Deciphering Census Records

As part of the new Digital History course offered through the History Department at Messiah College, we recently devoted time to transcribe names of Harrisburg citizens from the 1900 census records.  My fellow classmates have discussed earlier just how tedious and hard it is to transcribe these census records.  After spending countless hours transcribing and copying census records, we started to see the end results of this whole project.

Working on this project was difficult at times, because we had to get used to the handwriting of the census taker on whatever district and ward we were working on.  It seemed to me at least that once you got used to the census taker’s handwriting, you were about done transcribing the data for that certain district and ward.  For instance, when I was working on data from Ward 9 District 76, I had a hard time trying to figure out if the census taker was writing North or South 13th Street.  Another difficulty I had transcribing the data from this same district and ward was that when the census taker wrote “yes” or “no” in cursive, it looked the same to me when I looked at it very quickly.  This turned out to be a slight problem when I tried to transcribe the Education section of the Census records, because this was filled out with a simple “yes” or “no”.  As it turned out, this Census taker’s cursive version of yes and no looked very similar, so at first I mistakenly transcribed a Yes when it was actually a No.

Image of Street Name on Census Sheet
Image of Street Name on Census Sheet
Example of Yes and No Writing on Census Sheet
Example of Yes and No Writing on Census Sheet






While transcribing the Occupation section on the Census sheets, I realized just how much of an impact that the railroad had in the lives of the citizens in Harrisburg.  Within the districts and wards for which I was responsible, the majority of the jobs held by adult males were either in the railroad industry or railroad related.  This Census Record shows just how much of a role that the railroad played in America’s society from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century.  However, this means that when the railroad eventually moved out of Harrisburg, these workers had to find a new way to make a living.


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