Census History

Jan 23, 2019 by jw

The first U.S. census began more than a year after the inauguration of President George Washington and shortly before the second session of the first Congress ended. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution calls for an “enumeration” to be made of the populace “within every subsequent term of 10 years.” The six inquiries in 1790, the year of the first census, called for the name of the head of the family and the number of persons in each household of the following descriptions: free white males of 16 years and upward (to assess the country's industrial and military potential), free white males under 16 years, free white females, all other free persons, and slaves. The law required that every household be visited.

A little known fact is that U.S. marshals were required by an act of Congress to count the people in their specific districts. As result, they hired close to 650 assistants for the first census in 1790 and sent them door-to-door, more often than not in extremely remote and rural territory. Assistant marshals continued in this position for almost one hundred years. But in 1879, concerns over the census’ inefficiencies triggered Congress to replace them with specially trained enumerators. Congress enacted legislation creating a permanent Census Office within the Department of the Interior on March 6, 1902.

Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson expressed skepticism over the final count of 1790, expecting a number far higher than the 3.9 million persons (including 700,000 slaves) counted in the census, which was viewed as an undercount. Washington put the blame on inattentive census takers, as well as “the religious scruples of some…[and] the fears of others that it was intended as the foundation of a tax", he wrote.

From 1790 - 1840 only the heads of free households appear in federal census records. All others, including slaves, are noted statistically under the head of household or reported owner. No notation of slave by name, age, sex, or origination appears. The census lists slaves statistically under the owner’s name. This, in essence, eventually created extreme difficulties for later generations of African-Americans who tried to trace their lineage after slavery ended. Chinese, Japanese and American Indian descent started being counted at various points in the late 1800s.

New York city has always been the largest U.S. city

The 1790 census recorded 33,131 people in the City That Never Sleeps, which put it in the lead over Philadelphia as the most populous U.S. city. It has maintained the top spot in all 22 censuses since, increasing from a population of about 60,000 in 1800 to 515,000 in 1850 and then to 3.4 million in 1900 (two years after the five boroughs merged to form its present-day boundaries). The 2010 census listed New York City as having nearly 8.2 million people.

Herman Hollerith, a statistician, began looking for a time-saving solution after census workers, tallying by hand, required almost a decade to process the results of the 1880 population count. By 1887 he had invented an electric tabulating machine that could read data from the holes on paper punch cards. It proved to be a great triumph, reducing census tabulation time by two-thirds, and was soon being sold to government agencies, utilities, manufacturers and railroads around the world. Hollerith’s business would later become part of IBM. For decades, new versions of his machine retained an important place at the Census Bureau.

Although the first census cost just $44,000 to oversee, the price tag has since expanded to an estimated $6.5 billion in 2000 and $12.9 billion in 2010. If inflation and population growth are put aside, most of the expense comes from residents who don’t fill out their census questionnaires which then requires a $25 (per person) census-taker to go to the person's home according to 2010s Census Bureau director Robert M. Groves. In order to help keep expenses balanced for the 2020 census, the bureau may allow residents to respond using the Internet.

*Image courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau.