The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Navigating Your Way Through the 1900 United States Census Records

Our first assignment, The City Social Project, involves mapping demographic data for Harrisburg in 1900 and creating a digital map of Harrisburg along the lines of the Mapping DuBois project. Each student is responsible for keying 2,000 records of the 1900 U.S. Census. In a class of twelve students, that means we are processing over 24,000 entries total. With the help of Ancestry, it has become easier to accomplish this project, yet it is a tedious task. It has been the best of times and the worst of times.

The Best of Times

Census records provide historians with a great amount of information. The City Social Project involves looking at the 1900 Census which collected the following data (in order):

  1.        Number of dwelling home in order of visitation by enumerator
  2.        Number of family in order of visitation by enumerator
  3.        Name
  4.        Relation to head of the family
  5.        Color or Race (W-White, B-Black, Ch-Chinese, I-Native American)
  6.        Sex
  7.        Date of Birth (MM/YYYY)
  8.        Age at last birthday
  9.        Martial Status
  10.    Numbers of years married
  11.    Mothers: How many children a mother had?
  12.    Number of those children living
  13.    Place of Birth
  14.     Place of father’s birth
  15.     Place of mother’s birth
  16.    Year the person immigrated to the United States
  17.    How many years has the person been in the United States?
  18.    Is the person naturalized?
  19.    Occupation or Trade
  20.    How many months has the person not been employed in the past year?
  21.    How many months did the person attend school in the past year?
  22.    Can the person read?
  23.    Can the person write?
  24.    Can the person speak English?
  25.    Is the person’s home owned or rented?
  26.    If it is owned, is the person’s home owned free or mortgaged?
  27.    Does the person live in a farm in a house?
  28.    If a person lived on a farm, a farm schedule identification number is given.

Every census is unique in its own way. Generally, there are similarities in questionnaire existing in each census year; however, there are also unique questions that exist in the 1880 Census that do not exist in 1930 Census. Pictured below is a chart showing the various information one can find in each census between 1790 and 1910.

Personal Info on Census 1790 1800 1810 1820 1830 1840 1850 1860 1870 1880 1900 1910
Name of family head only
Headcount by age, gender, …
Standard census form
Names of all individuals
Profession or occupation
Place of birth
Attended school that year
Highest grade completed
Married that year
Read or write
Deaf, blind, insane, idiotic, …
Real estate value
Personal estate value

The Worst of Times

Despite the benefits of the 1900 Census, there are many challenges faced when reading these records.

The biggest issue is interpreting census information. No two census enumerators have the exact same penmanship. Some enumerators wrote in print, others in cursive. In either case, it can be a challenge to distinguish what is actually written.

Through my work with census records, I have learned a number of things along the way. Census documents are trustworthy primary sources, but they are not always correct. There may be light marks above documents denoting a mistake. I have also learned to read side comments left by enumerators. On the last sheet, enumerators normally include people who are out of place and will note mistakes throughout the document. When I am faced with an occupation that is illegible, I pull out a scrap piece of paper and make out the words. I then write out each letter in the alphabet (cursive or print) in order to compare and contrast. When I am stuck on letter I also compare the enumerator’s penmanship with his or her own handwriting.

This research has been a great opportunity to develop skills as a history student and researcher. If you are an aspiring genealogist or merely longing to research your family’s history, working with census records is a great challenge, but you will discover worthwhile discoveries.


6 thoughts on “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Navigating Your Way Through the 1900 United States Census Records

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