Sometimes it is tempting to put in a birth year when searching for someone in a census. After all, if you know he was born about 1919, why wouldn’t you want to narrow the search? Well, including that might narrow your search results down to a big fat nothing!
Here is an example from the 1920 census for the household of Robert Powers. Robert is listed along with his wife, Annie, and daughter, Caroline, on Sheet 2A with additional children Rose, Robert, Edward and Norma shown on Sheet 2B. Also living in the household is lodger, George Hartman. George is actually the illegitimate child of Caroline Powers, and perhaps the sensitive nature of his birth is why he is listed as a lodger and not a grandson.
But look at George’s age. At first glance it looks like a “big” 7 followed by a 2. Many indexers have transcribed this as 72. But a more careful reading, combined with examination of the other ages written by enumerator, Mrs. M. K. Henderson, shows that for all the two-digit ages, both digits are written the same size. Mrs. Henderson does not tend to write one digit larger than another.
Also, take a look at the fractional ages of the other young children. While some enumerators use a slash (/) between the numerator and denominator, Mrs. Henderson uses a dash (-). The 7 above the dash has melded into the 1 (of the number 12) below the dash, making it look like a large 7 (written with a mark across the 7) followed by a small 2. However, based on other numbers written by Mrs. Henderson, she does not tend to make her 7s with a mark across them, nor does she use an oversized 10s digit, as shown in the age of Fanny Gizer, aged 79.
Mrs. Henderson has correctly listed George Hartman as age 7/12, and it is the transcription that is wrong.
There are three take-aways from this exercise: 1) Be careful when entering a birth year to search for someone in the census that you don’t narrow your search parameters so much that you miss them all together. 2) Study the enumerator's penmanship to see how letters and numbers were written. 3) When you find an error in the transcription, notify the image provider. I have done this with both Ancestry.com and FamilySearch to make it easy for the next researcher looking for George to find him.
Mary Kircher Roddy is a genealogist, writer and lecturer, always looking for the story. Her blog is a combination of the stories she has found and the tools she used to find them.