from the beginning

From the Beginning: Understanding the US Federal Census, 1940

gg, US Federal Census - 1940

What is the 1940 US Census?

It’s an official count of the population of the United States as of 1 April 1940.  The census forms also asked demographic questions about individuals.  The census date is April 1st.  This means that census takers began knocking on doors on or around April 1st and that the questions asked were to be answered based on what was happening on April 1st.

Where can I access the 1940 US Census?

To access the 1940 Census for free, visit FamilySearch or click this link.

What information can I find on the 1940 US Census?

This census has some great questions that will help you get to know your family members a little bit better.  You can view a blank form here.  Having a printed blank form can be handy as you are working with census records.  You can check the column headings on the blank form as you read along the responses on your computer.  This saves you the headache of constantly scrolling up to read the heading and then back down to read the answer.

Now that we have the basics out of the way, let’s look at a 1940 Census Page and talk about some specifics.  First, the layout:

gg, 1940 census overview

In the upper left you see the City, County, & State.  In the upper right you see the Enumeration Information which includes the date of enumeration, enumeration district, and the name of the Enumerator.  Below the heading you find the Demographic Questions which we will look at in a minute.  Along the left side you see the street name is written sideways up that column.  You will also notice that the Enumerator would draw a dark line between different streets.  If you find a census record and don’t see a street name, check the page before to see if the street name was recorded there.  Every page of the 1940 Census has two lines that were chosen for supplementary questions.  Those two individuals answered additional questions found at the bottom of the page.  On the lower left you see a small box the Enumerator can check if the household is continued on the next page.  At the very bottom is a guide with symbols and explanatory notes.  These are easier to read on the blank form.

Now that you have a feel for the layout let’s look at a specific household.

gg, 1940 Census, Maffit household, 1

I let Photoshop help me with some magic and I combined a household with the headings from the blank form.  The columns don’t line up perfectly but most of them are pretty close.  Let’s look at Seth who is the head of household.  I’ll go through each entry on his line starting on the left.

  • The street name is Fifteenth Avenue North.  You have to look at the whole page to read this item.
  • The house number is 603A.
  • The next line tells you that the Maffit home was the 117th house this enumerator visited.
  • Next we learn that Seth rents his home.
  • The monthly rent is $14.
  • The Maffits do not live on a farm.
  • The next line tells us Seth’s name.  He is listed as Maffit, Seth.  Notice the x inside of the circle.  This cool little symbol tells us that Seth is the person who gave the information to the Enumerator.  1940 is the only census with this helpful fact.  Why does this matter?  Well, if 14 year old Seth had given the answers we might not trust them as much as if 64 year old Seth had given the answers.
  • The next column lists Seth as the ‘head’.  This means that he is the head of household.  All other relationships listed in this column relate to the head of household.  Emma is listed as ‘wife’ meaning she is the wife of the head of household.  Everard is listed as ‘son’ meaning he is the son of the head of household.
  • Next is a code column.
  • Seth is listed as ‘M’, meaning he is male.
  • Seth is listed as ‘W’, meaning he is white.
  • The next column lists age at last birthday.  Seth was 64 at the time of the census.  When you use an age to calculate a birth year remember to give yourself wiggle room depending upon when their birthday was and if they remembered their age correctly.  There were a few years in my mid-twenties when I could not for the life of me remember how old I was, I had to do the math every time.  People make mistakes, be okay with that possibility.  Then you have people who intentionally give the wrong age.  Often women will mysteriously age fewer than ten years from one census to the next.  Birth and death records will help you get a more accurate birth year but the census can be a great guide.
  • Next, Seth is listed as ‘M’ for married.
  • The next column asks if the person has ‘Attended school or college at anytime since March 1, 1940?’  Seth answered no.
  • Seth lists his highest grade of school completed as ‘8’ for eighth grade.
  • The next column is a code column.
  • Seth lists his birthplace as ‘Illinois’.
  • Another code column.
  • The next column is left blank.  It asks ‘Citizenship of the Foreign Born’.  If Seth had been born outside of the US this column would tell me his status – Na (naturalized), Pa (having first papers), Al (alien), or Am Cit (American citizen born abroad).
  • Seth lists his residence on 1 April 1935 as ‘same place’.  This means that five years earlier he lived in the same town.  If it had read ‘same house’, that would mean that he lived in the exact same house five years earlier.  If he had not lived in the same house or town it would list the city, county, and state he lived in five years before.
  • Seth was not living on a farm five years before.
  • And we finish this chunk of the census off with another code.

