Happy 220th Anniversary, U.S. Census

Census enumeration is 220 years old today

Census taker visits a family living in a carav...
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While the 2010 Census is still underway (the Census Bureau’s Website today reports a national Participation Rate of 72%, less census data than hoped for), it’s interesting to look back at the first Census enumeration, which began its data collection on this date in 1790.

We have stringent confidentiality provisions about individual census information today – and strong penalties for violating it. This contrasts sharply with that first national census, as described by the Census Bureau’s history web page.

“The first enumeration began on Monday, August 2,1790, little more than a year after the inauguration of President Washington and shortly before the second session of the first Congress ended. The Congress assigned responsibility for the 1790 census to the marshals of the U.S. judicial districts under an act that, with minor modifications and extensions, governed census-taking through1840.

The law required that every household be visited and that completed census schedules be posted in ‘‘two of the most public places within [each jurisdiction], there to remain for the inspection of all concerned…’’ and that‘ ‘the aggregate amount of each description of persons’’ for every district be transmitted to the President.

The six inquiries in 1790 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 by sex and color, and slaves.”  via 1790 Census of Population and Housing.

There weren’t many more questions asked in 2010 than in 1790 – but it has been hard to get a complete enumeration.  Rather than posting all the census data in a public place, the Census Bureau is using more sophisticated research methods today.

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