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December 2, 2011

Historical Echoes: Old‑Timey Films on the 1940 Censuses

Amy Farber, New York Fed Research Library

In 1940, the Census Bureau produced two short films trumpeting the general census that year and the first-ever census of housing. In the film on the general census, “Know Your U.S.A.“ (3 min.), the narrator exhorts citizens to cooperate with the census: “You cannot know your country unless your country knows you.” The film tells us that there were 130 million free people and 7 million farms in 1940. (Now there are 312 million people and 2.1 million farms.) The narrator practically gushes over the “mechanical marvels of accuracy” tabulating the received data.

    The second film, “The 1940 Census of Housing” (11 min.), begins with the reasoning behind the census and provides background information about what constitutes a dwelling. It includes this funny yet sad list: “In addition, places not intended for habitation but in which people are living must be enumerated and this includes such usual places as stables, fruit sheds, box cars, houses that are falling down, temporary shacks, boats, trucks and any other such place actually being used as a dwelling.”

    It then continues with dramatizations of a census taker asking various homeowners questions meant to draw attention to fine distinctions between categories. There are repeated shots of a pen filling out a census form. The acting is charmingly stiff and self-conscious.

    A transcript of one interview with a homeowner reveals that even back then, mortgagors might be confused about who held their mortgage (a problem, of course, during the recent financial crisis):

    Census Taker: Who holds the first mortgage on your house?

    Homeowner: The Institution Mortgage Company.

    CT: Does the Institution Mortgage Company actually hold the mortgage, or do you simply make payments there?

    H: I’m not sure about that. I believe somebody else actually holds the mortgage and the Institution Mortgage Company merely makes the collections. Yes I remember now. I received a notice from the mortgage company that they had sold the mortgage to somebody else.

    CT: Do you remember to whom they sold the mortgage?

    H: I am not sure which one, but I know it was a life insurance company.

    For more facts from the housing census:

Historical Census of Housing Tables, Home Values (from 1940 to 2000)

Housing Characteristics In the U.S. – Tables

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.

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