Card files are yesteryear’s version of databases and spreadsheets – and they were everywhere. Think of grandmother’s recipe card boxes, library card catalogs, and the executive’s “Rolodex” of important phone numbers. Federal agencies created hundreds of card files that are now in the National Archives as cards or on microfilm, including First Lady Bess Truman’s recipe file with Washington Cream Pie:

Image: Bess Wallace Truman’s “Recipe Washington Cream Pie” (NAID 139308685).


Early computers used “punch cards” for their data feed.  In the photo detail below, women “punch card operators” were compiling data from the original 1940 census schedules onto punch cards that would then be “run” through computer tabulation equipment to obtain compiled statistical data for subsequent published reports.

Image:  Detail from “Card Punch Operators working on agricultural cards. Population and housing cards carried 45 columns. All other cards carried 80 columns.” Local Identifier 29-C-1B-41 (NAID 6200858).  From series: “Photographs Documenting the Sixteenth Decennial Census, 1940-1941” (NAID 513293).


After the compilation of data from the 1950 census was completed, the Census Bureau’s Geography Division created a card file with basic 1950 census population information that would serve as a quick reference file.  During the 20th century, the Geography Division determined the boundaries of enumeration districts based on the political boundaries of counties, towns, townships, villages, and other “Minor Civil Divisions” (MCDs), as well as known changes in population since the previous census.  After the 1950 census was over, they would start planning for the 1960 census.


The Geography Division’s Card File of Population Data Relating to the 17th Census, 1950 (NAID 2990400) contains one card for each state except that the following are grouped together on a single card: (1) the New England States; (2) Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia; (3) Kentucky and Tennessee; and (4) Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota.  There are summary cards for the United States and for U.S. Territories. The cards answer these basic questions about each state’s population in 1950:


  • How many counties did the state have (or parishes in Louisiana)?
  • How many Minor Civil Divisions (MCDs) did the state have in the 1950 census?  MCDs were townships, towns, villages, and other units of local government.
  • What was the state’s total population in millions?
  • How many cities with over 250,000 population did the state have, and what was their population total in millions?
  • How many cities with between 50,000 and 250,000 population did the state have, and what was their population total in millions?


For example, the card for Ohio, shown below, indicates the state had 88 counties with 1,447 Minor Civil Divisions. Its 1950 population was 7.9 million. It had 6 cities with over 250,000 people each whose total population was 2.6 million. In addition, it had 8 cities with between 25,000 and 250,000 people each whose total population was .7 million (700,000).


Image:  Ohio Population, 1950 (NAID 195936142).


Today, U.S. population statistics for 1950 and other years can easily be found online, although the speed with which information is retrieved may depend on our search terms, preferred search engine, and other factors. This record series reminds us of the important part that card files played in records storage and retrieval before the computer era.