Everett     Medford     Revere     Somerville     Winthrop    

 Learning Our Community's American Lore

Primary Sources » Census

The US government has conducted a census every ten years, beginning with the first census in 1790. Census takers, hired by the government, travel door to door to ask questions of each household ranging from occupation to birthplace and race. The handwritten notes of these census takers are preserved by the National Archives and are known as the US Manuscript Census.

These are remarkable historical documents because they allow us to see different periods in rich, local detail. With the Manuscript census it is possible to see, for example, when women in Winthrop first worked outside the home in large numbers, and when immigrants from Ireland and Italy first arrived in Somerville.

As part of a workshop we held in October 2006 on using the Manuscript Census, we followed one street in Medford through the 1900 and 1930 censuses. We chose Jerome Street because it is the heart of the black community in West Medford and we were interested in looking for evidence of the Great Migration, when thousands of blacks from the south moved north during WWI. By tracking the place of birth of Jerome Street residents in 1900 and 1930, we were able to see how some moved from the south to West Medford as part of the Great Migration. And by tracking track trends in work, home ownership, and literacy, we could begin to piece together the experience of those who settled in Medford.

The Manuscript Census is available to teachers, students, and researchers at the National Archives in Waltham, MA. The same material is also available for a fee through ancestry.com. Because these documents contain individual names and addresses, the National Archives and ancestry.com observe a 70-year privacy rule. This means that only the 1790-1930 manuscripts are available to researchers. The 1940 census will be released in 2010. Because street names were first included in the 1900 census, the 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 Manuscript censuses will be particularly useful to teachers and students researching their community’s history.

In addition to the Manuscript Census, the Census Bureau publishes bound volumes of aggregate data. These volumes are comprised mostly of tables describing the US population at the level of cities, states and the nation as a whole. Available for each decade in most libraries, they offer a view of broad trends in American history.

Census Data can be used as the basis of a long term project or it can also be used for a one-day lesson. Jen Droney's class in Winthrop, for example, examined the 1900 and 1930 Winthrop census to track trends in women's work.


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