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The 1950 Census: Sense and Sensibility

Published: June 3, 2022

The Census Has The Answers

Want to know how many hours a week your grandmother or grandfather worked? Or if they identified as white, Negro, or Indian? Or where they were born?

Perhaps you’d like to know who was living in your house 72 years ago?

All that and more is now at your fingertips.

The 1950 U.S. Census documents have just been released. As of April 1, you can access all manner of information by jumping on and tooling around the site.

72 Years Later


Aggregated data is available soon after every census. For example, you could quickly find out that Ipswich’s population jumped 8.3% to 6,877 between 1940 and 1950. But specifics on individuals are kept under wraps for 72 years. Hence the April 1, 2022, release.

I wandered around in the Ipswich section the other day and found me as a six-month-old living at 12A Manning Street with my then-young parents. This was my brief but spectacular period as an only child.

I found that my dad claimed to be a dentist, something I already knew. But he also claimed he worked 40 hours a week, which I am pretty sure was something of a fib.

That’s because he previously had told me that, in early 1950, he had just begun to establish his dental practice and things at first were so slow that he’d often attend the Strand Theater matinee, dropping down into the balcony from his office in the same building.

What I didn’t know was that we shared 12 Manning Street with another medical practitioner, Dr. Frank Collins, along with his wife and two children. Dr. Collins said he worked 80 hours a week — entirely believable for a small-town physician back when doctors also made house calls.

Wandering up and down other streets virtually (and that is the way the information is presented), I found it interesting just how many people were born in Greece, Poland, and “French Canada” (Quebec).

Obviously, having grown up in a town with Greek, French, and Polish churches — and picnics, festivals, dances, etc., — it should have come as no surprise, but seeing it in print underscored that many in those days lived in their own ethnic enclaves.       

The Census Shows Signs Of The Time

Mind you, some of the questions and assumptions from the 1950 Census are bound to have you scratching your 2022 head.

For example, under the heading Name, you are to list the Head of Household … and they make it clear that the Head is the man of the house. The best a woman could hope for was Wife.

The question regarding race is also quite curious.

Your choices are WhiteNegroAmerican IndianJapaneseChinese, and Filipino.

Why Japanese? Because of World War II? One wonders how many Japanese, so recently released from internment camps, were excited about self-identifying to a government who’d locked them away. And what about the category Chinese? Was this because China had just a few months before fallen to Mao’s communists? And who knows what to make of singling out Filipinos.

The 1950 Census makes no mention of Hispanics. Nor of Indians (as in people from India).

And your sex options were binary — M or F

Different times, different sensibilities.

The Value Of The Census

As one who has dabbled in genealogy, I can tell you that the information contained in these once-a-decade accountings are an invaluable treasure trove (with the exception of the 1890 records, almost entirely lost in a fire).

When I did my family tree work back in the 1980s, I actually went to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and to a Mormon Genealogical Center. It was a slog.   

Now it’s all online, available in the comfort of your home. Which, of course, is also the home of whomever was living there 72 years ago.

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About The Author
Robert Waite
Robert Waite
Robert is Managing Director at Waite + Co., a communications firm with offices in Boston, Ottawa and Toronto. He also teaches at Seneca College. He has more than 35 years experience leading communications, marketing and government relations functions for some of North America’s largest firms, including Ford, IBM, CAE, CIBC and Canada Post. He served as Press Secretary to Senator Edward W. Brooke (R-MA) and Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) and in the Reagan Administration. He is a three-time winner of the New England Press Association’s Best Column Award. He can be reached at [email protected].
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