History Infographics — what can they tell us about the 1940s?

History Infographics — they’re fun to look at, but what can they tell us?

After the release of the 1940 U.S. Census back in April, Ancestry.com recently shared new infographics on its blog, “Ancestry’s Infographics: What Was Life Like in 1940?” There is a graphic for the each of the 48 states, plus U.S. territories. (Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959.) Infographics, including timelines, charts, and maps, can be great mediums to display data in eye-catching, informative ways.

Each of Ancestry’s images shows off the state’s products, such as the auto industry in Michigan or two of the 5 C’s in Arizona (cotton and citrus). Some of the graphics highlight World War II activities like the military dog training camp that opened in Montana or the Mickey Mouse-looking gas masks handed out to children after Pearl Harbor. Other pieces of trivia are just fun: where Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez were married (Greenwich, Connecticut), where the first McDonald’s opened (San Bernardino, California).

Ultimately, infographics can tell us as much about the interests of the creators as they do the subjects depicted.

As for the 1940 U.S. Census, it is full of demographic data like migration during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, hours in a work week, and annual income. For instance, a “parcel post carrier” in Texas worked 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, for an income of $2,100. The 1940 census also took note of federal employment through the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, and other alphabet agencies of the New Deal.

An original blank 1940 Federal Decennial Census Population Schedule

Closeup of the 1940 Population Schedule, part of the Federal Decennial Census (National Archives)

Being able to read a census form is an important skill in the researcher’s toolbox, not to mention deciphering the enumerator’s handwriting. Each decennial census (taken every 10 years) had a different look and set of information included.

Check out the 1940 U.S. Census fully indexed and searchable by name on Ancestry.com. For an introduction to the 1940 Census, the full list of questions asked by census takers (called enumerators), and a glossary of census terminology, see the National Archives website dedicated to the 1940 census.

P.S. Don’t forget to browse city directories from the time period, too, for additional information about family members and what local communities were like in the 1940s.

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