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The 1930 population census was the first U.S. census to ask about a technological device in the home with column 9: “Radio Set.” In paragraph 145 of their instructions, enumerators were told: “If the family, or any member of the family, has a radio set, write “R” opposite the name of the head of the family.  If the family has no radio set, leave this column blank." In the image below, the families of Edward Conway and Albert Wiemels at 1896 and 1900 W. 57th St., Cleveland, Ohio, both have radio sets, as indicated by the "R" in column 9:

Image from National Archives Microfilm Publication T626, Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930, Roll 1763, Pct. S, Ward 3, Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, ED 18-45, Sheet 17A.


Radio was “the” disruptive technology and new industry of the 1920s that massively altered how people received and consumed news, information, ideas, and entertainment. “Disruptive technology” can be defined as an innovation that significantly changes the activities or habits of consumers, industries, or businesses. Radio informed and modified cultural norms and entertainment. It created consumer demand for products through advertising. New entertainment stars became popular. Sporting events could be followed in real time. Radio was the internet and social media of its time. It was revolutionary.


Radio broadcasting for entertainment began as a hobbyist activity. After the World War I ban on civilian radio stations ended on October 1, 1919, Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, experimented with broadcasting phonograph recordings to other area “wireless” enthusiasts who had “wireless sets.” The Joseph Horne department store advertised in the Pittsburgh Press newspaper on September 29, 1920, that the wireless set it had on display had picked up Conrad’s concert and, oh, by the way, the store sold “Amateur Wireless Sets” for $10 and up. Westinghouse Vice President Harry P. Davis quickly realized that consumer demand for Westinghouse radio receiver sets would be greatly increased if there were radio broadcasting stations to provide “content” (to use a 21st century term). Thus, Westinghouse quickly applied for a commercial radio license which was granted 100 years ago on October 27, 1920. The assigned station name was KDKA, and is today recognized as the first commercial broadcast radio station. On Election Night, November 2, 1920, radio broadcasts by Westinghouse in Pittsburgh and by radio amateurs in Detroit, Michigan, and Buffalo, New York, informed the public of the results of the Harding-Cox presidential contest. A new era had begun.


American political leaders viewed radio as a potential source of cultural "uplift" for the population, as represented by this 1924 photograph of “Master Harold Shaver of Jersey City learns to draw by listening in to lessons broadcast by WOR,” Library of Congress Reproduction No. LC-USZ62-38569:


The use of radio as an educational tool in the classroom was also discussed and debated, such as in Carroll Atkinson, Development of Radio Educational Policies in American Public School Systems (Edinboro, PA: Edinboro Educational Press, 1939).


At the same time, business leaders viewed radio as a powerful tool for advertising and selling all kinds of mass-produced goods, just as Davis of Westinghouse had quickly realized, and as captured in the catchy article title by Steve Craig, “The More They Listen, the More They Buy” – Radio and the Modernizing of Rural America, 1930-1939,” Agricultural History, Vol. 80, No. 1 (Winter 2006): 1-16.


The brand-new radio industry grew rapidly. In 1930, just ten years after KDKA began, Ruth Cornwall noted in “What About Radio?” (H. K. McCann Co., 1930), that there were more than 500,000 workers employed by 640 manufacturers; 1,500 wholesalers; and 43,822 retailers of radio sets, parts, and accessories - in addition to the 626 U.S. radio stations with their accoutrements and employees.


Thus, after 1920, the radio set became increasingly common but it was not until 1950 that 95% of American households owned radio receivers. As a luxury good, it was not evenly found across all sections of the country or all segments of the population.


The 1930 census statistics showed that 40.3% of all families owned a radio set, but it was more widely adopted in urban areas, with ownership at 50.0%. Ownership in rural farm families was 20.8% and in rural non-farm families, 33.7%. Interestingly, radio ownership by U.S.-born whites who had one or two foreign-born parents was 57.3% overall, which was much higher than ownership by whites with two native-born parents, which was 39.9% overall. Radio ownership by African-American radio was only 7.5% and by other races, 5.9%.

Radio ownership in urban areas and the northern U.S. was much more widespread than in the south, as shown in this map created by the Bureau of the Census:

Researchers interested in additional statistics on radio ownership by region, state, county, city, and other variables, can learn more in Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930, Population, Volume VI, Families (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1933).


As we know, over time radios were adapted for many other consumer uses, such as installation in automobiles, as shown in Patent 1959869, Radio Control Device, by William P. Lear, May 22, 1934:

In subsequent censuses, questions about radios and other technological devices were relegated to the decennial housing schedules that were completed by only a sample of the full population:


Radios: 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970.

Television Sets: 1950, 1960, 1970.

Telephone: 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000.

Air Conditioning: 1960, 1970, 1980.


