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Focus on Agriculture

June 4, 2012

1940 Census, A Step Back in Time

By Stewart Truelsen

Earlier this spring the National Archives released the 1940 Census to the public. If you are wondering what took them so long, there is a 72-year waiting period required by law to respect the privacy of the respondents.

The personal information had been anxiously awaited by the growing number of amateur genealogists trying to fill out a family tree and learn more about their ancestry. Prior to the release, the 1930 Census was the latest available.

A census of the population has been taken every 10 years since 1790, primarily for the apportionment of members to the House of Representatives. However, it also provides a useful snapshot of the population of America; in 1940 it would have been a Kodak Brownie black and white photo.

The population of the United States was 132.2 million then, including the territories of Alaska and Hawaii; a little more than 5 million were farmers. By the 2010 Census, the population had more than doubled to 308.7 million and there were 751,000 full-time farmers, ranchers and agricultural managers.

The decline in farm population started well before the 1940 Census and was expected to continue. The Agriculture Department reported that at least twice as many young people were maturing each year in rural areas than would be needed on the farm. The transition from horsepower to tractor power, which was still going on, reduced the need for farm labor.

This was a real concern because the national unemployment rate in 1940 was 14.6 percent. There weren’t many jobs to be found in the cities to accommodate rural youth. Besides, not all were anxious to leave the countryside.

Writing in the 1940 Yearbook of Agriculture, Harvard University philosophy professor William Hocking said, “The farm has an opportunity for normal family life which is still definitely superior to that of the city, in spite of rapid recent changes.” Hocking even warned that “no civilization survives when the urbanite becomes the model for all groups.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation didn’t find farming entirely superior. In 1940, it sought to raise farm prices relative to industrial prices and create a fair economic balance between farmers and other groups.

Sadly, Americans who filled out the census forms in 1940 had no idea that the fighting in World War II would erase more than 400,000 of their names from the next tally, including young farmers and ranchers.

The postwar years saw rapid change. Suburban living became the compromise between choosing to live in the city or rural countryside. The unemployment rate plunged as manufacturing and construction grew and the Baby Boom Generation was born.

The snapshot of America taken in 1940 became quickly outdated by all these events, but its release this year gives many of us a chance to find and appreciate our connection to that difficult yet interesting time.


Stewart Truelsen is a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture column.