The United States Census is not something that excites every American citizen. In fact, it usually starts a political debate among citizens, which always has the potential to get ugly.  Since the time of George Washington in 1790, the Constitution has mandated that every person be counted in the country every ten years.

In 2010, the citizens of the United States will be counted once again in a lengthy process that actually creates temporary jobs for many people in a depressed economy. The first census that I was aware of occurred in 2000, when I was around 12 years old. I remember seeing the census paper on the kitchen counter, and looking over the questions that it asked. I wondered why we needed to fill it out and why the government did not already know my name, age and address. Ten years older, and one college education later I now understand the complexities of this system and why it is implemented.

Lately, I have looked at old Census documents for a historical project and was actually quite amused or even appalled at the lack of political correctness of the questions asked on early census records. Due to privacy laws, census records can only be released to the public after 72 years. The oldest census I viewed was from 1930, and it had my grandpa on it as a small child! I’m a history geek, so this may not be relevant to all my readers and I get excited with small discoveries such as that.

I have compiled a list of the five most interesting questions asked on the censuses of years past. These questions can range from ridiculous to downright cruel, but none would be asked in 2010.

1. Do you own a radio set? (1930)

Why would the government need to know this? Television had not been yet invented and radio was extremely popular in 1930. But asking people if they owned one? I do not think the federal government needs to know that.

2. Is this person deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper or convict? (1840)

Lumping people with physical and mental disabilities, as well as the poor and the criminal is not a good idea. Blind is one thing, murder is something completely different. Good thing they separated these categories in later censuses and then did away with it all together.

3. Whether a survivor of the Union or Confederate Army or Navy ? (1910)

4. Number of slaves (1800)

5. Color- White (w); Black (B); Mulatto (M); Chinese (C); Indian (I)  (1870)

There were only five races in 1870 in the United States? False! Indian and Chinese are not the only two Asian races that exist in the world. I also agree that today’s race identifiers are limited, but the ones of 1870 were ridiculous.

Facts about Census (from Census website)

  • The first census began more than a year after the inauguration of President George Washington. At its conclusion, the U.S. population totaled approximately 3.9 million and the largest cities were New York, NY; Philadelphia, PA; and Boston, MA.
  • Following the abolition of slavery in 1865, ex-slaves were named in the 1870 census for the first time. Before then, they were simply recorded numerically by age.
  • The 1900 census included Hawaii (annexed in 1898) for the first time. Census takers counted approximately 154,001 inhabitants on the islands.
  • The 1940 census collected information about the population and its housing. It was also the first decennial census to use advanced statistical sampling techniques. Sampling allowed the addition of a number of demographic questions without unduly increasing the overall burden on respondents and data processing
  • Census 2000 incoroporated a $167 million advertising campaign to reach every person living in the United States. This advertising contributed to a reversal in the decline of response rates experienced since the 1970 census.

(All facts from http://www.census.gov/history)

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