Top 10 Strategies for Finding School Records for Genealogy

Have you found all the school records there are to be had for your ancestors? Most of us haven’t, and the chances are very good that there are still some gems out there waiting to be found. Here are ten solid strategies that will help you track them down for your genealogy research. 

10 strategies for finding school records

Watch episode 82 below.

Because the movement for compulsory public education didn’t begin until the 1920s, many people assume that there few records to be had for genealogical purposes prior to that time. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Many children attended school much earlier.

In fact, it may be surprising to learn that the first public school in what is now the United States opened in the 17th century. On April 23, 1635, the first public school was established in Boston, Massachusetts.

The Boston Latin School, established 1635 first school

Illustration of the Boston Latin School  by Ebenezer Thayer, courtesy of Wikimedia

It was a boys-only public secondary school called the Boston Latin School, and it was led by schoolmaster Philemon Pormont, a Puritan settler. The school was strictly for college preparation, and produced well-known graduates including John Hancock and Samuel Adams. It’s most famous dropout? Benjamin Franklin! The school is still in operation today, though in a different location.

Thousands of schools serving millions of students have been established in the U.S. since the inception of the Boston Latin School. (According to 2015-16 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) there are 132,853 K-12 schools in the U.S.) This means that the chances of there being school records for your ancestors is great indeed!

10 Solid Strategies for Finding School Records for Genealogy 

Here are 10 proven ways to find your ancestors’ awkward yearbook photos, sports triumphs, and much, much more.

1. Establish a Timeline of your Ancestor’s Education

Check your genealogy software database to figure out when your ancestor would have attended high school or college. Keep in mind, as recently as the 1960s, children did not go to Kindergarten but may have started school at about 6 years old and beginning in First Grade.

To keep my search organized, I decided to create a simple worksheet form in a Word document. It allows me to identify the right time frames, locations, and other pertinent information for my search, and record my progress along the way. 

Premium Bonus Download: Click to download the blank school records worksheet for your own school research use. (Premium Membership required.)

2. Consult Family Papers and Books for School Records 

Go through old family papers and books looking for things like:

  • school photos
  • senior calling cards,
  • high school autograph books,
  • journals and diaries,
  • fraternity or sorority memorabilia,
  • yearbooks and more.

When I dug through boxes and my grandmother’s cedar chest I found several records like…

a Report Card:

Example of a report card school genealogy records

My grandmother’s brother’s 6th grade report card found among family papers.

Grandma’s class picture from the 7th grade in 1925, Chowchilla, California. She is in the back row on the far right, and her brother is the boy in the center of the back row:

School Records: 7th grade class

Grandma (back row, far right) with her 7th grade class.

And Grandma’s senior portrait, 1930:

School records: senior portrait

Grandma’s senior portrait from 1930

3. Google for Academic Family History

From the professional website of the state archives to the family history site cobbled together by a cousin you’ve never met, the potential for finding school records on the vast expanse of the internet is limitless! Google is the tool to help you locate websites that include school-related records with lightning speed. 

Since I’m not sure which school my grandmother attended, I started off my search for my grandmother’s school with a simple query for the history of schools in the county where she lived as a child:

google search for schools

Google search for the history of school’s in the county

I was pleasantly surprised at the first search result. It’s a newspaper article from the Madera Tribune literally outlining the history of how the schools evolved in the county! It details such things as the driving forces behind where schools were located, when they were founded, and which ones at the time of the article were no longer in existence. 

history of schools article - genealogy records

History of Madera Schools Outlined in the Madera Tribune, September 1955.

Next, I focused my attention on the grade school listed on Grandma’s brother’s 6th grade report card that I discovered during my search of family papers. I Googled the name of the school, county and state.

A search like this can literally deliver millions of results. In fact, this specific search brings up over 1 million search results.

The Genealogist's Google Toolbox Third edition Lisa Louise Cooke

Lisa Louise Cooke’s book is available in the Genealogy Gems Store

You can typically reduce the unwanted search results by 90% by using search operators. These symbols and words give Google further instructions on what you want done with the words you are searching.

While I cover a large number of operators in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, I’m going to use just one of the most popular to dramatically improve my search for the Sharon school. 

