Thumbnail image for farmcenus.jpg
National Archives
Much of the chatter in research libraries this week concerns the impending release of the 1940 U.S. Census , a document which could

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1940 Census to Reveal How Americans Cooked at Depression's End

Thumbnail image for farmcenus.jpg
National Archives
Much of the chatter in research libraries this week concerns the impending release of the 1940 U.S. Census, a document which could ultimately help historians better understand the nation's kitchen culture at mid-century.

Unlike any censuses before it, the 1940 census included a set of 31 questions about the respondent's living quarters. Americans were asked to report how they obtained water; what kind of fuel they used for cooking and whether they stored perishables in a refrigerator or icebox.

Barbara Haber, food historian and former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library, says the information should be useful to scholars, although she doesn't know of any food researchers anxiously awaiting, say, a King County wood stove count.

"I am sure that scholars will be referring to the data, but I don't know anyone who has been waiting for it," she says.

In genealogy communities, it seems everyone is impatiently waiting for the moment on Monday morning when the census goes live. Released 72 years after enumeration, as dictated by the Constitution (not too many people lived past the age of 72 back when the founding fathers were balancing privacy and statistical concerns), the census is the first to be made accessible online.

Starting at 6 a.m. Monday, "anyone at any computer anywhere" will be able to scour the census for free, says Susan Karren, director of The National Archives at Seattle. That option could mean decreased attendance at the Archives' decennial release party.

This year's festivities start at 5:30 a.m. with video streams of speeches and ceremonial first searches performed at the National Archives in Washington D.C.

"They recognize it's ungodly early for us," Karren says.

The last two census releases, both of which involved microfilm, were celebrated at midnight. "By 4 a.m., I was saying I want to go home and I can't," recalls Karren, whose commute is at the mercy of the Kingston ferry schedule. "I'll be on the earliest boat in this year, but I'll be stopping for coffee."

Coffee will also be served at the Archives, and a sheet cake is scheduled to show up at 10 a.m.

"Anyone who's been here since 5 a.m. deserves sugar," Karren says.

In addition to the housing questions, the 1940 Census was also unique in asking respondents to list their whereabouts in 1935, a boon for family tree builders trying to stitch together migration routes during a very disruptive decade. Karren predicts many of the Americans consulting the Census will be searching for themselves. "So many people are still alive," she says.

And since the Census is arranged by street address, it allows for postponed snooping, she adds.

"I'll be able to find out who the boy next door was for my mother," she says.

Karren isn't sure how many people the party will attract: "We don't know what to expect," she says.

The National Archives at Seattle are located at 6125 Sand Point Way NE.

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