The 1950 census – who cares?

What IS this?

Okay, I know the title of this post is not going to be popular amongst many of our readers. My original title contained at least one curse word! It’s not that I do not care about the 1950 census, it’s more of an overall appreciation of how many more records are now available at our fingertips, as well as the rise, and partial fall, of the U.S. census as a go-to resource in genealogy.

When I began doing genealogy in the 1990s, I used the census sparingly. The census was then only available on microfilm and the book indexes were largely organized by head of household, or by individuals with a surname other than the household head. NEHGS had a complete 1910 census for the entire country, but for the (then-recently-released) 1920 census, we only had the New England states, and I would have to go over to the Boston Public Library to use the 1920 census for other states. To find individuals, you would find your surname by the SOUNDEX. When was the last time I had to use that?!

A game changer came as began to index the censuses by every name. The 1930 census came out when I was in college. Well before any index was completed, I found all four of my teenaged grandparents. They were all living in small towns, so it was not so difficult. Had I waited just a couple of months until the index was completed, this search of a few hours would have only taken me a few minutes! In a way, that’s how the census has spoiled us. Because it is often so quick to search, we might overlook other valuable resources because of how long looking through those records might take us. This is not meant to diminish the importance of the census, only to partially explain why it is used more than other records.

Why was I so interested in finding her?

I was likewise excited when the 1940 census came out, but now comes the part about many more records being available than before. One of the reasons I wanted to see this census was to see if my great-great-grandmother, Mary Rosella “Rosa” (Through) (Helman) Whipple (born in 1858), was still alive! She was the only one of my great-great-grandparents that I had not “killed off.” She was living in 1930 in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, but I could not find her in the 1940 census. Why was I so interested in finding her? At the time Pennsylvania did not have an open index of death certificates. You essentially had to know the year your ancestor died to request a death certificate. I knew that for all my other ancestors who died in the Keystone State, but due to a divorce and some estrangement, no one on that side of the family knew exactly when Rosa died. Pennsylvania later released an online index; I soon found her, dying in Allentown in 1950, and ordered her death certificate. However, had I waited a few more years, I could have found her in the online database of Pennsylvania Death Certificates, 1906-1968.

This all goes to say, Will I be rushing on day one of the 1950 census debut? Probably not. This census will have my father’s parents with his older sister, and my mother’s parents with two of her older siblings.[1] I already know where they were living. I know it’s a valuable resource, and it will be terrific when working with younger people as this might be the first census where their grandparent, or even a great-grandparent, first appears as a child under ten years old, giving us a starting point to extend their ancestry further back.


[1] I have found my mother, born in Kansas in 1952, in eight annual state censuses of Kansas 1953-61.

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

14 thoughts on “The 1950 census – who cares?

  1. Totally agree. I am curious about only one thing-the address of the home my parents and their two month old daughter were living at that exact moment. I know where everyone else was, and although I will check in a few months, after the excitement has died down and the access is better, to make sure there are no surprises. Meanwhile, there are lots of other records to find that may help me in my quest for my “challenges”.

  2. I am in agreement. When I started we had to go through microfilm, in person by hand. When indexes came they were a godsend along with Soundex cards….those were the days!

  3. I am curious to see whether my father, aunt, and grandparents appear in the 1950 census. They were living in Peru, and this is the first census to include Americans living abroad…IF a relative living in the states reported them. We will see! It will also be interesting to check out the living arrangements of my great-grandfather, his second (by then estranged) wife, and her son by her first marriage, who was listed with the surname of her second husband in the 1940 census and who eventually used my great-grandfather’s surname.

  4. 1950 is exciting for me as it will be the first census where I appear. I started doing research in the 1960s by interviewing family, writing to town and county clerks and visiting cemeteries myself. I graduated to endless hours of scrolling census, ship arrivals and naturalization records on microfilm at NARA when I lived in the DC area in the early 1980s. Imagine how exciting it was later to visit a FHL and be able to look up the indexed 1880 census on a CD! I later purchased a copy for myself. The advent of digital copies of original documents on-line was a game changer, however. Wow we have come so far. Where will be in another 10 years? HOWEVER I cringe at how sloppy new researchers are at recording and “proving” data. I hate that posting your tree becomes the end-all and stories are lost, misinformation is indelibly mounted and copied, never to be examined or corrected. Sigh……..

  5. Thanks for posting this. I’m with you – my sisters and I first appear in the 1950 census but I know that already and the location of most close relatives. It’s not possible to key into the 1940 enumeration district for my parents anyway since they lived in an apartment just before buying their newly constructed tract house shortly before I was born. So no hurry or frenzy to see the 1950 census. I’ll wait until there is at least some rudimentary indexing first. Other relatives will be fun, but the frenzy is just not worth it. Too many other genealogical puzzles to solve!

  6. Not to admit my age or anything, the 1950 census will be the first in which I appear. I believe we were stationed at Norfolk, Virginia, and my Dad had gone, or was soon to go, overseas to Okinawa during the Korean War. I was 2.

    1. It will be fifty more years until I see myself. I was in utero for the 1980 census, so if I live to 89 I will be see myself at 9 years old in the 1990 census in Connecticut!

      The 2000 census was taken when I was in college in New Jersey. I filled in the form for myself and then when I was on spring break my parents received their form in Connecticut. I filled in their form which included my parents and two younger sisters. It’s always been a mild regret that I was honest and resisted the temptation to enumerate myself in two states.

      2020 census was the first census where I was at the same address (in Boston) as the previous one.

  7. I am hoping that somehow I will find the people in my family that moved around a Lot! Including me. I couldn’t find my family in 1940 and will not be surprised if the same happens in the 1950 census. Sigh

  8. My feelings are much the same about the 1950 census. My family is small and only living in two houses. I won’t be jumping into the fray on opening day, but will look for my parents and grandparents at some future time.

  9. At first I was eagerly waiting for the 1950 census, then I realized I knew where all my living relatives were living in 1950. My parents were in the front bedroom. I was in the back one.. All my aunts, uncles were within walking distance down the road.
    I guess I can get nosey about my neighbors. Small town 780 in 1940. I’m 88.

  10. I hope that the 1950 transcriptions are better than the 1940. I could not find my paternal grandparents in searching the index. Since I new where they were living (Intervale Village, Bartlett, New Hampshire), I browsed the images, which were only 4 or 5 pages. They were there — mistranscribed as “Piatt”. The big surprise for me in the 1940 census was that my mother (age 3) had 4 living great-grandfathers — I had only known that one was still living, because he was a regular part of my mother’s childhood; a second was in the Delaware State Hospital, and when I asked, she had a vague recollection of that; the other two were complete surprises to us both. I am looking forward to 1950 to help fill in details on 2 of my great-aunts, and on a first cousin of my grandfather who I have lost after 1940.

  11. According to the MyHeritage Census Hub, this Census is the first to include people who were living abroad, so this new information may reveal research subjects who you could not find in earlier census years.

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