In the example below I put quotation marks around the name of the school. Doing this explains to Google that I want this phrase to appear exactly as I typed it in every single search result. You’ve probably noticed that when you search a phrase by itself, you’ll receive results that include only one of the words, or the words spelled differently, or in a different order. The quotation marks search operator prevents this from happening. It mandates that the phrase appear on every result exactly as you typed it.

google search for the school

Using Search Operators to Google the Grade School

Notice that I didn’t put quotation marks around the county name or the state. I recommend using search operators sparingly, at least in your initial search, to ensure that you don’t miss out on good results. If I were to put quotations marks around “Madera county” I would not receive any web pages that do mention Sharon School but just don’t happen to mention Madera County as a phrase. 

Notice also that this search resulted in just over 11,000 results, a small fraction of what I would have received had I not used the quotation marks! Even more important is that the results on the first few pages of are all very good matches. 

I could try a few more variations such as adding words like history, genealogy or records

My googling led me to the Internet Archive where I found old silent color movies shot in the 1940s. There were several films and one featured the local school in the area where my relatives lived. Many, many people were filmed! Could one of those faces be one of my relatives?! Learn more about finding genealogical information includes school records by watching and reading 10 Awesome Genealogy Finds at the Internet Archive.

using internet archive for genealogy

Click image to watch episode 43.

4. Search Newspapers

Historic newspaper are also a wonderful source of honor rolls, school sporting events and anything else having to do with school life.

While there are certainly more historic newspapers online than ever before, it’s still a fraction of what is available.

A visit to the Chronicling America website can help. At the home page click the U.S. Newspaper Directory button: 

Newspaper directory at Chronicling America

Click the U.S. Newspaper Directory button at Chronicling America

On the Directory search page, enter the state, county and town:

U.S. Newspaper Directory searching for the school town

Search the U.S. Newspaper Director for the school location.

On the results page, click the “View complete holding information” link: 

newspaper directory location Chronicling america

Click “View the holdings”

Now you can view all of the known available locations for this item:

U.S. Newspaper Director known holding locations

The item I searched for has three known locations.

In my case, the Chowchilla newspaper of the early 20th century has not been digitized and is not available online. However, the California State Archives in Sacramento has an extensive collection of microfilm. I was able to make the trip in person, and was certainly glad I did! They not only had the newspaper I needed but also countless other resources that were helpful for my genealogical research. 

School record: newspaper clipping

My Grandma listed by name in the newspaper for making the Freshman high school honor roll.

Here are additional resources to help you find newspapers for your school records research:

  • Local newspapers can also be found by searching for the public library website in the town where your ancestor attended school. Check the library’s online card catalog or contact them directly to see what newspapers they have and whether any can be loaned (on microfilm) through inter-library loan.
  • Click here to visit Newspapers.com by Ancestry website.  This is a subscription website with over 14,900+ newspapers from the 1700s–2000s and millions of additional pages being added monthly.
  • Click here to search Genealogy Bank – (This page includes a 7 day free trial option.) This popular subscription website has over 11,000 newspaper, 95% of which Genealogy Bank says are exclusive to their website. 

5. Consult U.S. State Archives and Libraries

The public libraries and state archives across the country are a treasure trove of genealogical resources, and that includes school-related records.

While it’s easy to stop by your local library for a search, it may not be as easy to make your way to the public library in the town where your ancestors lived. Turn to the internet to do your homework regarding the repositories, their holdings, and the most convenient and economical way for you to access them. 

A great place to start is the WorldCat website.

Start by conducting a search. Once you find an item of interest, enter your zip code under the “Find a Copy in the Library” section to identify where it’s available. 

worldcat search for school records for genealogy

Enter your zip code to determine your proximity to the libraries and archives.

As you can see, the name of the libraries are hyperlinked so that you can click through to the item on their website. This makes requesting a look-up or photo copy very easy. 

I can’t stress the value of State Libraries enough. Gere are three more excellent resources:

  1. Click here for the List of U.S. state libraries and archives at Wikipedia.
  2. List of U.S. State Libraries and Archives at the National Archives. 
  3. Click here to read Archivist Melissa Barker’s article called Using Vertical Files in Archives.

6. Contact State Historical and Genealogical Societies

In addition to newspapers, state historical and genealogical societies might have old yearbooks, school photograph collections or other records. For example, the Ohio Genealogical Society library has a large collection of Ohio school yearbooks.

Local historical and genealogical societies may also have school memorabilia in their small or archived collections.

