San Francisco, California

Census Stories

In his most recent newsletter, Robin turned me onto a fascinating blog called Census Stories by the historian Dan Bouk and he recounts tales of how past censuses were made. This particular account of Agnes Parrott though, who happened to work on the census that took place in Alaska in 1940, shook me thoroughly awake this morning.

After finding a letter from Agnes, written almost 80 years ago (and sent to her boss via steamboat), Dan describes what it took to rummage through those archives:

Online search is not your best friend as you begin your hunt for useful documents. That’s not to say the National Archives Catalog is useless. But it won’t get you to Agnes Parrott. Instead, you’re better off heading straight to the Guide to Federal Records and its entry for Record Group 29 “Records of the Bureau of the Census.” There you can find an overview of the collections and a vague sense of what might be available. It will show you, for instance, that the archives have a lot of administrative records from the early twentieth century censuses. This will give you hope. But if you search within the guide for “Alaska” you will find only two entries. This will sap your hope.

But do not let it. To find Agnes Parrott in Angoon, Alaska you have to trek to the archives in person!

After reading Dan’s Census Stories over the past couple of days I recognize this is how I aspire to write; detailed, optimistic, big-hearted, hard working. It’s what I meant the other day when I wrote about the careful work. Perhaps the best example of this however is when Dan writes about technology and how women did much of the census work whilst being underpaid and mostly ignored in favor of technology:

In the archives, one can readily see women working for the Census. In a very limited way…

Consider this photograph from 1939 or 1940:

Census Stories

When I look at this picture, my eyes fly first to a person’s face, to a ruffled collar, to meticulously styled hair. Then I notice the papers she’s grasping—a thick stack, marked up all over. Finally, I notice a small mechanical device. In sum, I see a census clerk preparing paper punch cards—like the one she’s grabbing with her right hand. I see a working woman in a knowledge factory, one body in the human treadmill that transforms enumerators’ completed schedules into bound volumes of printed statistics.