An aerial view of Salt Lake City taken in 1950. The National Archives and Records Administration will release individual information from the 1950 census on April 1, providing a window into the country at the start of a transformative time in American history. (Utah State History)
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Editor’s note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com’s Historic section.
SALT LAKE CITY — The 1950s were a metamorphic decade in American history, not just because of emerging technology but also in how people lived, where they moved to and, of course, the baby boom.
However, before all that happened, the heads of American households filled out their census forms.
Now, after 72 years, the information collected from the beginning of the decade is set to be released for the first time. The National Archives and Records Administration will publish a new website on April 1, where people can find all sorts of new information, including the names and addresses of the heads of households who submitted their census based on where they and their families were on that date in 1950.
“The 1950 census opens a window into one of the most transformative periods in modern American history,” Marc Perry, a senior demographer for the U.S. Census Bureau, said Monday.
“Collectively, data from the 1950 census revealed a country of 151 million people that had only recently emerged from the disruptions of World War II and the Great Depression,” he said.
Why the wait?
The U.S. first released past census records in 1942, less than a decade after the National Archives was created. The first release provided information from the first census taken in 1790 up through the 1870 census, a range of 72 to 152 years after the censuses were filled out.
Since then, the country has had a long-standing policy that it doesn’t release the complete information of a decennial census until 72 years after the census is completed, commonly referred to as the “72-year rule.” This policy dates back to 1952, when the Census Bureau and National Archives agreed that personal information filled out from a census cannot be released until at least 72 years after a census data.
Why 72? The answer isn’t very clear but likely dates back to the timing of the first release, said Claire Kluskens, a genealogy and census subject expert for the National Archives and Records Administration. The deal was made two years after Congress passed the 1950 Federal Records Act that established at least a 50-year delay on personal records, according to the National Archives.
This agreement was nearly nullified 20 years later when the 72-year window of the 1900 census arrived. As noted by the agency, a law passed ahead of the 1900 census barred its information from being released. U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson, however, declared the records could be opened to researchers; in 1977, the data was made public.
And then, in 1978, Congress passed a law codifying the agreement. This “72-year rule” has not changed since. It’s why all the answers from the census Utahns filled out two years ago won’t be made public until 2092, barring a change to the law.
It also means April 1 is when the seal is lifted on the 1950 census information.
1950 census: The beginning of the modern era
The U.S. was in the midst of a post-World War II transformation at the time of the 1950 census. Sharon Tosi Lacey, the chief historian for the U.S. Census Bureau, pointed out the signs of upcoming transformation should be in the data.
New education opportunities were made available for many military veterans through the G.I. Bill; people were moving out of large cities into new suburbs and new regions of the country; 1.4 million African-Americans were moving to parts of the North and West; and the baby boom was starting to happen. This period didn’t just start a population boom but also a building boom.
“For the first time, more than half of all homes were owner-occupied,” Lacey said. “And also for the first time, a large number of Americans were living overseas with military families and federal workers, particularly in Germany and Japan.”
There were some changes to the document and data collection that year, as well.
For instance, there were 38 questions on the census, a dozen fewer than the 1940 document. There were also 47 final reports compiled by the bureau, compared to 25 from the prior census. The total number of enumeration districts also changed from 147,000 in 1940 to 230,000 in 1950.
The Census Bureau used a computer to tabulate some of the 1950 census for the first time. Lacey said physical sampling made the 1950 census the beginning of the “modern census.” It was the beginning of self-enumeration, a separate form for residents of Native American reservations and, for just the second time ever, “infant cards” were used to count babies who were generally “a missed population count.”
With a record number of students at universities across the nation, the Census Bureau also started counting students at their respective colleges and not at their homes for the first time in 1950. And there were also new efforts to track missing populations in 1950.
“We started making greater efforts to count missed people by using forms printed in the newspaper and having specific nights to count transient locations such as hotels, tourist courts and shelters, which is something we would continue to do in following censuses,” Lacey said.
This was also the first time the bureau went back to double-check its work. It started using a post-enumeration survey in areas where it began new data collection experiments and thousands of small areas to identify households it otherwise would have missed — a practice still conducted today. The heads of about 22,000 American households were reinterviewed for data confirmation following the 1950 census.
What we already knew from the 1950 census
For the past seven decades, the overall population statistics and trends are all that’s been made available. One preliminary report of the 1950 census data summarized that the U.S. had an “unprecedented” number of marriages and young children while having a smaller size of a household than ever before, according to Perry.
