The Census Explained

The 1890 census was one of the most controversial up to that time. It therefore attracted a great deal of commentary in the press. The following article  confirms much of what you’ve probably thought about the census.  And many interesting contextual facts may  be gleaned from the story.   It originally appeared in the New York Tribune, but was reprinted in major cities around the country.  It is presented below as it appeared in the Knoxville Journal and Tribune on April 22, 1890.

Trials and Tribulations of the

A Rare Berth In Which to Study Human
Nature–Queer Questions, Queerer People,
and the Queerest of Answers

“If you want to have some fun studying human nature,” said a book-agent the other day, “get yourself enrolled as a census enumerator for a district where the people are indifferently educated. I tell you canvassing for orders is nothing to it, in the way of diversion. I know, for I was an enumerator myself in a thickly populated down town East side district of this city ten years ago when the last census was taken and though I only made about forty dollars for two weeks of the hardest work I ever performed in my life, yes, I have applied for the place again this year and hope to engage in another cross-questioning campaign with one eye wide open for fun. I’ll meet plenty of queer people, I warrant you, and as I am authorized by the law to enter every house and extract the desired information from any adult, under a penalty of a fine for refusal to aid me, you see I have things pretty much my own way in the end, though I often have to do a heap of talking before I get what I want, and in some instances, no doubt, will have to call the nearest policeman.”

Suppose the census enumerator begins on one of those five-story appartment houses,with four sets of rooms on each floor, each occupied by from four to nine rooms. He starts in the basement as follows:

” You’re the janitor, aren’t you?”

” Yes,” (resentfully as is the way of janitors who think you want them to show you an empty flat).

“How many families in the house?”

” What you want to know fer? (suspiciously). You can’t sell no books here.” (Glancing at your portfolio and blanks).

“I don’t want to sell books. I’ve come to take the census.”

” Oh, they’ve all got some excuse to get inside the house and some of ’em ‘ll take any thin’ they can kin git ther hands on.”

“But I’m a Government official and I’ve come to take the census.”

” What’s that?”

“Well, if you don’t know what the census is, it’s time you found out. I’m going to count the people who live in this house, and if you interfere with me, I’ll call a policeman and have you fined. Look at  that–” and I show him my written authority signed by the Superintendent of the Census and the local supervisor. The seal on this generally fetches the janitor, and so I pass the watchdog and get inside the house. I rap on the door of one apartment and am confronted by a frowsy woman.

“Is the lady of the flat in, ma’am?”

“I’m her.”

“I’ve come to take the census.”

“Ain’t got any.”

Then follow extended explanations and finally we approach business.

“How old is your oldest child?”

“Well, she’s about that high,”   holding her hand about four feet from the floor.

“About twelve?”  I suggest knowing from experience that the exact year of the child’s birth has been crowded out of her tired mind by many subsequent sorrows and privations.

“I guess so.”

“And the next one?”  I continue.

“Oh!  It’s only a wee bit thing.”

“Yes, but can’t you remember when it was born?”

“Well, it was just after Thomas sent up.”

“How long was he in?”  I say, jumping at the clew.

“Five years.”

“And when did he get out?”

“Last Christmas.”

“Then the child’s almost six?”

“I guess so.”

“And how old is your husband?”

“I dunno.”

“Think now; did you ever hear him say?”

“Well, I heard him say once he was born in the year of the big wind in Ireland.”

More people in this generation were born during, or after, or just before, the “big wind in Ireland” than in any ten years before or since, I believe, but I persevere.

“Is he older than you?”


“How much?”

“Not much.”

“How old are you?”

“It’s none of your business, young man; don’t be askin’ imperint questions.”

“But I must know, ma’am.  If I don’t ask you, I’ll be fined myself, and if you don’t answer you’ll be fined.”

“Well, I’m thirty-nine.”

It’s truly wonderful how many women there are who are either nineteen, or twenty-nine, or thirty-nine, or forty-nine.  Do they hate to acknowledge that they  have at last left the decade in which they have carried for ten or fifteen years or is there an amazing but hitherto unnoticed decrease in the birth of girl babies one year out of every ten?  Still I hold my peace and put down this woman as thirty-nine, though she is forty-five if she’s a day,  and I put down her man, who is not much older, as forty-two. This is about as near as you can come with these people, and the woman has done as well as the average in the way of being willing to tell the little she really knows.

But then there is another class of questions that generally causes more trouble than the ages, because people are generally quite unwilling to tell the truth with respect to them.  These are the questions about the “dependent, defective and delinquent” classes, as the last census sheets tabulated them.  It takes some gall to ask a big fiery woman, whom you have been pestering for a quarter of an hour about her age, if any of her family are idiots, or deformed, or criminals, and if so how many, and what are their special forms of disease or rascality. Only a hardened book agent, life-insurance canvasser or lightning-rod peddler can do it every time without quailing or minding the shower of indignant abuse that comes thickest and fastest from a mother who really has a weak-minded son, or a hump-backed daughter, or a jailbird husband. I fancy that we get correct answers in the affirmative to these questions about once in fifty or so.

But a great deal depends on how you put the question.  Only a green horn would say: “Any of you crazy?” Your expert book agent says, “All their minds correct?  Speech all right?  Can everybody see?  Is the hearing perfect with all of you?”  I tell you tact is what an enumerator chiefly needs if  he is going to get through his work quick enough to make any money out of it.  It’s no soft snap.  The temptation to sit down and fill in the blanks, to the best of your own judgment, and sooner, than spend half an hour with an abusive and ignorant family, is almost irresistible at times, in a heavy penalty attaches to such work, and justly, too.

At the last census many men applied for the place of enumerator, thinking it a picnic, and when they received their books and instructions and began to grasp the size of the job, they resigned in large numbers.  This year, to guard against any such monkey business, an enumerator who accepts his appointment and then backs out without giving a
satisfactory reason to the superintendent, may be fined and imprisoned.

The city is so divided that each enumerator is supposed to have about two thousand individuals to inquire about.  But he often finds that his district is much more thickly populated than he supposed.  I remember last time I got into a room in a wretched house where four families dwell together the room was partitioned off into four rectangles, but not in the usual way with wooden walls, but by chalk lines on the floor.

“How do you all manage to live in such crowded quarters?”  I asked, jogged out of my routine questions by their unusually sardine-like arrangement.

“Oh, we’d get on well enough,” growled one man, “if them Joneses wouldn’t persist in keeping boarders.”


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5 Responses to “The Census Explained”

  • Oh, that’s a great story! It puts such a human face on the census, and provides a much better understanding of the circumstances in which it was taken. It’s fascinating to hear the tales of the men behind the faded handwriting in those columns and rows with which we’re all so familiar.

  • Kinfolk News says:

    What a great article! Thanks for sharing it with us.
    ~ Regina

  • I will never again swear under my breath when reading the census.


  • Mary says:

    What a great story….thanks for sharing it! It is a great insight into the problems the census taker met…and this fellow seems to be one who was most conscientious. I wonder if it will be much better next year?

  • It’s one thing to remind yourself as you research that these were humans and they made errors. It’s quite another to read such a personal account of their experiences as they conducted the census. It helps you to understand WHY these errors were made, not just that they were. Thanks so much for posting this!

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