Photo: Dina Spector/Business Insider
It took a little bit of digging, but I found my grandmother — her name, that is. It’s one of more than 130 million buried among nearly four million digital images of 1940 Census forms released to the public on Monday.
The information was considered private for 72 years, or about the average human lifespan.
But now, with some detective work, anyone with an Internet connection should be able to trace their family history, provided they know the address at which that relative lived in April 1940.
For me, this began with a quick call to my 90-year-old grandmother, Betty Benjamin (close family members have always called her “BB”).
In 1940, BB was a freshman at Smith College, but her mother, stepfather and younger brother were still living in New York City at 70 E. 96th Street. Google maps tells me this is between Park and Madison avenues (knowing the cross streets will help later on).
Because Census information is not yet searchable by name, the next step was to find the enumeration district. This number refers to the area that a Census worker could cover over two weeks in a city or one month in a rural area. It can be found through the stevemorse website. Here’s a screenshot:
After I typed in all the information (if the address is in New York City, it will eventually ask for the cross streets), the search returned three enumeration numbers — two more than I was hoping for, but at least I was making progress. Then, I headed back over to the National Archives website and plugged in the data.
The search tool will bring up the first page of the Census form for each enumeration district and allows users to click through the pages. But because I wasn’t actually sure which enumeration district 70 E. 96th street was listed under I had to look three forms, which each had at least 30 pages. Plus, everything is hand-written, so it’s not exactly an easy read.
But finally (finally!) I struck gold. There, on page 20 of enumeration district 31-1317, I found what I was looking for: “Heilbrun, Betty” (remember, you’re most likely looking for the last name of your relative before she is married).
There she is, highlighted in yellow:
Photo: National Archives
Not only was I able to see my grandmother’s name and age, I was also able to glean the monthly rent of her parent’s apartment ($183) as well as their education, occupation and income level.
BB’s stepfather, Joe Goldstone,48, was a doctor with his own private practice and her mother, Hortense Heilbrun,42, was a social worker.
Here’s what a full page of the Census ledger book looks like:
Photo: National Archives
Of course, because my grandmother is still alive, I could have gathered all this information directly from her. But where’s the fun in that?
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