Taking the Census

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Taking the Census


By: Thomas Worth

Date: 1870

Source: Worth, Thomas. "Taking the Census." Harper's Weekly. November 16, 1870. © Corbis.

About the Artist: Thomas Worth (1834–1917), was a painter, illustrator, and lithographer who worked at the New York studios of Currier and Ives. Many of his pieces were published in Harper's Weekly, where he became known for the "Darktown" print series, then considered a humorous look at racial differences. He also created many sports-themed paintings and prints, concerned with bicycling, horse racing, hunting, and fishing. This image is now a part of the Corbis Corporation's collection.


Although the first official census of the American population was taken in 1790 during George Washington's presidency, the concept of a population count was not a new one. The first recorded census in the territories that were to become the United States occurred in Virginia. Most of the colonies conducted some periodic type of inhabitant count.

The Constitution specifies the requirement and parameters for a national census:

"Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such manner as they shall by law direct. The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand, but each state shall have at least one Representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the state of New Hampshire shall be entitled to chuse three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations one, Connecticut five, New York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Carolina five, and Georgia three."

Today census results are used to determine government funding, the number of congressional seats for each state, electoral college votes, state and federal planning, and to create a statistical "snapshot" of the American population.

In the beginning, the census merely listed the names of the (primarily male) household heads and generally either counted or estimated the remaining numbers of household members. Beginning with the sixth decennial (occurring every ten years at the start of the decade) census in 1850, each household member's name was recorded. With each decade, the census became increasingly complex, progressively lengthening the amount of time it took to collect, tabulate, and publish the data.



See primary source image.


The initial census data collection in 1790 was done by United States marshals under the supervision of Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state. It is an interesting historical note that the data gatherers were required to utilize a specific format for information presentation, but had to wrangle their own paper on which to do so. The data gathering continued to be done by marshals through the sixth census in 1840.

It took eighteen months to gather all of the data for the first census, which asked several questions per household. They were:

Number of free white males aged 16 and older;

The number of free white males below the age of 16;

The number of free white females of any age;

The number of other free persons, listed by skin color—including those Native American Indians who paid taxes;

Number of slaves

Three million, nine hundred thousand people were counted in the first census, which is believed to be an underestimation. The data was posted publicly, although that no longer occurs. Raw census data is now completely confidential and is not released to the public until seventy-two years after collection. At present, the raw data from the first census through that conducted in 1930 are part of the public record and may be viewed either electronically on the Internet or via microfilm at the National Archives. Aggre-gate information for each of the decennial censuses is available for research purposes.

By 1810, the census broadened its range and began to look at business data as well, gathering information on manufacturing plants and their products. More questions on production were added in 1840, with sections on mining, agriculture, and fisheries. In 1850, other types of demographic variables were added, concerning poverty (then called pauperism), churches and their membership, crime, and taxation. The 1860 census was the last to document slave status. Some names and counts of slaves were specifically gathered, in addition to listing the names of each household member and a description thereof (age, race, position in the family as child, spouse, other relative, occupation, date and place of birth, occupation, level of education, and so on). Other slaves were listed by age and race only and grouped by owner.

As the country spread westward, the census grew along with it to accommodate new states and territories, as well as areas under America's protection or jurisdiction. As the population and its census grew, it took progressively longer to gather and tabulate the data, pushing back the publication dates by several years. By the 1880 and 1890 censuses, it was taking nearly the entire intervening decade to process and publish the results. The federal government recognized that, while valuable information was being gathered, it was no longer an efficient or effective process. As a result, the questions were pared down for the 1900 census, which collected just population, manufacturing, agriculture, and birth/death data.

With twentieth-century technological advances, it became possible to gather data more efficiently and to process and distribute the results far more quickly. As a result, many of the questions and topic areas that had been eliminated were returned to the census. By the middle of the twentieth century, the United States Census Bureau had adopted the use of statistical sampling techniques that permitted them to identify specific population segments and survey sufficient members of each group to determine that a representative data sample had been gathered and could be generalized to the whole of the nation. After the 1996 Census, the Supreme Court ruled this broad approach unconstitutional and mandated an actual enumeration in the majority of population segments. With computer technology, it has become possible to draw ever-larger samples and to analyze and publish the data quite rapidly. Data is collected by mail, telephone, and in-person surveyors, to gather as representative a grouping as possible each decade.



Darga, Kenneth. Sampling and the Census: A Case Against the Proposed Adjustments for Undercount. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1999.

Goyer, Doreen S. and Gera E. Draaijer. The Handbook of National Population Censuses—Europe. New York, NY: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Kertzer David I., and Dominique Arel, eds. Census and Identity: the Politics of Race, Ethnicity, and Language in National Census. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

United States Bureau of the Census. Abstract of the Fourteenth Census of the United States: 1920. Washington, D.C.: Washington Government Printing Office, 1923.


South Dakota Department of Labor. "From Inkwell to Internet: the History of the U.S. Census." Labor Market Information Center: Labor Bulletin. (May 2002): 1-4.

U.S. Census Bureau. "History and Organization." Factfinder for the Nation. (May 2000): 1-13.

Web sites

Ask Art—The American Artists' Bluebook. "Biography for Thomas Worth." 〈http://www.askart.com/AskART/artists/biography.aspx?artist=19206〉 (accessed June 26, 2006).

Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute (LII). "United States Constitution, Article I Section 2." 〈http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/constitution.articlei.html#section2〉 (accessed June 26, 2006).

U.S. Census Bureau. "History." May 29, 2003 〈http://www.census.gov/acsd/www/history.html〉 (accessed June 26, 2006).