The census’ gift to historians

It reveals the past to us and will explain our own time to future generations

April 07, 2010|By Rosemary Faya Prola

Right now, we are being urged to complete and return our census forms. The government's lighthearted ads illustrate some of the benefits of participation in the decennial count for us, our families and our communities: appropriate representation in Congress, equitable funding for schools and adequate public health care. As someone engaged in historical research, however, the census — along with past censuses — provides another benefit for me: the ability to reconstruct the lives of Americans who lived in past decades — in some cases, more than 200 years ago.

As a preservationist, I use the population schedules of earlier censuses to learn more about the owners, architects and builders of houses, schools, churches, factories, farms, bridges, cemeteries and gardens — all of the physical remnants that represent the social and cultural development of the United States. In my work, I am equally interested in information about the owners of grand edifices and the individuals who built or resided in more modest dwellings; the stories of both and the places they lived can help us chronicle the history of our country.

The federal government keeps individual census records confidential for 72 years, but that still means I can consult the 1930 census, for example, to help answer questions I might have about the person I've identified as owner of a brick Cape Cod built in Hyattstown in 1948. I can go back even further in the census records to learn more about the African-American families who established homesteads on a rural road in Calvert County beginning at the turn of the last century.

The owner of the Cape Cod turned out to be a member of a family with roots in the community dating back a generation. His unusual surname helped me to find him, his parents and siblings on the 1930 and 1920 censuses and in newspapers published during his lifetime. This information, combined with details contained in other property transfers, provided additional clues. It turns out that one of the owner's brothers purchased property along the same stretch of Frederick Road, and that he was a partner in a family-owned garage located just across the road from his home. His neat brick house was one of the thousands built across the country for returning veterans post- World War II.

Tracing the movement of 11 African-American families from tenant farming to land ownership in Calvert County beginning in 1889 required reviewing the population schedules of seven censuses, spanning the years 1860 to 1930. The handwritten entries of the census takers revealed the individuals' long, fascinating journey. Today, their houses and barns stand in silent witness to a time of marked change in society and as testimony to their hard work.

As with all historical research, the information I discover in the census frequently leads to other questions about individuals and the society in which they lived. For example, how does a middle-aged woman working as a practical nurse go on to found a church near Croom, Maryland, in 1900? And, what is the link between the family of a patent office employee and the Connecticut architect who designed their Queen Anne-style home in Bethesda? The information contained in the census and other historical documents is necessarily limited by their focus and scope. However, there is always the hope that another researcher will be able to add to the historical record with a new discovery.

In the past decade, the U.S. Census Bureau replaced the census long form with the American Community Survey (ACS). Unlike the census, which counts all of us every 10 years, the ACS is an ongoing survey that records the socioeconomic characteristics of the population. It is administered to a random sampling of Americans annually, which means that this year some of us have to do double duty in completing two forms. The information collected in the ACS appears to surpass in scope the data collected in the censuses of yesteryear.

I hope that everyone will complete and return their census forms. Do it not just for yourself, your family and your community today, but also for historians at the end of this century who will seek to paint a portrait of American society in 2010.

Rosemary Faya Prola lives in Columbia and currently works as a preservation planner for the city of Rockville. Her e-mail is

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