Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Trip Back to 1940

by Pa Rock
Family Historian

1940 may not have been a pivotal year in American history, but it can be argued that it was nestled snugly between two years that were.  The preceding year, 1939, has been labeled by many film historians as the greatest year in the history of Hollywood because of the release of a raft of incredible films including The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gone with the Wind, and Stagecoach.  But far more importantly, it was the year that the Second World War began with Hitler's invasion of Poland, and Great Britain and France's subsequent declaration of war on Germany.  The United States would enter the war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

But in 1940 things were still relatively quiet in America.  The Great Depression was waning, thanks in large measure to reform and relief policies put into place by the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Many homes were starting to get electricity, and most had radios (connected to car batteries if homes weren't yet wired for electricity).  Cars were becoming more common, some roads were being paved, and airplanes were becoming familiar sights.  Indoor plumbing was even reaching from the cities and into many rural communities.

Franklin Roosevelt was so popular with the American public that he won a third term as President of the United States in 1940, the only person to have done so before or since.

1940, being a year ending in zero, was also a census year - a time in which census takers went from house to house enumerating the population of the United States - collecting names, ages, and other nuggets of information that genealogists and family historians salivate over.

The federal census records are one of the most valuable sources of family history information in existence.  They are released to the public, by statute, seventy-two years after the information was collected.  This week, the census information for 1940 was released by the National Archives, and the demand to look at those records was so great that the Archives website crashed almost immediately.

There are a few other places to access the images of the 1940 census sheets.  I used Ancestry.com today for my first peek into the records, and in about thirty minutes I was able to locate my grandfather's household and found that my mother, age 18 at that time, was still living at home.  (She had graduated from high school in 1939, so I thought that she might have been out living on her own by then.)

So far only the two least populous states in 1940 (Delaware and Nevada) have been indexed to where they are searchable by name, but hopefully over the next several months more will be indexed to make searching for misplaced relatives easier.  To search the non-indexed census sheets, you must have a good idea of where your ancestor lived in the summer of 1940 - state, county, and precinct or township.  It seems like a lot of bother for those of us who are used to working in cyberspace and having instantaneous gratification, but the results are so personal and rewarding that the effort will be time very well spent.

1940 was realistically the end of an era in America.  The following year we would enter World War II which would be followed by the Cold War, the Korean War, the space race, the Vietnam War, civil rights protests, war protests, the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Watergate, the oil crisis, the attacks of September 11th, and the endless wars in the Middle East.  Somehow it felt peaceful and comforting to take a stroll back seventy-two years in time and peek through the window of my grandfather's household.   Things seemed happier and less complicated then.

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