You can see that Seth has a wife and three children living with him.  I won’t go through each of their answers but feel free to read through them.  Now let’s check out the other half of the demographic questions.  The top line is Seth again.

gg, 1940 Census, Maffit household, 2

The columns don’t line up well, sorry.  There are a lot of employment questions on this census.  The depression was coming to an end, the government was trying to learn as many details about employment as they could.  Let’s check out Seth’s employment info.

  • Was this person at work for pay or profit in private or nonemergency Govt. work during week of March 24-30? (Y or N) – This column has a dash, I’m not sure why the dash instead of a no.
  • If not, was he at work on, or assigned to, public EMERGENCY WORK (WPA, NYA, CCC, etc.) during week of March 24-3-? (Y or N) – Seth marked this column yes.  As a side note, if your family member marked this column yes, there may be more records about them in the National Archives.  I haven’t requested these records yet for Seth and don’t know much about them – it’s on my list to learn!
  • Was this person SEEKING WORK? (Y or N) – again we get a puzzling dash.
  • If not seeking work, did he HAVE A JOB, business, etc.? (Y or N) – another dash.
  • Indicate whether engaged in home housework (H), in school (S), unable to work (U), or other (Ot) – Seth’s column is blank.
  • Next is a code column.
  • Number of hours worked during week of March 24-30, 1940 – Seth claimed 0 hours worked.
  • Duration of unemployment up to March 30, 1940 – in weeks – Seth was unemployed for 8 weeks.
  • Occupation & Industry – Seth listed his occupation as a laborer on WPA Road.
  • Class of Worker – Seth’s column is blank.
  • Another code column comes next.
  • Number of weeks worked in 1939 (Equivalent full-time weeks) – Seth’s column is blank.
  • Amount of money, wages or salary received (including commissions) – Seth earned $500 during the 12 months in 1939.
  • Did this person receive income of $50 or more from sources other than money wages or salary (Y or N) – Seth said that he did not.
  • The last column asks number of Farm Schedule – Seth does not live on a farm in 1940 so his column is blank.

You will notice that Seth’s wife Emma happens to be on a line that asks Supplementary Questions.  Let’s look at those.

gg, 1940 Census, Emma's supp qs

The supplementary questions are a little goldmine.  Emma’s answers are interesting.

  • The first column asks her name – she lists ‘Maffit, Emma’.
  • The second and third columns ask her father & mothers birth places – Emma’s father was born in France and her mother in Canada.
  • Then we get another code.
  • Emma’s native language is English.  This is interesting to me because her father is French and her mother is French Canadian.
  • Another code.
  • The next four columns ask veteran questions which Emma leaves blank.
  • The next three columns ask Social Security questions which again, Emma leaves blank.

gg, 1940 Cenus, Emma's supp qs 2

And here is the second half of Emma’s supplementary questions.

  • The first four columns of this half ask about usual occupation – Emma’s entries are blank.
  • The next three questions are for women who are or have been married.  From these questions we learn that Emma has been married once, she was married at the age of 17 and has had 9 children born alive.  Now the 9 children thing is a problem.  Emma had 9 children who lived into adulthood but she had 3, possibly 4 other children who did not.  It’s too bad the answer to this question isn’t accurate.  If it had been it would help me clear up the 3, possibly 4 issue.  This is another example of why it is helpful to know who gave the information to the Enumerator.  Her husband answered the questions.  I have a feeling if Emma had been the one to answer the door this entry would have been different.
  • The following columns are all code columns.


What are the best features of the 1940 Census?

Well, in my humble opinion, the best features are:

  • Street name and house number listed.
  • We know who gave the information to the Enumerator.
  • Education level is listed.
  • Residence 5 years earlier is listed.
  • The employment questions are VERY detailed.
  • The supplementary questions are awesome.


What tips make using the 1940 Census super great?

  • Print a blank census form.
  • Read every single column for each member of the household.
  • Check the whole page for extended family members who may be living nearby.
  • FAQ found at the National Archives has some helpful information.
  • If you can’t find someone, try searching by location instead of by name.  This article may be helpful for you.


Many people living in the US have an ancestor that they knew personally who is listed on the 1940 Federal Census.  Try to find someone you know on the 1940 census.  See what new information you can learn about their life and family.


And that is the 1940 US Federal Census!

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