To find contact information for a local historical or genealogical society, Google the name of the county and state and add the words genealogy, history and / or society at the end. For example: Darke County Ohio genealogy society

7. Search for Online Yearbooks

One of the most exciting genealogical record collections to have come out in recent times is Ancestry.com’s U.S. School Yearbooks 1900-1999 collection. It is an indexed collection of middle school, junior high, high school, and college yearbooks from across the United States.

Old school yearbooks for genealogy

In June of 2019 Ancestry replaced old records with new updated records for most of the yearbooks found on the site. They also added new records from 150,000 yearbooks that previously only had images available. Later in August of 2019 they improved the collection even further by adding a staggering 3.8 million new records. This update also included 30,000 new image-only books.

Ancestry also has an extensive indexed collection of middle school, junior high, high school, and college yearbooks for Canada. Click here to search the Canadian collection. 

MyHeritage has an international collection of yearbooks. In the menu under Research go to the Collection Catalog and search for Schools & Universities.

Additional websites featuring yearbooks include:

Old-Yearbooks.com – According to the website, “Old-Yearbooks.com is a free genealogy site, displaying old yearbooks, class rosters, alumni lists, school photos and related school items. All materials on this site are the property of the submitter. You may not use the images, text or materials elsewhere, whether in print or electronically, without written permission from the submitter or this site.”

Classmates.com – “Register for free to browse hundreds of thousands of yearbooks! You’ll find classic photos of friends, family, and even your favorite celebrities. Viewing the books is always free, and you can purchase a high-quality reprint.”

E-Yearbook.com – Their goal is to digitize all old high school, college & military yearbooks. The site has millions of yearbook pictures digitized, they say they are adding thousands of new pictures every week. “From our estimates, we offer the largest collection of old high school, college and military yearbooks on the Internet today.”

8. Check Township Archives

You might be thinking you didn’t read that right, but you did. Townships are small areas within the county. These small townships may have their own archives or one room museums. They are often the holders of some pretty one-of-a-kind finds.

School Records found in the township records

The best way to determine what the township may have is to contact the township trustees. Google your township name, the county name, state name, and add the word trustee. You will likely need to give one of the trustees’ a phone call to ask what resources might be available.

Search for township trustees to find old school records

Google search example

9. Search ebay Auctions 

The auction website ebay is the perfect place to look for school record and memorabilia, particularly hard-to-find yearbooks. 

Conduct a search on the school or town you are looking for to see if anyone is selling a yearbook that you want. (You’ll need a free ebay account to do this.) Also, search for old photographs or postcards of the school building that you can add to your family history.

ebay search for school records

Initial search for school items at ebay

When I searched for Chowchilla California School, several auctions for school-related items from Grandma’s high school came up. Unfortunately, these are auctions for yearbooks after she had already graduated. But no worries! This search is only for today. Tomorrow someone could put up an auction for exactly what I want. There’s only one problem: no one has enough time to search every single day!

A way to save time and ensure that you don’t miss new auction items is to save your search.

Click the Save this search button toward the top of the page:

ebay saved search for school item auctions

Click the Save button to save the search you just ran.

By doing this, you will be sent an email any time a new auction comes up that meets your search criteria. You can learn more about setting up ebay saved searches for family history by listening to Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #140

Here’s another one of my favorite strategies: After you run your initial search, check the box on the results page to include completed listings. 

ebay completed search for school records

Click the Completed search box in the left hand column

In the revised “Completed” search results you may see some items that are of interest. If the item has a green price, it means the item was sold. If the price is black, it did not sell.

Each item will also have a link that says View Similar Active Items. Click that to see a list of items currently for sale that are very similar to one that you wanted.

You can also contact the seller of any item to inquire about the unsold item or to ask whether they have related items.  

school records for genealogy

Bought on ebay: A yearbook from the school where my husband’s grandfather was a music teacher 

I bought the yearbook above on ebay several years ago. It includes several photographs of my husband’s grandfather who was a music teacher at the high school back in the 1940s.

10. Call the School

If the school is still in operation, try calling the main office of the administration office. They may have old yearbooks and scrapbooks in their library or on display. If they don’t, they may very well be able to tell you where they can be found. 

You can obtain contact information by Googling the name of the school and the location.

