In the 1830s, the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that Americans were more free than other cultures to pursue the future and its possibilities because they weren't constrained by the past. "The tie which unites one generation to another is relaxed or broken," he wrote. "Every man there loses all trace of the ideas of his forefathers, or takes no care about them."
That's why de Tocqueville, if he could step into a miraculous time machine and be transported to the present, might be dumbfounded by what happened Monday, when the National Archives posted a digitized version of the 1940 U.S. Census on the internet.
Americans, who supposedly care so little about the past, clamored for a peek at the treasure trove of historical and genealogical data on 132 million people alive at the time -- the largest single release of information ever by the National Archives.The website got 22 million hits in its first four hours of operation, enough to crash it. (Here's an Associated Press dispatch with the details.)
In this video, government archivist Connie Potter explains what's in the cache, what it took to get the information online and how to find your family's records in the digital database.
As Washington Post blogger Elizabeth Flock explains in this post, the 3.8 million digital images in the collection present a snapshot of America at a critical time. In 1940, the country was still struggling to emerge from the Great Depression that had inflicted tremendous suffering during the late 1920s and 1930s. Some people were still desperate to escape poverty, while others were just finding their way out. Flock suggests it's a moment in time that parallels -- though in a much more extreme way -- the struggling economic recovery that the nation has endured over the past few years.
But as the Pew Research Center's D'Vera Cohn notes, the 1940 census also shows how much the nation has changed. Back then, the U.S. population was concentrated largely in the northeast, with New York and Pennsylvania as the most populous states. Seventy years later, the balance has shifted to the sunbelt, with California and Texas now having the biggest populations. Since 1940, when nine out of 10 Americans were white, the nation has become considerably more racially and ethnically diverse, with close to 28 percent of the population made up of minority groups. About 3 percent of Americans describe themselves as multiracial, a distinction that was negligible in the 1940 tally.
We're also considerably better educated, with about 28 percent of the population possessing bachelor's degrees, compared to just 5 percent in 1940. Women still earn less than men -- just 74 cents for each dollar, compared to 62 cents in 1940 -- but the gap is slowly shrinking. A lot of us are working at different jobs than our parents or grandparents did. Manufacturing and agriculture, which were the big employers back then, have shrunk and been supplanted by opportunities in education, health care and service industries. Living conditions tend to be nicer, too. In 1940, nearly 80 percent of people who lived in rural communities or on farms had outhouses, and fewer than 18 percent had running water.
If you're interested in searching the 1940 records, it helps to have patience. When I tried to access the site on Tuesday afternoon, the server still was experiencing problems and I wasn't able to get in. Archives officials say they're working to fix the technical glitches and make it easier to access the records. Eventually, with the help of volunteers, the archive staff plans to index the records so that you'll be able to simply type in the name of an ancestor and go directly to that person's census records, as you can do with commercial genealogy websites such as Ancestry.com. Until then, you'll need to use census maps and descriptions on the site to determine the census enumeration district in which your ancestors probably lived. From the Christian Science Monitor, here's a guide to what you need to know to look up your relatives.