- Two-thirds of all men and women were married in 1950, much higher than the rate that’s below 50% today.
- The average household size of 3.51 in 1950 is still higher than the estimate of 2.6 in 2019, Perry said. That’s because the percentage of people living alone has jumped from just below 10% in 1950 to about 28% in 2019.
- The number of women in the workforce has also increased significantly. In 1950, only 29% of all U.S. women were in the workforce; that percentage is now close to 60%.
- The baby boom also started to begin. About 31% of the American population was under the age of 18 in 1950; the number grew to 34.3% by 1970. The median age, which had risen for decades heading into 1950, dropped from 30.2 in 1950 to 29.5 in 1960 and 28.1 in 1970. It’s now 38.1, according to a 2019 estimate.
A new highway system in the 1950s ultimately put more cars on the road and allowed for people to spread out. New building construction, which was hampered in the 1930s and 1940s by the Great Depression and World War II, exploded heading into the 1950s to accommodate the rapid post-war life.
That meant new families could get their own home to raise their children, which is the reason household sizes dropped at the time.
Despite all the major changes, most of the population revolution isn’t quite captured in the 1950 census. The document is more of a snapshot of the starting point of when everything started to change in America.
“The country had yet been impacted by most of those major post-war demographic and economic trends that would greatly change the size, the shape and the compilation of the U.S. population,” Perry said. “Back in 1950, things likely felt very different than in 1940; yet in hindsight, we can kind of now see that on many demographic dimensions the U.S. population in 1950 looked more like the country of 1940 than the rapidly growing, youthful generation that was to come in 1960 or 1970.”
The 1950s are when suburban communities began to take over. Aside from New York City and Los Angeles, all of the 10 largest cities in the U.S. in 1950 hit their current peak populations with the 1950 census. People also started moving away from the Northeast and Midwest regions to the South and West about this same time as air conditioning became more accessible.
Perry points to Cleveland and the Denver suburb of Aurora, Colorado, as a perfect example for both trends in motion over the ensuing seven decades. In 1950, Cleveland outnumbered Aurora 914,808 to 11,396; however, Aurora surpassed Cleveland with a population of 386,261 to 372,624 in the latest census.
Utah also falls under this migration wave. The state had a population of about 696,000 people in 1950. Its population has nearly quintupled since the 1950 census was filled out, becoming the fastest-growing — percentage rate-wise — state between 2010 and 2020 along the way.
Only through a recent change of urban growth — matching some new trends — has Salt Lake City’s population exceeded where it was during this time. Its population eventually topped out at nearly 190,000 in 1960 before a steady decline between 1960 and 1990, as suburban communities grew in popularity. It started to increase again after 1990, reaching a record 199,723 in the 2020 census.
What’s being released now
On April 1, the National Archives will release:
- About 6.57 million digital images from the 1950 census
- 33,000 images related to the Indian reservation schedules
- 2,000 images from population forms taken from citizens living overseas at the time.
All of the new materials will join the data already made available online.
Researchers, geologists and others will be able to see the demographic snapshots of specific individuals and households and get a clearer picture of the larger societal trends that were going on that time.
–Marc Perry, U.S. Census Bureau demographer
People will be able to search the photos by state, county, reservation name or enumeration district number. There are about 140,000 enumerators in the collection with differing levels of handwriting, legibility and quality, according to Kluskens. She adds users can help correct any incorrect names in the data.
Historians are eager for the April 1 release because it will help paint a better history of life at the time through every individual story contained within the data. Perry surmises that the data could show where someone’s grandparents were in a city before moving to the suburbs, an African American family moving out of the rural South to an urban portion of the Northeast or Midwest, or quite possibly a family moving from the Midwest to the West.
“The upcoming release of the 1950 census individual records is a genealogy gold mine,” he said. “Researchers, geologists and others will be able to see the demographic snapshots of specific individuals and households and get a clearer picture of the larger societal trends that were going on that time.”
That means, after all these years, there will finally be names behind the numbers and maps that have been public records for some time. Aside from population numbers, there are enumeration district maps and other datasets.
Ultimately, the individual touch is what makes old census surveys so important.
“A decennial census is, above all, a collection of data on every individual in the United States,” Perry said. “And after 72 years, the individual stories of each person enumerated in the 1950 census sort of reverberate through new generations.”