Good times to try calling a school are mid-morning after kids are settled into class, or between 3 and 4:00 pm local time, when many of the kids have gone home but the school office is still open.

Best school records for genealogy

Tell Us About the School Records You Find

Using these strategies you are bound to find more school records for your genealogical search. Please leave a comment below and share what you found, where you found it, and which strategy you used. It will inspire us all to keep looking! And if you have a favorite strategy that we didn’t mention here, please do share that too. 

Resources

“If My Ancestry Subscription Expires, What Happens to My Tree?”

Are you worried about access to your online tree if you let your Ancestry.com subscription lapse? The tree should still be there. But take these steps to be sure your Ancestry family tree remains accessible and secure–along with the records you’ve attached to it.

What happens to my ancestry tree if my ancestry subscription expires?

 

What Happens if Your Ancestry Subscription Expires

Many people start researching their genealogy with an Ancestry subscription. They build their family tree on the web site, adding details about their relatives. 

Then they sift through Ancestry’s billions of historical records and add hundreds or even thousands of new names, dates, relationships and other facts to their family trees. Along the way, they attach records to each ancestor as evidence of what they’ve learned.

All of this adds up to a unique family tree that is precious to your family. 

However, it is very common for the busyness of life to call them away from their genealogy research for a while. This is what happened to Genealogy Gems reader Beverly. She wrote to me, concerned about what will happen to all her hard work on that Ancestry tree:

“I have been a member of Ancestry.com for a long time and have worked on several trees. I love to work on my genealogy but lately have not had time. Can I drop my membership and still retain my trees? I plan to get my membership back at a later day. Right now I am wasting $20 a month.”

Beverly, I hear your pain!

We all go through busy seasons. It’s easy to cringe at the thought of paying for genealogy website subscriptions we aren’t currently using. 

But the idea of losing all our progress on those web sites if we let our subscription lapse is worse. Your Ancestry subscription has not only included your online family tree, but also all of the records that you found and attached to that tree. 

I did a little research along with Sunny Morton, Genealogy Gems Editor and our resident expert on the Genealogy Giants” websites” (Ancestry, FamilySearch, Findmypast and MyHeritage). Here’s what we can tell Beverly and everyone else who is wondering what will happen to their family tree and all that research if their Ancestry account expires:

According to Ancestry, the answer is yes, you can still access your trees with your login credentials after your subscription lapses. The most important thing is that you don’t delete the tree or the account altogether. 

Ancestry continues to host people’s trees because they want our tree data to share with others, and to give people a reason to come back!

But be aware that if you do not renew your Ancestry subscription, your account will revert to a free guest account. (Your user name and password will remain the same.) This means that you will not be able to access most of Ancestry’s historical records, including the ones you’ve already attached to your trees. And I say “trees” because many people have multiple family trees on Ancestry to be concerned about. 

To see the historical genealogy records that you have attached to an ancestor in your online tree, click on a person in your family tree, and then click Profile:

How to find genealogy records attached to a person in your Ancestry tree

How to find genealogy records attached to a person in your Ancestry tree.

You will be taken to their profile page where you will see the genealogical sources you have attached. 

 

If your Ancestry account expires you can't access records attached to your tree.

If your Ancestry account expires you can’t access records attached to your tree.

These are records that you will not be able to access when your subscription expires.

If Your Ancestry Subscription Expires: Tree Preservation Strategy 

If you plan to let your Ancestry.com subscription lapse for a while, but you want to continue to work with your online trees, consider taking these steps:

1. Download a copy of every record.

The first thing to do is download a copy of every record that you’ve attached to your ancestors’ individual files on Ancestry.com.

You can do this by opening the image of the record, clicking on the Save/Saved button at the upper right, and clicking Save to your computer. I suggest doing this even if you don’t foresee letting your subscription go in the near future.

Saving document from Ancestry before subscription expires

Saving a document to your computer from Ancestry before your subscription expires

2. Save each record in an organized way on your computer.

I recommend using a consistent system to organize these, which I explain in the free Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast, in episodes 32-33. (Genealogy Gems Premium website members have access to a 2-part video tutorial on organizing their hard drives.)

If you don’t have a consistent way to organize these document images, you’ll soon become overwhelmed with files that all sort of look the same and you won’t be sure what year they are or which ancestors they pertain to without opening each one!

