According to the “72-Year Rule,” the National Archives releases census records to the general public 72 years after Census Day. As a result, the 1950 census records was released on April 1, 2022. The 1950 census was the first released in a digital, searchable form (name and place) from the outset. Previous censuses required time consuming and error introducing transcriptions and indexing.
Since the first census in 1790, the U.S. Census Bureau has collected data using a census “schedule,” also formally called a “questionnaire” or popularly called a “form.” Between 1790 and 1820, U.S. Marshals conducting the census were responsible for supplying paper and writing-in headings related to the questions asked (i.e., name, age, sex, race, etc.). In 1830, Congress authorized the printing of uniform schedules for use throughout the United States.
The first censuses were often quite incomplete. A complete list of all white people was not even a goal until the 1850 Census and ever since many have been missed in the count, especially women, the poor, those without homes, immigrants, people of color, enslaved people, free blacks, and indigenous people.
Still, decennial censuses can be enormously valuable reach tools – especially when it comes to genealogy and local history.
The 1940 Census was the first to include separate questionnaires to count the population and collect housing data. The 1950 Census about to be released holds a wealth of information, and was the first to include Americans abroad. It also included survey information about residential financing. (The 1960 and later censuses combined population and housing questions onto a single questionnaire mailed to households or completed during a census taker’s visit.)
What’s New in the 1950 Census
The 1950 census encompassed the continental United States, the territories of Alaska and Hawaii, American Samoa, the Canal Zone, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands of the United States, and some of the smaller island territories.
Americans abroad were enumerated for the first time in 1950. Provisions were made to count members of the armed forces, crews of vessels, and employees of the United States government living in foreign countries, along with any members of their families also abroad. This enumeration was carried out through cooperative arrangements with the departments of Defense and State, the United States Maritime Administration and other federal agencies that took responsibility for distributing and collecting specially designed questionnaires.
Other persons living abroad were to be reported by their families or neighbors in the United States, but the quality of these data was considered to be poor and they were not included in the published statistics.
A new survey on residential financing was conducted as part of the 1950 census. In a separate operation, information was collected on a sample basis from owners of owner-occupied and rental properties and mortgage lenders.
Several procedures were used to improve the accuracy and completeness of the 1950 census, including: improved enumerator training, providing enumerators with detailed street maps of their assigned areas, publishing “Missed Person” forms in local newspapers, and setting a specific night to conduct a special enumeration of persons in hotels, tourist courts, and other places frequented by transients.
For the first time, a post-enumeration survey was instituted as a further check on the accuracy and completeness of the count. The Census Bureau recanvassed a sample of about 3,500 small areas and compared these to the original census listings to identify households that may have been omitted in the original enumeration. In addition, a sample of about 22,000 households was reinterviewed to determine the number of persons likely omitted in the initial count.
The Census Bureau began use of the first non-military computer shortly after completing the 1950 enumeration. UNIVAC I (for Universal Automatic Computer), the first of a series, was delivered in 1951, and helped tabulate some of the statistics for the 1954 economic censuses. It weighed 16,000 pounds and used 5,000 vacuum tubes.
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- Access the Census, get updates, and volunteer to transcribe at the National Archives’ webpage here.
- A detailed procedural history of the 1950 census is available in The 1950 Censuses – How They Were Taken [ZIP 37.3MB]
- A wide variety of historical statistics from this and other decades is available in Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970. It is available as a PDF [74.4MB] or 2-part ZIP file: Part I [52.2MB] | Part II [66.1MB].
- Reports and statistics from the 1950 census
Photos, from above: a farmer supplies answers to the 232 questions on the Farm Schedule; and an 1950 Census Enumeration District Maps of New York, courtesy the National Archives.