Where was your family living and what was life like for them in 1950?
The answers to these and other questions may be discovered when the National Archives and Records Administration release the 1950 U.S. census records on April 1.
“There is so much family history that people will be able to find,” said Jimmy Zimmerman, a FamilySearch manager. “What was their family’s economic situation? Where exactly were they living? What military service might they have been involved in? It paints a pretty good picture of a family during that time and we’re excited to put that together into an easy-to-consume experience.”
The 1950 census includes the records of 40 million people born during this era of baby boomers and provides a variety of information that will cast a light on the preceding decade, which included World War II and the return of U.S. troops.
Think of the 1950 census as a “beautiful snapshot in time,” said Crista Cowan, corporate genealogist for Ancestry.
“We can look at a picture and a picture can tell you some really important things, but it can’t tell you things like what they did for a living or how much their house was worth or who the neighbors were,” Cowan said. “They are the kinds of questions we don’t sometimes think to ask our parents or grandparents. ... I love that this information is now so readily available digitally, that we can just type a name in and don’t have to scroll through microfilm for days on end.”
The 1950 census can be a “spark plug” for many family conversations, said David Rencher, FamilySearch’s chief genealogy officer.
“There are all kinds of pieces of information and stories that help tell the family history, but the census is the spark plug, the census begins the conversation,” Rencher said.
The U.S. census, taken every 10 years since 1790, documents the nation’s population. Access to census records is restricted for 72 years.
The good news is that new processes and technological innovations will allow a searchable index of the census to be published much sooner than in past years, enabling people to find family names more quickly.
How Ancestry and FamilySearch are collaborating
When the 1940 census was released, thousands of indexing volunteers spent months making census collections searchable.
This year, Ancestry’s artificial intelligence and handwriting recognition technology will save time by creating an initial index from digital census images. The index won’t be perfect, but it will accelerate the review and publication process.
“It should really accelerate the speed at which we will be able to get this index, not only the speed of creating the index, but the depth of the record that we’ll be able to capture,” Zimmerman said.
Volunteers will then review the automated index using technology like FamilySearch’s Get Involved app, which allows people to quickly review names, to ensure that each name is included and indexed correctly. A human review will refine the index and help ensure that everyone included in the census can be found.
FamilySearch hopes to make the volunteer experience more personalized this time.
“Volunteers will be able to work on records related to their family and for locations in which they have an interest,” a FamilySearch news release said.
FamilySearch will introduce an online experience that allows people to review an entire household at one time.
“This experience is going to be more accessible to more people. The handwriting is going to be more modern,” said Jim Ericson, a FamilySearch senior product manager. “This is a great opportunity for youth and young adults and anybody interested in historical records to get in and and understand what these records look like.”
Volunteers can sign up at FamilySearch.org.
Some people are counting down the hours until the release.
“The question I’m getting, of course, is how soon will FamilySearch have it published online?” Rencher said. “They are anxious.”
What data will be found in the 1950 Census?
More than half of Americans (53%) can’t name all four grandparents, and only 4% can name all eight great-grandparents, according to an Ancestry study.
“For those that know the names of grandparents but don’t know the names of great-grandparents, this is an awesome record set to help to bridge that gap to get to information they don’t know,” Zimmerman said. “It helps to start with information they know or may know about their family and get to that household in the census and bridge back to the names that are new to them and find new information to start figuring out what does my family tree look like.”
The Ancestry survey found that 66% of U.S. adults are interested in learning more about their family history.
- 51% want to know stories of their ancestors when they were young and what life was like at a moment in time.
- 41% want to learn about the hardships their ancestors went through and overcame.
- 46% want to know their ancestors’ connection to historical events.
- 42% want to know where their last name comes from and what it means.
Census records can be essential in filling in gaps of a person’s family history. People can learn what their ancestor did for a living, if they were married, ages, addresses and details about education level and military service, according to FamilySearch:
- Housing: At that time, 55% of all Americans owned their own home.
- Gender: There were more females (50.34%) than males (49.66%) in the United States.
- Race: In 1950, 90% of the population was reported as white. Hispanic people were listed as white. Blacks were listed as “negro.”
- Education: The average person in 1950 had completed around nine years of schooling.
- Military service: The census found more than 300,000 U.S. citizens serving abroad in 1950. The median age was 23.8 and less than 1% were women.
- Occupation: Men represented 72% of the workforce in 1950 and only 28% was female. The median income for a family was $3,300 a year.
This will be the first time returning servicemen and college students will be enumerated at schools they are attending instead of in their parent’s household, Cowan said.
Think of the census as scaffolding around your family tree, Cowan said.
“It gives us a structure and the basic information that we need to know we are on the right track,” the Ancestry genealogist said. “Then we use those other records to fill in the details.”
Famous people found in the 1950 census
Here are some of the famous people who were alive during the 1950 census:
- Scientist Albert Einstein, 71.
- President Harry Truman, 66.
- Entrepreneur/film producer Walt Disney, 49.
- Actor Jimmy Stewart, 41.
- Actress Lucille Ball, 39.
- Baseball player Jackie Robinson, 31.
- Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., 21.
- Baseball player Roberto Clemente, 16.
- Singer Elvis Presley, 15.
What was life like in the 1950s?
- The “Tennessee Waltz” by Patti Page was the most popular song.
- A stamp cost 3 cents, a movie ticket was 55 cents and the price of one gallon of gasoline was 27 cents.
- The Cleveland Browns were the NFL champions and the New York Yankees defeated the Philadelphia Phillies to win the World Series.
- The top grossing film was “Cinderella.”
- Dom Quinto invented the leaf blower.
“We tend to lose track of our family,” Ericson said. “Some of us think we know a lot about our family. But for a lot of people, they have real questions that they are looking forward to getting answered by the 1950 census.”
Ancestry features for the 1950 census
Along with generating an initial index, Ancestry is creating enumeration district maps to help people understand the areas in which their ancestors lived.
“We’ve taken the old enumeration district maps and we’ve laid them over maps of modern cities,” Cowan said. “If you know the neighborhood where your grandparents lived, you can zoom in and see on those old maps what streets existed or didn’t exist at the time or even just click through and get right to the set of images you want to see.”
Ancestry will also release Cross-Record Insights, which allows users to find a family member in one census and compare it with the results of multiple records.
“If you find a family in the 1950 census, we can see if we can find that family automatically in the 1940 census and give you some insights about how the family has changed over time,” Cowan said.
People will naturally want to find parents and grandparents, but don’t forget about uncles, aunts and cousins, Cowan said.
“You may find cousins and aunts and uncles in places you didn’t expect and that tells a richer family story,” she said.