You may be wondering “What about cloud storage options, such as Google Drive or Dropbox?” These type of cloud storage solutions are ok too. However, I recommend using these platforms more as temporary or backup storage or to share with relatives, rather than as your primary storage.

A better alternative would be to invest in cloud-based backup for your home computer. I use Backblaze personally and for my business.

Backblaze lisa louise cooke

3. Download copies of your Ancestry.com trees

Click here for instructions; it’s really easy.

Yes, Ancestry does continue to maintain your trees, but what guarantees do you have?

Data loss does happen even on big websites, and sites change their practices and policies sometimes. If that happens, you could lose all the information you’ve carefully added to your tree.

4. Start using computer software for your “master family tree.”

Don’t just keep your family tree online where you don’t have complete control.

A “master family tree” is your most complete, up-to-date version of your tree (or trees, if you build separate ones for separate family lines).

master family tree

Keeping your master tree on your own computer keeps all your tree data at your fingertips without any subscription required. Having one master file matters even more once you start sharing your tree on other websites or with relatives.

I use RootsMagic, and that is why I happily agreed to them sponsoring my Genealogy Gems Podcast. It works for Mac and the PC.

RootsMagic the Master Genealogist

I like its affordability: there’s a free version you can try for as long as you like, and the full software will cost you the same as about 90 days of access to Ancestry.com.

RootsMagic also has solid relationships with the major genealogy sites: it now syncs with your trees on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org, and you can research records on MyHeritage.com and Findmypast.com.

RootsMagic has tons of advanced features to help you create family history charts, books, and reports, and a great user support community online.

Learn More about Ancestry and the Other Genealogy Giants

Keep up with news and changes on the “genealogy giants” websites with our ongoing coverage of Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com, and MyHeritage.com here.

Disclosure: this post recommends carefully-chosen products and services for which we receive compensation. Click here to read my full disclosure statement, and thank you for supporting the free content we provide at Genealogy Gems.

The 1950 Census for Genealogy

Countdown to the 1950 Census – Show Notes

The census is the backbone of genealogical research. Here in the United States it gives us a cohesive look at our ancestors every 10 years between 1790 and 1940. And now there is a new census on the horizon!
 
The 1950 census is an exciting one because it may include your great grandparents, grandparents, parents and perhaps even you! It will provide opportunities to confirm some of what we already know and clues for new research.
 
This week brings us to the one year mark before the release of the 1950 census in April 2022. Now is the perfect time to familiarize ourselves with it and start preparing. In this free webinar on the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel we’re going to do just that! In Elevenses with Lisa episode 51 you will learn:
  • the interesting and little known stories behind the 1950 census,
  • what it can reveal about your family, (and who you will NOT find!)
  • the important documents associated with it that you can access right now!

Get the HD version by clicking the gear icon in the video player. 

1950 Census Show Notes Cheat Sheet

Premium Members have access to the ad-free downloadable show notes cheat sheet in the Resources section at the bottom of the page. Click here to become a Premium Member.

What You Can Learn About Your Family from the 1950 Census

The 1950 Census may be able to answer all kinds of questions for you such as:

  • Where was your family living in 1950?
  • Did you have American relatives living abroad?
  • What did your relatives do for a living?
  • What was their household income in 1949?

The 1950 census also stands out because it ushered in some new features and data collection improvements with the goal of providing more complete and accurate information than ever before.

This census can help you confirm information you already have about your family while also providing new facts and clues for further genealogical research.

So, let’s dig into the 1950 US census. Oh wait…we better hold our horses! The 1950 census isn’t available yet!

When will the 1950 census be released?

The official census day in 1950 was April 1. So as of April 2021 we are one year away from the release of the 1950 Census. However, it’s never too soon to get acquainted with this important genealogical record. There’s a lot we can do to get ready to research when it’s released by the National Archives in April 2022. That will be 72 years after the official 1950 census day.

1950 census release date

So why don’t we get to see the 1950 census until 72 years have passed?

The “72-Year Rule” became law in 1978 (92 Stat. 915; Public Law 95-416; October 5, 1978). It restricts access to decennial census records to only the person named on the record or their legal heir.

Why is there a “72-Year Rule” for the Census?

It’s long been believed that the rule was based on the average life-expectancy at the time. However, that may not be the case at all. Letters at the National Archives dating back to 1952 from the census bureau director and the archivist of the U.S. support the rule, but don’t say what it’s based on. Joel Weintraub’s essay Why the 72 Year Rule for U.S. Census Privacy?  proposes that the rule evolved  for a variety of reasons when the National Archives was first created.

