Being a Census Taker

[Author’s note: This month we are featuring a series of articles examining the history and importance of the Federal Census leading up to National Census Day on April 1.]
In 1790, as the federal government prepared to undertake its first census, the task of counting nearly four million people, many of them in bondage, fell to a small army of 650 assistants. Because no official questionnaire had been printed, these assistants drew up their own forms, each one slightly different than the next. What remained the same across districts, however, was the information collected: the name of the head of household, the number of free white males over and under the age of sixteen (for military purposes), the number of free white females, the number of other free persons, and the number of enslaved people.
Once finished, results of each local census were posted in two public places so citizens could review the information and look for mistakes. The results were then transmitted to district marshals, who placed them in the custody of federal district courts. Only then were the results added up and, eventually, presented to the president.
The assistants were originally given nine months to complete their task. In reality, the first census took twice as long. Once finished, President Washington reported the results to Congress in October 1791, and Congress began debating the apportionment of congressional districts for each state.
For the next eighty years, the manner in which the federal census was conducted remained relatively unchanged. Marshals were placed in charge of districts, and assistants would canvass each district to collect information. Everyone involved was a political appointee chosen by senators, often for their political patronage rather than their skills or expertise. This meant that census takers were often not as diligent as they could have been.
This changed in 1879, when a new law required that all census takers be hired and trained especially for the job. The era of marshals was over. Another eighty years would pass before the Census Bureau began mailing questionnaires.
Even as enumerators became more qualified, their task remained challenging—especially for those who worked in rural districts like those in Monroe County. In 1890, one Sparta newspaper noted that the coming census would begin on June 2. In a city or town of 10,000 people or more, they estimated that the work would take two weeks. In the country, on the other hand, the work would take twice as long, since a census taker “might ride ten miles to get one head.” Those who worked in the city were paid per capita, while those who worked in the country were paid per day.
Because the census was conducted in the morning and afternoon, women were often responsible for answering the enumerators’ questions as they were usually the ones at home. This caused some to wonder why women, who were entrusted with all of their family’s details, were not entrusted to conduct the census themselves. Instead, time and again, thousands of census jobs were given only to men.
In March 1880, a letter regarding this issue appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal. Written by Emma Bascom and addressed to “The Women of Wisconsin,” the letter opened with a bold statement: the 1870 census had been filled with errors, and changes were desperately needed. “[I]n view of the natural fitness of women for the work of collecting such statements,” Bascom wrote, “a fair ratio of women be appointed in collecting the Centennial census.”
A petition demanding women census takers had been delivered to the Census Department two years earlier, in 1878. By 1880, Francis A. Walker, head of the Department, had issued his reply, which Bascom included in her letter. “There is no legal obstacle to the appointment of women as enumerators,” Walker wrote, “and I could gladly confirm the nomination of suitable women.” Bascom implored women to apply to their local supervisor. She was confident that “many would like to avail themselves of it as a much-coveted opportunity for earning.” The pay, she noted, was from four to six dollars per day.
Over the next four decades, the push for female census takers remained constant. In 1909, the census supervisor for western Wisconsin received word that women and adolescents could be appointed, as long as they were mature “either in experience or appearance.” Among those recommended by the Census Bureau were teachers, college and high school students, crop reporters, mail carriers, “progressive farmers and their sons and daughters,” town clerks, and “young men and women who have attended agricultural colleges.”
Though women began serving as census takers as early as 1880, there is no record of a female enumerator in Monroe County until 1920. That year, of the more than 30 enumerators who were assigned to Monroe County, only one was a woman: Alice Huggett, a 50-year-old mother of ten from Sparta. Ten years later, Monroe County was assigned 24 enumerators, ten of whom were women, and seven of whom were assigned to the Sparta area alone.
While the identity and qualifications of census takers have changed, other aspects of the census have not. In 1899, the Monroe County Democrat warned its readers that refusing to fill out the census form would result in a $100 fine. Today, that amount remains the same, though there is an additional fine of $500 for giving false answers. (Prison sentences for both crimes were eliminated by Congress in 1976.)
This year, the federal government will employ almost 500,000 temporary workers to conduct the census. The majority of these hires will be enumerators, and their primary task will be to follow-up with people who did not respond to questionnaires sent in the mail or made available online.
The census is one of the most important and necessary foundations of our democracy, and it is undertaken for our government to remain strong and fair. This would not be achieved without the work of census takers across the country.
 [Author’s note: Be sure to join us for, “Coming to your Census: A History and Overview of the Census and its Records,” a public history presentation at 7pm, Tuesday, March 31st at the Monroe County Local History Room & Museum, 200 Main St., Sparta. In honor of the upcoming 2020 Census and National Census Day on April 1, UW-La Crosse archivist Laura Godden will explore the history, importance, and use of the U.S. Census. Sponsored by Park Bank. For more info visit:]

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