national personnel records center st. louis

A fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in 1973 destroyed an estimated 16 million to 18 million military personnel files. Researchers hope newly released census records from 1950 will help fill holes in the historical record. (National Archives)

America in 1950: Newly Released Census Records Offer Glimpse of Economic ‘Golden Age’

By Christi Zamarripa | April 7, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

Radios playing “The Tennessee Waltz” and kids playing with Tonka toy trucks may have been what census enumerators heard and saw as they knocked on doors and noted the responses by hand for the 1950 census.

During a time when a gallon of gas was 18 cents and a loaf of bread was 13 cents, these workers captured the national landscape in the post-World War II era. Census records from 1950 painted an aggregate picture of the nation but gave no details on individuals or households.

Until last week, that is. On April 1, the National Archives and Records Administration released a trove of detailed census records from 1950.

’72-Year Rule’

Why now? In 1952, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau and the archivist of the United States agreed to seal population census records transferred to the National Archives for 72 years. In 1978, Congress turned the “72-Year Rule” into law. The goal: to protect personally identifiable information about any individual from being known for 72 years after collection.

The National Archives has been prepping for a decade for the release of the 7 million census records from 1950—almost double the 3.8 million records from the 1940 census. For the first time, the National Archives is simultaneously providing a first-name index along with a transcription feature. This release will also provide population tables for some Native American reservations, searchable by reservation name.

Demographers, genealogists and researchers have eagerly awaited the once-a-decade release to learn more about how people lived and worked at the start of what is sometimes called the U.S. economy’s “Golden Age.”

The 1950 census had 38 questions, including the common ones about name, race, sex, age and birthplace. Additionally, it asked work-related questions about all people 14 or older, including the kind of work they did, the kind of business or industry they were working in and the type of employer.

According to the National Archives News, the 1950 records are significant because they listed “service” as a type of work a person could be doing, meaning they could fill in the gaps caused by a 1973 fire that destroyed as many as 18 million military personnel records.

The 1950 census data is now available online.

Christi Zamarripa is a policy associate in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

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