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

6 Tips to Create Family History Books They Can’t Put Down

I started creating family history books a decade ago. These 6 strategies helped me share my genealogy research findings in books that made fascinating, affordable and easy-to-mail gifts.

cant put down family history books

My Dilemma: How to Share My Family History

Several years ago, I began sharing my family history research with my relatives. We don’t live close to them, so I had to mail whatever I shared.

Initially, I sent CDs full of digitized photos and documents, but they just didn’t get looked at like I had hoped. Individual items on CDs didn’t easily or smoothly tell a story.

Also, I think some of my relatives found the technology a bit intimidating back then. And many people just don’t care for viewing photos, documents or stories on a computer screen.

The Solution

I found that the solution to sharing with all family members was a good old fashioned book!

Books are still hard to beat for telling a story in words and pictures in an extremely easy to use way. Self-publishing little hardbound family history books helped me break up my research sharing into digestible chunks. And the best part? My family actually opened and read them them cover to cover.

 family history book I created about my Grandma.

Cover of the family history book I created about my Grandma.

But where to begin the family story, and where to end it? It’s tempting to tell the story of one generation in each book. But even this can become an overwhelming project, with an end product that is not as meaningful for your readers (lots of dates and names, without a lot of room for stories or photos).

I wanted my family to get to know our ancestors intimately. For me, that meant focusing on one person or one event instead of entire generations or families.

Where to Start

I started with my favorite ancestor: my grandmother.

I’ve transcribed many years of her diaries, which are full of her stories about years spent in nurse’s training. Those journal entries taught me so much and led me to some great discoveries about her life. They also dovetail beautifully with my collection of photos from that period. 

So I decided that my starting point would be her graduation from high school and her decision to enter the nursing field.

Photo from my family history book

Grandma was proud to be a nurse and I’m proud to tell her story.

By the time I had pulled everything together from 1930 to 1933, I had more than enough for a nice size book: “A Nurse in Training.”

Tips to Create Family History Books

It’s really important to create your book with your “customer” in mind: your family member who will be reading the book. So here are my top tips for making your book fascinating to your reader:

#1. Convey an overall theme

Review all the available material that you have. That will give you a sense of what stories you can tell and, hopefully, a sense of your ancestors’ goals, experiences and emotions.

In the case of “A Nurse In Training,” I wanted to communicate my grandmother as a young woman, taking on a new adventure away from home. Both funny times and deeply challenging times formed the foundation of this warm, caring woman’s successful career. And she just happened to meet her husband at the same time!

Tips for how to create a family history book

A page from “A Nurse in Training.”

You don’t need every scrap of research and every photo to get this theme across. It’s your job to be a sharp editor to pick out the critical pieces.

#2. Make it readable in one sitting.

Like it or not, if the book takes too long read, your relatives won’t. Strive to create a book that doesn’t look intimidating.

I create books that are 20 double-sided pages. People will be willing to pick up a thinner book off the coffee table. And if it’s well done, they’ll find that they’ve suddenly finished the entire book without once thinking of putting it down! Hopefully they’ll walk away with a real sense of having gotten to know that ancestor.

#3. Fill it with the best of what you have.

This goes back to conveying the theme and being a tough editor.

My grandma had many funny stories, but there just wasn’t room for all of them. I picked only the best of the best. Anyone who reads the book should hopefully come away with the fact that my grandma had a sense of humor and could laugh at herself.

Photo from my book: Grandma as a nurse in the TB ward

Grandma working the TB ward at San Francisco Hospital in 1933

I made sure some of the most compelling stories were at the beginning: if you can capture their interest in the first three pages, you’ll have them hooked for the entire book.

#4. Pack it with photos and graphics. 

A picture is definitely worth a thousand words. And since words in a small book will be limited, photographs will be your best friend.

If you’re lacking in family photos, consult my Genealogy Gems Podcast episodes for countless ideas for finding appropriate images.

In A Nurse In Training, I included scanned images of skating rink tickets, programs and announcements from my grandma’s scrapbook and journal pages in my grandmother’s own hand. These types of items really add texture and interest to a book, and help the reader to see that you’ve really done your homework.

#5. Keep it in chronological order. 

This seems obvious, but it’s easy to get side-tracked and start going back and forth in time. Believe me, for the reader’s sake, use dates and keep things in chronological order.

You as the researcher know this information backwards and forwards, but this is probably your reader’s first exposure to it. Be gentle with them and keep it straightforward and simple. Your reader will thank you.

#6. Choose quality! 

High-quality glossy pages, good image quality and a hard cover binding all shout to the reader, “I’m worth your time! Read me!”

For example, I found a drawing of Dameron Hospital, which was part of my grandma’s story, but it was a low quality image and didn’t look good in the book. As much as I wanted to include it, I ended up leaving it out, and I’m glad I did. It wasn’t critical to my theme, and there were other ways to illustrate the hospital setting for the reader.

