U.S. Census

The U.S. Census is mandated by the United States Constitution. The population is enumerated every 10 years and the results are used to allocate Congressional seats, electoral votes and government program funding. (Some states also conduct statewide censuses as the need arises; these are called state censuses.)

The census is performed by the United States Census Bureau. The first census after the American Revolution was taken in 1790; there have been 21 federal censuses since that time. The next census will be taken in 2010. A detailed page on the most recent census can be found at United States 2000 Census.


About Census records

Census records and data are not available to the public until 72 years after they were taken. Every census up to 1930 is currently available to the public and can be viewed on microfilm released by the National Archives and Records Administration, the official keeper of old federal census records. The 1940 census will be available for review in 2012.

History of the U.S. Census

Censuses had been taken prior to the Constitution's ratification; in the early 1600s, a census was taken in Virginia, and people were counted in nearly all of the British colonies that became the United States.

Down through the years, the country's needs and interests became more complex. This meant that there had to be statistics to help people understand what was happening and have a basis for planning. The content of the decennial census changed accordingly. In 1810 the first inquiry on manufactures, quantity and value of products; in 1840 on fisheries were added, and in 1850, the census included inquiries on social issues, such as taxation, churches, pauperism and crime. The censuses also spread geographically, to new States and Territories added to the Union, as well as to other areas under U.S. sovereignty or jurisdiction. There were so many more inquiries of all kinds in the censuses of 1880 and 1890 that almost a full decade was needed to publish all the results.

For the first five censuses (1790-1840) enumerators recorded only the names of the heads of household and did a general demographic accounting of the remaining members of the household. Beginning in 1850, all members of the household were named by the enumerator. The first slave schedules were done in 1850, with the second (and last) in 1860. Censuses of the late 19th century also included agricultural and industrial schedules to gauge the productivity of the nation's economy. Mortality schedules (taken between 1850 and 1880) captured a snapshot of life-spans and causes of death throughout the country.

The first nine censuses (1790-1870) were not managed by the U.S. Executive Branch, but by the U.S. Judicial Branch. The United States Federal Court districts assigned a U.S. marshals who hired assistant marshals to do the actual census-taking.

Computing technology

The 1890 census was the first to be compiled on a tabulating machine, developed by Herman Hollerith. This introduction of technology reduced the time taken to tabulate the census from seven years for the 1880 census to two and a half years for the 1890 census despite the fact the U.S. population had almost doubled during that period. The total population of 62,622,250 was announced after only six weeks of processing. Ironically, the public reaction to this tabulation was disbelief, as it was widely believed that the "right answer" was at least 75,000,000.

The logistical difficulties in compiling the census drove computing technology for the next fifty years until computers became widespread in industry. IBM's first electronic computer was created primarily to deal with the needs of the census in addition to military and academic uses.

Individual censuses

First Census of the United States (1790)

The first Census was taken August 2, 1790. The federal census records for the first census are missing for five states: Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey and Virginia. They were destroyed some time between the time of the census-taking and 1830. The census estimated the population of the United States at 3,900,000.

Second Census of the United States (1800)

The second Census was taken August 4, 1800.

Third Census of the United States (1810)

The third Census was taken August 6, 1810.

Fourth Census of the United States (1820)

The fourth Census was taken August 7, 1820.

Fifth Census of the United States (1830)

The fifth Census was taken June 1, 1830.

Sixth Census of the United States (1840)

The sixth Census was taken June 1, 1840. The census estimated the population of the United States at 17,100,000. The results were tabulated by 28 clerks in the Bureau of the Census.

Seventh Census of the United States (1850)

The seventh Census was taken June 1, 1850. The 1850 census was a landmark year in American census-taking. It was the first year in which the census bureau attempted to count every member of every household, including women, children and slaves. Accordingly, the first slave schedules were produced in 1850. Prior to 1850, census records had only recorded the name of the head of the household and broad statistical accounting of other household members, (three children under age five, one woman between the age of 35 and 40, etc.).

Eighth Census of the United States (1860)

The census estimated the population of the United States at 31,400,000. The results were tabulated by 184 clerks in the Bureau of the Census.

Eleventh Census of the United States (1890)

The eleventh Census was taken June 1, 1890. The 1890 census announced that the frontier region of the United States no longer existed and therefore the tracking of westward migration would no longer be tabulated in the census. This trend prompted Frederick Jackson Turner to develop his milestone Frontier Thesis. Also, as noted above, this was the census which was revolutionized by Herman Hollerith's computing technology.

Fifteenth Census of the United States (1930)

The fifteenth Census was taken on April 2, 1930, except in Alaska Territory, where census-taking began October 1, 1929.

See also


  • Campbell-Kelly, Martin, and Aspray, William. Computer: A History of the Information Machine. New York: Basic Books, 1996. ISBN 0-465-02990-6.

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