Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The 1940 Census: Reading Between the Lines

As you may have heard, the 1940 United States census records were released to the public earlier this month. It probably isn’t surprising that this new information is exciting for historians, but lots of other people are curious too: two million users tried to access the census records on the first day they were available, crashing the National Archives web site.

Although our historic tenement at 97 Orchard Street was closed to residents in 1935, the release of the 1940 census still means a lot to us, since it reveals so much about the history of 103 Orchard Street, the site of our new Visitor and Education Center. The upper floors of 103 Orchard have been continuously occupied by residential tenants since the building was completed in 1888. We have a lot to learn about the people who have lived there: What did they do? How big were their families? What languages did they speak?

In 1940, Americans were still feeling the impact of the Great Depression, with national unemployment at 16.8 percent. Given this, it makes sense that there were more questions about employment in this census than in those of previous years. Anyone over the age of 14 was asked whether they worked, and specifically whether they were employed by one of three government-sponsored programs: the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Projects Administration, or the National Youth Administration.

A "Test Census" Enumerator at work in 1939; Image courtesy Life Magazine

At 103 Orchard Street, almost half of the heads of household reported that they were employed as proprietors of businesses – things like retail men’s hats, retail men’s clothing, and printing. We know that two of these businesses--Feltly Hats and The Orchard Street Printing Company--were located at 97 Orchard Street in 1940. They were owned by the Hafter and Solomon Families, respectively.

There are other connections between our two buildings: two families residing at 103 Orchard, the Hafters and the Rosenthals, were former residents of 97 Orchard who moved down the block when the building was condemned in 1935. Samuel Rosenthal was once known as Samuel Rogarshevsky; we tell his family’s story on our “Sweatshop Workers” tour.

Sam Rogarshevsky (Rosenthal) in the backyard at 97 Orchard Street
on his wedding day in 1919.

Though he was once an aspiring boxer who nicknamed himself Rocky, by 1940 Samuel Rosenthal reported that we was working as a chauffeur for a mortician, which probably meant he drove a hearse. His wife, Lillian, worked as a “squad leader” for the Dept of Commerce. Their 20 year old son Albert worked as a clerk in a candy store.

We’ve just begun to delve into the amazing wealth of information in the 1940 census, so we’ll have a lot more to share in the months to come!

-- Posted by Director of Curatorial Affairs David Favaloro and Public Relations Manager Kira Garcia

1 comment:

  1. What I thought was most interesting about the 1940 census was the Education Level column... how much school did the residents of 97 and 103 Orchard complete? My working-class relatives didn't get beyond 10th grade, or 8th grade in the case of my great-grandparents.


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