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How to use newly released 1950 census data to find your relatives

Last week, the National Archives released close to seven million records from the 1950 census, including names, ages, incomes, and jobs of those surveyed. Here’s a quick run-down of how to search the newly released records for relatives, celebrities, or anyone at all. Excitingly, this is the first time Baby Boomers born before 1950 will be able to find themselves in census records.

The National Archives has set up a free website you can use to search the census. I found my paternal great-grandfather searching “Rosenfeld” and “Wisconsin.”

“Even if you don’t have a lot of information about a person, as long as you have a general idea of where they lived, their name, or last name, you will be able to find the records,” says the Philadelphia Inquirer. You can also check out the 38 questions census enumerators asked in 1950 to see what kind of information was captured.

The records released by the National Archives are photos of whole sheets, which often include information for multiple households. In order to make the records searchable, they used optical character recognition and artificial intelligence to create an index of names. The index is not completely accurate, however, due to occasional illegible handwriting and poor image orientation. The accuracy of the index should improve as time goes on, since the website crowd-sources corrections.

Some of this information has been publicly available in aggregate for many years, but personal details from a decennial census are not allowed to be released until 72 years from the start of the census in question. This rule was adopted in the 1970s to provide confidentiality to the people disclosing personal information, but nowadays, some census researchers question if we still need the rule.

click to enlarge How to use newly released 1950 census data to find your relatives (2)
A page from the 1950 census featuring the author's paternal great-grandfather and his family.
“I have often wondered if there will ever be a move to reduce the 72-year rule,” says Katz School of Business professor Ray Jones, who conducts personal genealogy research with census data. “This rule was made decades prior to the information age that we live in today, as most (if not all) of the individual information collected in the census is readily available online. While there would naturally be some debate over whether this would make citizens more hesitant to provide information in the next census, it just seems plausible to consider reducing this from 72 years to 50 years (and perhaps further down if/when that change is made). Just thinking about it now, reducing this to 50 years would allow for the immediate release of the 1960 census and the 1970 census, and the 1980 census would be released in the year 2030.”

Tammy Hepps, local historian and creator of the Homestead Hebrews website, a collection of Hepps’ extensive research on the historic Jewish community of Homestead, tells Pittsburgh City Paper that she is eager to use the newly released census information to track the migration of the Homestead Jewish community between 1940 and 1950.

“I will read through all the enumeration districts covering Homestead, West Homestead, Munhall, and adjacent areas to identify all the Jewish residents,” Hepps says. “This will enable me to assess the impact of the 1941 destruction of Lower Homestead on the Jewish community and to trace the migration of the Jewish community away from Homestead in this period.”

Local historian David Rotenstein has already made an exciting discovery using the 1950 census.

“I waited 13 years to learn this woman’s full name. She worked as a live-in domestic in a suburban home with racial covenants that kept Blacks from buying/renting. Thank you #1950Census,” Rotenstein tweeted along with a black-and-white photograph of two white children sitting at a table being attended to by a Black woman, including a link to his blog where he discusses how the 1950 census helped him answer a long-burning question.

What are you planning to do with the new census data? City Paper wants to hear from you if you’re using the 1950 census to look up an interesting aspect of local or family history. Email jordana@pghcitypaper.com with the details.