s life span.  But this same rule means that today (actually, a couple of days ago), the 1940 Census results became public information.  The good folks at the National Archives have scanned all of these census forms, and put them all online. With a bit of work, you should be able to find your house—or if you are in a newer neighborhood, perhaps a neighboring house.

My friend Sue Dynarski alerted me to all this, and issued the 1940 Census Challenge.

It took me a while, but I found my house.  It was home to three African-American families (or, in the words of the 1940 census, “Negroes”).  Multiple families in a dwelling was actually pretty common in Philadelphia, with each floor of the brownstone occupied by separate families. 

The three families provide an interesting snapshot of Depression-era Philadelphia.

First, the Chisom’s, who had moved to Philadelphia from Blackville, South Carolina. Neither Robert Chisom (age 47) nor his wife Ina (age 38) had any formal education.  He was working as a laborer for the city, and earned $800 (which is equivalent to $13,000, today).  She was a housewife. Their son Leroy (age 17) had attended school until the fourth grade, and was looking for his first job.  But in the wake of the Great Depression, he had been unemployed for over two years. His sister Colly (age 9) was still in the 3nd grade. 

Second, were Paul and Lillian Evans (age 33 and 32), who were also from Blackville. Despite the fact that Lillian was the better educated of the pair—she had a sixth grade education, while Paul only completed through to the second grade), consistent with the gender norms of the day, Lillian stayed at home.  Paul also had trouble finding work, but had been provided public “emergency work” as a laborer on a government project.  They were trying to raise their 9-year old daughter Evsilie (who was in the 2nd grade), despite only meager earnings of $60 over the previous year (or $1,000 in today’s dollars). 

Third,  Samuel and Lullu Rose (aged 39 and 37) were somewhat more educated, as they had completed the seventh and fourth grades, respectively.  Paul had also been unemployed for several years, and had previously worked as a laborer doing road construction. Given his unemployment, he had no wage income.  Samuel and Lullu did take in a boarder though, Horace Lodger, age 31, who had most recently worked as a mechanic, but also had been unable to find work over recent years.

Take a look through the archives for yourself.  My friends and I have also been sharing results on Facebook, but please also share what you learn in the comments.  I found it a fun and somewhat challenging research exercise.  And as you’ll see, it’s not easy reading 1940 handwriting!

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  1. jess O. says:

    awesome! i live in south philly and just found out my house was home to an Italian immigrant baker and his family ;)

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  2. Mike B says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  3. arthur says:

    hi, how do you find a person if you dont know the address .

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  4. Erica says:

    I am not from the US, so I looked for the area where my friends live. Where one of them lives the handwritting is not bad, it is easy to read. But in the area where my other friend lives, the handwritting is bad as mine. Good thing that two years ago when I worked as a census taker here in Brazil we used PDAs. If someday the forms are public – what has never ever happened, well, not that I know and I am a Stats student – people will understand what I wrote.

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  5. Ben says:

    Looks like my block in Watertown, MA was fairly well-off in 1940. No one is looking for work, and many have a college education. Not much has changed since then, I don’t think. I found it interesting to look at the places of birth: lots are from “Canada England.”

    To overcome the handwriting problem, the LDS Church is doing some awesome work to electronically index this entire census, as well as a host of other projects (WWI Draft Cards, Death Records, Censuses from other countries and time periods, etc.). You can take advantage of their work to look up your ancestors (or anyone else) on familysearch.org. Also, you can volunteer to help index. Basically, you get an image like the one Justin posted above, and you type in what is handwritten in the fields. It’s all done by volunteers, and they’ve indexed millions and millions of records at this point. I’ve found it to be pretty interesting to do now and then, and would highly recommend it. It doesn’t take too long either.

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  6. Kate says:

    My building on the west side of Chicago was home to the Machtingers, whose 22-year-old daughter Ruth supported her parents earning $650/year in an embroidery factory; and the Pozmanskys–Sam from Poland, Bessie from Russia, and their children Morris, Nathan, Sophie and …? (Handwriting roadblock on Pozmansky Minor #4.) Sam worked 26 weeks of the year as a laborer, supporting his family on $350.The neighbors were upholsterers, bakers and tailors (with the conspicuous exception of clerical worker Peter Mroczkowski, whose $2135 was twice what the second-richest neighbor earned). Down the block Alex Baron, the machine cleaner at the cheese factory, and his wife Florence had just had a son, Alex Jr. This is so delightful–thank you for pointing the way.

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  7. asdasd says:

    Do you think maybe they didn’t know Horace’s surname?

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  8. Harrison says:

    I did a search on my childhood home and found the people my parents described as having bought the house from. He worked, she took care of the home, their two children were 2 and 4.

    But don’t forget about the 1930s Census which isn’t online in the same way but the Mormon Church has put a searchable database online:

    https://www.familysearch.org/

    But unfortunately you can’t see the records like in the 1940s you have to send $34 to the Government to get those.

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