The bottom line: For now, we have to wait until 2022 for the 1950 U.S. Federal Census.

Who was counted during the 1950 census?

In addition to Americans living here in the States, for the first time Americans abroad were enumerated in 1950. This included:

  • members of the armed forces,
  • crews on vessels at sea,
  • and employees of the United States government and their families living in foreign countries.
Sailors and soldiers serving overseas were counted in the 1950 census

Sailors and soldiers serving overseas were counted in the 1950 census.

Be aware that there were other people living abroad at that time who didn’t fall within these official categories. In those cases, they were to be  reported by their families or even neighbors who lived in the U.S. This was clearly second-hand information which means that the information wasn’t as reliable. In fact, so much so that these individuals weren’t included in the published statistics. Keep this possibility in mind if you have trouble locating a relative when the census comes out.

What Questions Were Asked in the 1950 Census?

The 1950 population census questionnaire asked for information such as:

  • Address;
  • whether their house was on a farm;
  • name;
  • relationship to the head of the household;
  • race;
  • sex;
  • age;
  • marital status;
  • birthplace if they were foreign born,
  • whether or not they were naturalized;
  • their employment status;
  • how many hours they worked in a week;
  • occupation,
  • industry,
  • and class of worker.

The information provided by your ancestors has the potential to lead you to more genealogical records.

Geographic Areas Covered in the 1950 Census

So where were all these people living? The 1950 census covered:

  • the continental United States,
  • the territories of Alaska and Hawaii,
  • American Samoa,
  • the Canal Zone,
  • Guam,
  • Puerto Rico,
  • the Virgin Islands of the United States,
  • and some of the smaller island territories.

1950 Census Enumerators

In 1950 the population of the United States was about ½ of the population today. But it still took a lot of people and organization to count 150 million people. The people doing the counting are called enumerators. These enumerators came from all walks of life and had to be trained so that everyone got counted with the fewest mistakes possible. A technical training program was developed to accomplish this goal. 26 chief instructors would teach a few hundred instructors to train 8300 crew leaders who would ultimately train over 140,000 census enumerators.

The 1950 census enumerator training program

The 1950 census enumerator training program. (Source: census.gov)

1950 Census Enumeration District Maps

You may be wondering ‘how did the enumerators know where to go to count people?’ The answer is Enumeration Districts or EDs.  The geographic area to be covered by the enumerator was divided up into Enumeration Districts. These ensured that enumerators were not crossing paths and duplicating efforts. EDs were just the right size so that the census taker could cover  the area in one census period, which was about 2-4 weeks.

Enumeration District maps were drawn for the 1950 census. These are important for your genealogy research because they:

  • describe your ancestors’ neighborhood in 1950
  • are essential for figuring out where to find your ancestor in the census.
  • don’t fall under the 72-year rule, which means that they are available now.

It takes time for the entire census to be indexed. If you want to start using it as soon as it’s released, you will need ED maps. You’ll need to know where your relatives lived so that you can find the address on the ED map. The map will provide you with the associated ED number. This number is needed to search the unindexed census. 

There are 8000 ED maps for the 1950 census that have been digitized. You can find them at the National Archives website in Record Group 29: in the series called Enumeration District and Related Maps 1880-1990.

An alternative place to find 1950 Enumeration District maps is the One-Step Webpages by Stephen P. Morse website. It’s not only an easier way to find the correct map, but it includes maps not found on the National Archives website. It’s also worth reading the essay on the website called Problems Using 1950 Enumeration District Maps. It will help you better understand how to use the maps.

Links to tools demonstrated:
Search 1950 ED Maps at One-Step.
Unified Census 1950 ED Finder search at One-Step.

 

1950 Census Enumerator Instructions

Up until 1870 the job of census taker fell to the U.S. Marshals. The U.S. Marshalls received very little in the way of instructions or training. It wasn’t until 1830 that they even got printed schedules to record the information given by each household! That all changed with an act of congress passed in 1879 that shifted the job to people specifically hired to be enumerators. This was just in time for the 1880 census.

