The USA in 1940: The Petersons of Pierce County

For genealogists and U.S. historians, this has been an exciting month, marking the full release of records from the 1940 U.S. Census. (Such data are treated as confidential until seventy-two years after the census. The aggregate statistics can be found here.) My colleague Diana Magnuson happens to be a census historian and could tell you much more about the significance of this particular census, how it was taken, and, especially, who collected the data.

But as just one of the millions of Americans who spent several hours last week trying to track down his ancestors (after the website recovered from the initial crush of visitors), let me share a few observations — and perhaps suggest some things for readers to look for in a historical source that’s both rich with information and not immediately obvious how to read. This will be the first of three posts. (Four if I can track down my Grandma Gehrz’s record…)

We’ll start with my Grandpa Peterson (appearing in the census as a seventeen-year old, the last of his father’s sons still home working on the family farm), who proved to be the easiest relative to find. At least for now, it’s impossible to search the 1940 census by name; you need to know where your family members lived. But since Grandpa still lives on the same farm in rural Pierce County, Wisconsin that his father and his grandfather inhabited, all it took was looking at a 1940 version of a map I’ve seen many times in my life to identify the “enumeration district.” And because it’s a sparsely settled district, there was only one 28-page schedule to go through. And, better luck still, the Petersons of Trenton Township (1940 population: 1,011) were on page 3.

Over time, the records will be coded such that one can search by name (you can do this with the 1930 census), but even so, it’s remarkable how accessible these data are. Without having to go to the National Archives facility in Maryland, anyone can pull up scanned images of census schedules on their own computer or mobile device. Here are the Petersons of Pierce County:

The Petersons in 1940
My grandpa (George Peterson) is second from the bottom, the youngest son of Gust and Delia - U.S. Census

At least, here’s one set of Petersons from that heavily Scandinavian county. (To this day, Minnesota and Wisconsin are #1 and #2, respectively, in number of residents named Peterson.) One thing that becomes clear immediately is that, while less than 10% of the population of Wisconsin was foreign-born in 1940, we’re not that far removed from the decades of heavy northern European immigration, with thousands of Swedish- and Norwegian-Americans living side by side in this part of the state.

Indeed, my great-grandparents on both sides represented the first generations of their families born in this country. Great-Grandpa Gust (both of my great-grandfathers — this one Swedish, the other German — were named Gustav/e) happened to be one of the respondents asked a set of supplemental questions, including the birthplace of his parents:1940 Gust PetersonBoth of Gust’s parents were born in Sweden (Dalsland, the agrarian province that was virtually gutted by the emigration of the late 19th century) then crossed the Atlantic in the 1870s. Not long after, in 1878, Gust was born in a one-room log cabin. As the census schedule records, he spoke Swedish in childhood. Thirteen years later he welcomed his third and final sister, Emma, who married another child of Swedish immigrants, a stone mason named Paul Johnson — listed with his brother-in-law on the supplemental section above.

(Paul was a widower in 1940, alas: Emma had died after gall stone surgery in 1929, the fourth of Gust’s younger siblings to precede him in death. I’ve already written about another, a brother who died of the “Spanish” flu while serving with the American Expeditionary Force in France.)

Gust’s mother-in-law, Christina Anderson, was also born in Sweden and is also recorded on this census schedule. She lived twenty years after her husband’s death, spent winters with Gust and Delia, and then moved in permanently in time for the arrival of the enumerator in 1940. Just under 60% of widows lived with adult children that year, but as economists Kathleen McGarry and Robert Schoeni report, that percentage was about to drop steeply because of a landmark piece of legislation…

One of the most important attributes of the 1940 census is that it followed the Great Depression and the implementation of the New Deal. The standard set of questions inquired about employment and participation in programs like the WPA and CCC, and the supplement included questions about Social Security, revealing — in my family’s case, at least — that public provision for the elderly was still in its infancy. Not only did he provide for his nearly nonagenarian mother-in-law, but 61-year old Gust Peterson told the census-taker that he had no Social Security number (not all that unusual, just five years after the Social Security Act was passed).

At the same time, the census records hint that Gust — who not only could afford to take in an elderly relative but could proudly tell the census-taker that he owned his own home — provided his youngest son with a relatively comfortable upbringing. At least compared to the circumstances of the woman that young George Peterson would marry six years after this census was taken.

More on Hildur and the other Nelsons of River Falls, Wisconsin tomorrow…

Read the next post in this series>>

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