From Book to Movie: Create Your Own Family History Videos

My “Nurse in Training” book eventually became the basis for my very first family history videos. Watch them here–and see how I turned her own words into an illustrated narrative:

animoto how a genealogy society can grow membershipNext Step: Turn Your Family History Book Into a Movie

I created these before do-it-yourself video services like Animoto made it so easy. (And I think that’s why I appreciate them so much!)

If you’d like to put an ancestor’s story into video format but you’re not sure how, try writing it up as a short book first. By the time you’re finished, you’ll have an excellent start on your “screenplay.” You’ll also have a great little book to send loved ones as a gift. (If you do eventually turn that story into a short video, they’ll love it even more, because they’ll already know the story that they will see come alive on the screen.)

Click here to learn step-by-step how to create your own family history video.

Bargains on the Best Genealogy Products and Services

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4 Easy Steps to Preserving Old Letters

Preserving old family letters is one of the best things you can do to be sure their precious content is available to future generations. Follow these easy steps from The Archive Lady, Melissa Barker, to organize and preserve the old correspondence in your family history archive.

Writing letters has become a thing of the past! If you are fortunate enough to have a collection of old family letters, you have a true treasure.

In addition to digitizing them, physically preserving them is one of the best things you can do to save the genealogical information contained in those old family letters. Here are some simple steps to preserve the old letters that you may have.

Preserving Old Letters in 4 Easy Steps

1. Arrange letters chronologically.

You can go by the date on the letter itself or by the postmark date on the envelope.

It is important to put your old letters in chronological order because sometimes there is information in those letters that continue from letter to letter and you want to make sure you read them in the order originally written.

If you have groups of letters from different events such as WWII letters, college letters, or vacation letters, you could group them together and then organize each grouping by date.

Preserving Old Letters Archive Lady

(Courtesy Houston County, TN. Archives.) Old letters like these need careful preservation.

2. Unfold old letters.

Once you have put your letters in chronological order, it’s time to do some preservation work.

I am asked all the time about letters and whether to leave them folded and in their envelopes. I can tell you that all archivists remove the letters from the envelopes and archive them unfolded. The creases made by folding and unfolding letters can cause damage and eventually those creases get weak and can cause the letters to tear into pieces. It is always best to unfold old family letters.

preserving old letters 4 steps

3. Encapsulate the old letters.

The term encapsulates means “to enclose something or to completely cover something.”

Now that you have unfolded and flattened your letters, you will want to encapsulate them in archival safe sleeves that can be purchased at any online archival supply store. Look for reputable preservation supply companies like Gaylord.

Preserving Family Letters Family Archivist

An encapsulated letter

Be sure to put the envelope with the letter in the same sleeve so that it doesn’t get lost or mixed up with another letter that it doesn’t belong to. When you’re working with many letters in a collection, the letter can easily be separated from the envelope. But envelopes may include crucial details such as dates, the identity and address of the writer, and interesting postmarks, so you want to keep them together.

4. Filing and storing old letters.

After you have put your letters in chronological order, unfolded them and encapsulated them, it is now time to file and store them.

Archivists prefer to put their encapsulated letters into archival file folders and then into archival boxes, being sure to keep the chronological order intact. (Click here for Gaylord’s Family Archives Document Preservation Kit, complete with archival folders and an archival box.)

This process gives you three layers of protection for your letters to ensure they are completely preserved and protected from bugs, dust, and anything else that could get to them and damage them.

Following these guidelines to preserving your family letters will ensure they are protected and saved for you to enjoy and for your future descendants to enjoy!

Perserving Old Family Letters (3)

Next step: Digitize your old family letters.

Old letters can fall prey to many unfortunate situations. Ink can fade and paper can crumble. If this happens, the messages on your old letters may eventually be lost, despite your best efforts. It’s also possible that the entire file folder full of the original letters could be lost, damaged, or even destroyed!

Digitizing your old family letters lets you digitally preserve the content for future generations. It’s the best way to added another layer of protection. Duplication is a fundamental key to preservation. 

In the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 144, host and producer Lisa Louise Cooke talks with The Family Curator Denise Levenick about digitizing and organizing your family history. Click here to hear their conversation and start preserving your own family letters and other original documents. 

Free-Podcast-292x300 preserving old letters

You’ll Never Regret Preserving Your Old Family Letters

As you can seem it’s actually pretty easy to preserve your old family letters. I encourage you to get started today so that you’ll never have regrets in the future. 

About the Author:

Melissa Barker is a Certified Archives Records Manager, the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist and author of the popular blog A Genealogist in the Archives and an advice columnist. She has been researching her own family history for the past 27 years.

Images courtesy of Melissa Barker and Houston County, TN Archives.

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, Genealogy Gems earns from qualifying purchases. This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

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