By 1950, 140,000 census enumerators hit the field armed with their Enumeration District map showing them where to canvas, and a lengthy set of instructions that they received during their training. In fact, 1950 was the last time that the census was taken exclusively in person because in 1960 the Census Bureau started mailing out questionnaires.

The 1950 census enumerator instructions are available for free as a downloadable and searchable PDF file. It’s 24 pages of specific instructions designed to help enumerators record the information they gathered.

The enumerator instructions are important for you as a researcher because they explain what you’re seeing on the census page. If we see a mark or a notation, or a field left blank, the instructions will explain why the census did it that way. If we understand the why behind the information we find we will be much more likely to interpret it correctly.

An example of this can be found in the 1940 census. You’ve probably noticed X’s in circles scattered about the pages. On a map that could be misinterpreted as there’s buried treasure in that house! But alas, it doesn’t. Only the census enumerator instructions can help us really understand their true and important meaning. The 1940 census enumerator instructions state “Enter (X in a circle) after name of person furnishing information.” This helps us better determine the validity of the information provided for each individual in the household.

Who Was Not Counted in the 1950 Census?

The instructions for the 1950 census also includes a list of those people who were not to be enumerated, such as:

  • People temporarily visiting the household
  • Foreign citizens visiting embassies and similar facilities. Do enumerate foreigners who are studying or working here temporarily.
  • Students below college level who are boarding to attend school locally.
  • College students visiting but who live elsewhere to attend school.
  • People who eat with the family but don’t sleep there.
  • Domestic workers who don’t sleep in the household.
  • Household members who are currently an inmate in prison or other institution.
  • Ship crew members or people who live in lighthouses
  • Absent Soldiers and sailors

What are 1950 Census Infant Cards?

There’s also an entire page in the instructions devoted to explaining what Infant Cards were and the information they were to contain. If you have relatives who were born in January, February or March of 1950, they would have had a special Infant Card completed just for them. Learn more: Download the infant card PDF

1950 census infant card.

1950 census infant card.

How Accurate is the 1950 US Census?

Several procedures were put in place in an effort to dramatically improve the accuracy and completeness of the 1950 census. These included:

  • improved enumerator training,
  • providing enumerators with detailed street maps of their assigned areas,
  • publishing “Missed Person” forms in local newspapers,
  • and setting aside specific days to conduct a special enumeration of people staying in hotels, motor courts, and other places frequented by transient people.

Also, in an effort to ensure greater accuracy and completeness, a post-enumeration survey was instituted for the first time. The Census Bureau recanvassed a sample of approximately 3,500 small areas and compared these to the original census listings. The goal was to identify households that might have been omitted in the original enumeration. They also took a sample of about 22,000 households and reinterviewed them to determine the number of people who might have been missed in the first count.

How Were Transient People Counted in the 1950 Census?

The challenge of counting people is that people can move around. This means they could be counted twice, or the genealogist’s nightmare: not counted at all!

The solution to counting transient people in the 1950 census was T-Night canvasses. The “T” stood for “transient” and they were held on Tuesday April 11 & Thursday April 13, 1950. They were designed to provide a more accurate count of people who did not have a fixed address or were temporarily away from home.

 

1950 census enumerator at Motor Camp

“Transient” enumerations were conducted on specially designated days in 1950. (source: census.gov)

Tuesday, April 11, 1950 was the date for “an intensive drive to cover in a single night the occupants of certain places usually devoted to transients” such as hotels, YMCAs, and tourist courts or camps (campgrounds).  Young men were moving to the city from rural areas, and the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) was a popular, safe and affordable place to stay. By 1940 YMCA room across the country totaled more than 100,000.

According to the instructions, enumerators were to visit these facilities from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Tuesday evening and again from 7 a.m. to 12 noon the next day. On Thursday, April 13, 1950 enumerators turned their attention to missions and flophouses.  T-Night enumerators assigned to these facilities were to “station themselves at the main entrance or the lobby of the place” and instructed to interview guests, resident staff and employees personally. 

Another unique feature of T-Nights was that enumerators used the Individual Census Report Form (ICR). In an unusual move, it was completed by the person being counted instead of by the census taker. This ensured privacy for the informant since census interviews often had to be conducted in hallways or a room with other roomers. Thanks to the 1950 census enumerators working the hotel lobby, asking guests passing through if they had already completed an ICR, calling up guests on the house phone and working with staff on identifying those checking in, there’s an even better chance that we will find our family members in the 1950 census.

