Looking Back at the Census Over the Decades

2020 is considered to be the first digital census, offering the option of responding online, by mail or by phone. The federal government uses census numbers to know where to allocate more than $675 billion in funds annually. Undercounting on the census can lead to loss of a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Since the census started in 1790, there have been many iterations and styles of questioning, with some peculiar and racist queries. Here are a few of those earlier questions. census.gov

The 1840 census asked: The number of white persons in the household who were insane and idiots (at public and private charge).

The 1850 census asked: Slave owners to assign a number (not a name) to each slave. Numbering restarted with each new owner. Listed in the same row as the owner, the number of slaves freed from bondage in the past year.

The 1870 census asked: Identify color —enumerators could mark W for white, B for black, M for mulatto, C for Chinese (a category that included all East Asians) or I for American Indian.

The 1890 census asked: Is the person a prisoner, convict, homeless child, or pauper?

The 1910 census asked: Enumerators were instructed to use a special expanded questionnaire for American Indians living on reservations or in family groups off of reservations. A second question: Is this person living in polygamy?

The 1930 census asked: Do you own a radio set?

The 1960 census asked: Does the household have a home food freezer separate from its refrigerator?

1970 census asked: Do you have a battery-operated radio?


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Kasia PowlowskaKasia Pawlowska loves words. A native of Poland, Kasia moved to the States when she was seven. The San Francisco State University creative writing graduate went on to write for publications like the San Francisco Bay Guardian and KQED Arts among others prior to joining the Marin Magazine staff. Topics Kasia has covered include traveltrendsmushroom hunting, an award-winning series on social media addiction, and loads of other random things. When she’s not busy blogging or researching and writing articles, she’s either at home writing postcards and reading or going to shows. Recently, Kasia has been trying to branch out and diversify, ie: use different emojis. Her quest for the perfect chip is a never-ending endeavor.