What Was The Census-Taker Thinking? Now We Know.

What Was The Census-Taker Thinking? Now We Know.

by Kerry Scott on 5 April 2010

When I posted last week about Mae Pool Ackermann being listed as the head of the household over her husband Fred, a couple of commenters speculated that it might be because Mae owned property and/or because Fred was away when the census was taken.  I’ve had other female property owners (and woman who in general had more money and status than their husbands), but none of have been listed in a census as the heads of their respective households.  I didn’t think there was a connection, but I wanted to find out, so I went looking for the original instructions to the enumerator (census-taker) for the 1920 census, just to see whether property ownership was a factor in terms of who would have been listed as the head of a household.

What I found is that the Census Bureau has posted this document, which lists the instructions to enumerators for each of the federal censuses from 1790-1990.  It’s a great tool for genealogists (and a nice sneak-preview into what questions we can expect to find on the 1940 census, which will be released in two years).  Check it out.

What I learned is that property ownership wasn’t a factor at all.  in fact, the instructions for 1900 (page 36, #123) and 1910 (page 47, #101) also applied in 1920 when Mae and Fred were enumerated, and they specifically call for listing the husband first and the wife second.  In fact, the instructions on page 70 for the 1950 census, 30 years after Mae and Fred’s census, indicate that while a married female could now be listed as a head of household, if there was a husband in the picture, he would be “reclassified” as the  head when the documents reached the office.  On page 72, the instructions for 1960 say:  “The husband of a married couple was always to be listed as the head of the household if he was present.”  This model lasted a long, long time.

It would have also been common for Fred to be elsewhere when the enumerator came to the door; it was routine for wives, older children, neighbors, or even domestic servants to give information. It’s certainly possible that someone other than Fred or Mae indicated that Mae was the head of this household, but I don’t think they would have done so casually (and even if they had, it was the enumerator’s choice to actually record the information that way…it surely couldn’t have been the first time he’d heard the “my wife’s in charge” joke).

We don’t know why Mae was listed as the head of this household, but it’s a pretty safe bet to assume it wasn’t solely because Mae owned the home and/or the candy factory.

Photo by Marcin Wichary

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy April 5, 2010 at 10:30 pm

Thanks for sharing the link for the instructions to census-takers.
.-= Nancy´s last blog ..Having Missed a Birthday…. =-.


Amy Coffin April 6, 2010 at 7:47 am

My great-grandmother is listed as head of household in the 1920 census. She’s in her mother’s house in another state, instead of the house she shared with her husband. I can’t find him at all in the 1920 census. I don’t know if there was marital issues, a traveling job, or something else that caused this separation and categorization on the census. Everything is back to normal in 1930.
.-= Amy Coffin´s last blog ..The Simple Things =-.


Susan Tiner April 6, 2010 at 10:34 am

Thanks for looking into this, I was really curious about the property angle.


Deli Kate April 7, 2010 at 2:37 pm

Hmm. I have so many questions. Could Fred have been “incapacitated” or handicapped in some way as a classification for secondary status? I bet you’re already looking into it, but I’m curious about subsequent census data for Mae and Fred to see when they stopped living together, how their careers might have changed from their 20′s, clues as to when they divorced, etc. Can’t wait!


Kerry Scott April 7, 2010 at 3:07 pm

No, the instructions are pretty clear—the husband is listed first. There’s no circumstance listed under which he would not be listed first, unless he were absent altogether.


Majestic December 31, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Interesting, thank you.


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