1950 Census Opens Window Into American History

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An image of the National Archives building in Washington, D.C. (iStock)

On April 1st 1950, about 144,000 census takers fanned out across the United States to count the population. Each conversation they had was reduced to a handwritten entry on a census form. Now, 72 years later, the National Archives has released those manuscripts. You can find Marilyn Monroe, Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix, and maybe a long-forgotten relative in these pages. But the census represents more than an exercise in genealogical spelunking; it is an American political tool that has been in force since 1790. We’ll talk to census historians about what they hope to find in the 1950 census, and why this information is so meaningful.

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Dan Bouk, associate professor and chair of History Department, Colgate University. Bouk is the author of the forthcoming book, "Democracy's Data: The Hidden Stories of the US Census and How to Read Them."

Margo Anderson, professor emerita, history, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Anderson is the author of "The American Census: A Social History."