The population schedules for the United States census are taken every ten years beginning with 1790. Census data from 1790 through 1940 which identifies members of various households has been released for research use. The 1950 census will be released to the public in April 2022, and while indexing the records will take some time following the release, researchers are already anticipating the newest data set.
Census data is just that - data - handwritten in a type of spreadsheet, broken down into rows and columns. The population census provides information about the make-up of American households in ten-year increments, and from 1850 onward lists each occupant by name, age, and gender along with other details depending on the questions asked in a given year. Census questions vary from schedule to schedule.
Tips for understanding the census:
The biggest challenges, especially for beginners in using the census are reading handwriting, variant name spellings, and distinguishing between persons with the same name.
Spellings of first and last names was not always standardized as we know it today. Literacy levels varied tremendously and census enumerators often wrote names down phonetically.
Perhaps one of the biggest pitfalls for beginning census users is failing to distinguish between more than one person with the same name. Always double check details of the person(s) you are researching to be certain you are looking at the correct individual(s) and placing them in the correct geographic location at the correct time.
Population schedules are handwritten. The quality of the handwriting varies in legibility as does the quality of the digital images reproduced from original schedules. Both of these contribute to readability factors when using the census.
Need help reading handwriting?
Try the book Reading Early American Handwriting, by Kip Sperry.
enumerator. The individual responsible for recording persons living in a particular geographic area during a given census year.
head of household. The one person, male or female, who in the opinion of the enumerator, is the singular head of the family unit.
household. The person(s) comprising a residential family unit according to the census instructions in a given year.
schedule. Questionnaire or form used to record census data.