What Does “REG” mean on the 1950 Census?

Even after all of this extra effort, some people never completed the ICR form. In those cases, the enumerator would fill out the ICR on information taken from the hotel register. The entry on the census would be marked “REG” indicating that the information came from the hotel register.

The 1950 Census Residential Survey

A new feature of the 1950 census was the Residential Survey. In a separate surveying effort, information was collected on a sample basis from owners of owner-occupied and rental properties and mortgage lenders.

1950 Census Technology Trivia

According to the National Archives, “The Census Bureau began use of the first non-military computer shortly after completing the 1950 enumeration. UNIVAC I (for Universal Automatic Computer), the first of a series, was delivered in 1951, and helped tabulate some of the statistics for the 1954 economic censuses. It weighed 16,000 pounds and used 5,000 vacuum tubes.”

5 Things to Do While Waiting for the 1950 US Federal Census

Looking for something to do now while you wait for the 1950 census? Here are just a few things you can do while you wait:

1. Review your family tree.
Make a list of those families you want to look up. And look for gaps and questions that might be able to be answered using the 1950 census.

2. Look for 1950 family addresses.

  • Old letters
  • Diaries
  • Scrapbooks
  • Ask Relatives
  • City directories
  • Vital Records
  • Occupational records
  • Newspapers
  • Social Security Records
  • 1940 census addresses

3. Use the One-Step website to find Enumeration District Numbers

Note: The One-Step website includes some maps not found at the National Archives!

4. Download the Enumeration District Map for your Ancestor’s Home
Again, you can access the maps through the One-Step website or the National Archives website. These are excellent research resources to have on hand. They can be used to create map overlays in the Google Earth Pro software. Step-by-step instructions for doing so can be found in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox and my downloadable video tutorial series Google Earth for Genealogy.

5. Check out the 1790 through 1940 census records online at the National Archives.
Census records can be found at many popular genealogy websites. The National Archives has a great resource page listing each decennial census and the associated online resources including where census images are hosted and searchable for free or on subscription websites. It also includes additional resources and background on each census taken.

For more ideas on what you can do now to prepare, read How to Find Your Family History in the 1950 Census.

Watch Next: 1950 Census Questions

1950 US Census Questions

WATCH NEXT: Elevenses with Lisa episode 53 1950 Census Questions

Resources

Atlas of Historical County Boundaries has been Updated

The Newberry Library’s online Atlas of Historical County Boundaries is finally fully updated and interactive! Read the good news here–and my preference for using the powerful geographic data that drives the Atlas.

The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries at The Newberry Library’s website has been undergoing upgrades for quite some time. Genealogists who rely on this fantastic online resource to research  old county boundaries in the U.S. have been able to access the basic data that drives the map (dates and geographic boundary changes). But they haven’t been able to use the popular interactive map. Great news: the Atlas is finally fully interactive again.

Changing Boundaries Reflected in the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

Understanding changes in county boundaries over time is key to doing genealogy research in the United States. Boundaries have changed repeatedly–and some dramatically. County governments typically keep important genealogical sources: vital records, court records, land records and more. We need to know which county would have housed our ancestors’ records during specific time periods so we can find the records we want.

What’s New at the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

According to the Newberry Library’s press release, users can now:

  • view a base layer map that allows an overlay of boundaries on top of cities, towns and other geographic features;
  • zoom in and out of maps and expand the view to full screen;
  • select a date of interest from a drop-down box with all border change dates for that state; and
  • view information about border changes in a hover box that changes as users hover over different counties.

Here’s what the new interface looks like:

Google Earth Pro vs. the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

It’s great to see improved functionality on the Atlas site. But after reviewing the update, I still think the experience of using data from the site is superior in the free Google Earth Pro (GEP) program. To use the entire data set in Google Earth Pro, simply download the KMZ data file onto your computer,and when you click to open the file, your computer will detect the KMZ format and know to automatically open Google Earth Pro (as long as you already have GEP installed on your computer.)

download files at Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

 

Using the file in GEP allows you to use the data in conjunction with the rest of your genealogical information (such as placemarks indiciating places lived & schools attended, historic  map overlays, embedded old family photos and home movies, etc.). This provides a more integrated genealogical research experience. Learn more by clicking here to watch a free video I’ve made about using Google Earth for genealogy.

 

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