Since 2005, technological device questions are included in the American Community Survey (ACS) sent annually to a population sample of about 3.5 million households. In the beginning, this survey only asked whether the household had a telephone (including cellphone), but now (2020) asks about telephone, smartphone, desktop or laptop computers, tablet or other portable wireless computer, and internet access by cellular data plan, broadband, satellite, dial-up, or other means.  The technological revolution continues!

Some people are difficult - sometimes impossible - to locate in population census records. The reasons vary widely. This post will take a brief look at the unusual situation of blatantly fictional names.


During the 1910 census, Joseph P. Farrelly was assigned to be enumerator of Enumeration District (ED) 27, Ward 3, Precinct 1, of New Orleans City, which was an area bounded on the north by Canal Street, on the east by the Mississippi River, on the south by Julia Street, and on the west by Baronne Street. Some residents of this ethnically and racially diverse area worked in occupations that supported the bustling seaport, where riverboat and railroad traffic delivered agricultural and industrial products for export to the world on ocean-going vessels, and in return, those oceanic vessels delivered imported food and goods.  The photo below, annotated to show the approximate boundaries of ED 27, is a detail from an aerial photograph taken on April 6, 1937.  Canal Street is on the right; Lafayette Square is in the upper middle of the ED.

Thousands of men and women lived as lodgers in crowded multistory racially segregated boarding houses. As long as rent was paid, some boardinghouse keepers probably didn’t want to know too much about the personal circumstances of their lodgers (also called boarders).


For the proprietors of boarding houses and their wives and family members, the information is usually complete: name, age, birthplaces, occupations, and so forth. In contrast, much information is often lacking for the lodgers.  Their names are given, but other information is indicated as “unknown" unless (apparently) the lodger himself was at home and available to provide it. Even some of the lodgers' names are incomplete: first name only, surname only, and even obvious fictional (invented) names.


On Tuesday, April 26, 1910, the 11th day of the census enumeration, Joseph P. Farrelly visited a number of large lodging houses in his enumeration district.


At 600 Fulton Street, a Black couple named Elijah Cheevies, 35, and Rosie Cheevies, age 26, operated a lodging house in a rented building. They had 17 lodgers, whose age, marital status, places of birth, parents’ place of birth, and ability to read and write were given as “un” (unknown). Each was said to be employed as a “roustabout” on the “River,” but whether they were employed on April 15, 1910 or working for themselves or an employer were said to be “un” (unknown).  A roustabout was an unskilled or casual laborer, such as a  a dock laborer, vessel deckhand, or oil rig laborer. Most of the lodgers at the Cheevies house had plausible names that were probably reasonably correct, but a few had names that were clearly invented pseudonyms. Here is the full list of lodgers: Jeff Anderson, Archie Robertson, Davie Hughes, Jim McMiller, William Turner, Tom Morgan, George Clark, George Washington, George Brown, Dallar Doff [Doff Dollar?], Another Time, Black Diamond, Sid Smoky, Clara Robertson, Will Murray, and Peter Buttons. (National Archives Microfilm Publication T624, Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910, Roll 571, New Orleans, Louisiana, Ward 3, Precinct 1, ED 27, Sheet 14A, Lines 5-23). Here is a detail showing that household:

Additional persons sporting fictional names were reported across the street at 601 Fulton Street, another Black lodging house. The proprietor of this establishment might have been Annie Bell, age 52, a white widow, who lived around the corner at 319 Girod Street, whose occupation was described as the keeper of a rooming house. Since her daughter and son-in-law, Mary and Joseph Brown, were the only other residents of 319 Girod, the rooming house had to be a separate nearby building, and 601 Fulton was likely it. Some of the lodgers have plausible names and personal information, while others clearly have invented names: Pretty Shirt Willie, Brass Check Ben, Knox Point, Jim Topsy, Big Smoky, Pittsburg, Bud Hoot, Dollar Bill, Buck Tooth, Ham Sandwich, Fool Kelly, Bare Foot, Black Mace, and Hard Leather.  The enumerator was supposed to record names in “last, first” format, but may not have always followed that rule, so it is sometimes difficult to be sure which part of invented names were intended as the “first” or “last” name. (National Archives Microfilm Publication T624, Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910, Roll 571, New Orleans, Louisiana, Ward 3, Precinct 1, ED 27, Sheet 13A, Lines 1-50).  Here is a detail showing some people in that boarding house:

Fortunately, blatantly fictional names intended to identify real people are fairly rare in census records.  Mr. Farrelly was probably as diligent as any enumerator. The job was temporary, but not necessarily easy. The census enumerator was an agent of the federal government, but successfully completing the job required persuading people to cooperate. The enumerator also had to judge when imperfect and incomplete information would have to suffice.  So, sure, you can record my information on the census, just call me Another Time and bring Ham Sandwich with you!