My title is one of those adages I remember my father saying in my childhood. Dad wasn’t teaching me genealogy, but that lesson definitely should be applied to using the census. What were the instructions for the census taker, anyway?
Every ten years, enumerators knocked on doors and asked questions of the inhabitants of the houses. They filled in the responses on a one-page form. Before they began their duties, they were trained and given voluminous instructions.
For example, the 194 instructions to the 1910 census fill 11 pages. Regarding nativity and mother tongue, instruction #123 states “If the person was born abroad, but of American parents, write in column 12 both the birthplace and Am. cit.-that is, American citizen. If the person was born at sea, write At sea.”
A 1930 instruction regarding occupations states “Builders and contractors-Only persons engaged principally in securing and supervising the carrying out of building or other construction contracts should be returned as builders or contractors. Craftsmen who usually work with their tools should be returned as carpenters, plasterers, etc., and not as contractors.”
For the 1850 census there’s a specific instruction for men of the cloth, “When the individual is a clergyman, insert the initials of the denomination to which he belongs before his profession - as Meth. for Methodist, R.C. for Roman Catholic, O.S.P. for Old School Presbyterian, or other appropriate initials, as the fact may be.” That little notation may help you find a church record when you research the name of the clergyman on your ancestor’s marriage record.
The enumerators were given detailed instructions as to just what sorts of responses were acceptable. If you want to understand what they wrote, you need to understand what they were allowed to write as a suitable answer. A wonderful website, IPUMS, the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, holds lists of all the census questions and instructions for the US Federal Census from 1850 through 2000 and beyond. You can find it at https://usa.ipums.org/usa/voliii/tEnumForm.shtml. It will provide answers to questions you never knew you had.
Before you look at any census, be sure to read the instructions!
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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.