The 1940 Census

As you probably know by now, the 1940 census is online, even downloadable although not searchable. You cannot search by names, which is the way most of us would want to search, but when you first look for a community, assuming it was of any size, you can limit your search to a street.

The first thing I did was try to find my maternal grandparents. That took longer than expected because I thought they lived in one township when it was really another (both starting with R, by the way, which should explain my confusion). When I did find them, two things surprised me. My uncle was living with them and my grandfather, a native of Wales, was listed as having been born in Pennsylvania.

What this particular page in the census didn’t tell me is who responded to the census-taker’s questions. They were supposed to be indicated with a circled x. So I’m speculating that my grandmother was the respondent and that she didn’t know how to spell the name of the Welsh town where my grandfather was born or she just decided the hell with it, what business is it of yours, and said Pennsylvania. Even though I want my ancestry lines kept clear, I can appreciate a small act of civil disobedience, especially coming from my petite grandmother.

By 1940 my uncle would have been in his 30s so living with his parents raised questions. My older sister suggested that it probably happened because his first wife had died, and my oldest cousin (who was around 12 in 1940) backed that up and said he was depressed for a long time. My older sister (then about 2) believes that my uncle’s wife died from spinal meningitis. She and my cousin said that my aunt’s casket was placed in the front window of their house for the viewing, that no one could come inside because she had died of a contagious disease. (If your uncle’s wife dies before you’re born, was she still your aunt?)

I found my paternal grandparents in a nearby town and learned that my grandfather’s sister was living with them. Next door were his daughter and her husband living with her in-laws. I saw a lot of couples living with parents/in-laws and even one couple living with an uncle and aunt. (They would become the parents of a girlfriend of mine so their name popped out.)

Also notable was finding the circled x behind the wife’s name rather than the “head’s” name. No doubt the “head” was at work when the census-taker stopped by.

And, I also found my parents, who were then living near Harrisburg with my two older sisters. Nothing dramatic there.

The 1940 census is flush with information, some of it inadvertent. You need only to start looking.

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