NARA expects to digitally release the 1950 population census schedules for researcher use on April 1, 2022, which is 72 years after the official 1950 census day.  This is the 26th in a series of blog posts on the 1950 census.


In 1950, Dr. Henry S. Shryock, Jr., was an Assistant Chief of the Census Bureau’s Population Division and in charge of its Population Branch.  His article, “Plans for the 1950 Census,” Population Index 16: 1 (Jan. 1950): 3-13, is a succinct discussion of the differences between the 1940 and 1950 censuses and the reasons those changes were made.  Although the article was written for demographers and other persons interested in population statistics, it provides insight useful to genealogists and other researchers today.  This blog post will summarize Dr. Shryock’s most relevant comments.


Differences in the Questions Asked in the 1940 and 1950 Censuses


Early planning for the 1950 census determined that reproducing the scope of the 1940 census would cost twice as much in 1950 due to increased wages for enumerators and clerical tabulators plus the 14% increase in U.S. population.  Therefore, the decision was made to reduce the number of questions that all persons would answer, but increase the sampling from 5% (2 persons per 40 person census page) to 20% (6 persons per 30 person census page).  The 1950 sample included some questions for all sample persons and some for sample persons age 14 and over.  In addition, in 1950, 3 1/3% (1 person) answered several additional sample questions.


The income questions in 1950 were asked only of people on sample lines (Items 31a-32c) but inquired about a broader range of income sources than in 1940.  It was believed that the “distribution of total money income in 1949, … is more useful for many purposes than [simply] a distribution of wage and salary income alone….”


The Bureau hoped that better statistics on the citizenship of foreign-born persons could be obtained through the simple question, “Is he [she] naturalized?” with the answers being Yes, No, or AP for persons born abroad of American parents (Item 14).  In previous censuses, a distinction was made between aliens (AL), those who had taken out first papers (PA), and those who were fully naturalized (NA).


The internal migration questions (Items 21 to 24) asked persons on sample lines where they had lived one year ago (1949) instead of five years (1945) because (1) millions of men had been in the Armed Forces in April 1945; (2) it was consistent with the same question on the annual "Current Population Survey" since 1948; and (3) people’s short-term memory was better than their long-term memory.


The educational attainment questions (Items 26 and 27) asked of persons on sample lines had been modified slightly to get more accurate results.  The school attendance question “now refers to roughly the second semester than to just the month of March, since in 1940 it was found that many rural schools were closed for that entire month.”


The marriage questions (Items 36 and 37) were now asked of all adults on sample lines instead of women only.  In 1950, “Separated” was added for the first time as a new marital status category (Item 12).


The 1940 supplemental questions on whether the person had a Social Security Number (1940, Item 42) and whether they were the wife, widow, or minor child of a veteran (1940, item 39) were dropped “because of the poor quality of the 1940 data.”


The 1940 supplemental question “Language spoken in home in earliest childhood” (1940, Item 38) was dropped.  Dr. Shryock’s explanation makes it clear that “Mexicans” were the only immigrant group in which the government was particularly interested in 1950:


… it is planned to identify on the Population schedules in the Census office Spanish surnames in five Southwestern states.  Experimental tallies on the 1940 schedules of Spanish surnames against Spanish mother tongue, country of birth, and country of birth of parents have indicated that this is a fairly adequate means of identifying “Mexicans.”  “Mexicans” are one of our least assimilated ethnic groups. They include persons of pure Spanish descent, pure Indian descent, and mixed Spanish and Indian descent, and range from first-generation immigrants from Mexico to persons whose ancestors have lived in our Southwest for centuries.  The rather sharp demographic and social differences, on the average, between these people and other ethnic stocks make it desirable to have supplementary statistics for them for small areas (e.g., counties) in the Southwest. (Shryock, p. 7).


Other Innovations in the 1950 Enumeration


In 1940, there were separate housing schedules (which are no longer extant).  In 1950, the housing schedule was printed on the reverse side of the population schedule and are no longer extant since they were not microfilmed at the same time as the population schedules.


The problem of enumerating transients was well known and enumerators had “increasing difficulty” of finding a respondent on their first call “in our mobile urban society.”  He noted that “repeated callbacks are expensive and discouraging” and “it becomes easy to miss certain kinds of people altogether unless a mechanical control system is used.”  Therefore, in 1950, enumerators were “required to enter a serial number in Item 3 of the Population Schedule for all dwelling units on his [her] first call even if no one is at home.”  (Such persons, when enumerated later, out of order, were entered on pages numbered 71 and higher for that enumeration district.)


Dr. Shryock also briefly discussed the issue of enumerating Americans overseas.  In 1950, with “hundreds of thousands of our people overseas … it has become important to have an inventory of them.”  However, it was “still not feasible to enumerate all those overseas who claim American citizenship; but special arrangements have been made to obtain a few basic demographic characteristics of the largest and most accessible groups.” Despite these efforts, “These persons abroad will not be included with the population of continental United States but will be placed in a separate category.”  (Records of these overseas individuals do not exist and will not be part of the 1950 census release on April 1, 2022, with the exception of military and civilian personnel enumerated at Canton, Johnston, Midway, and Wake Islands, for which paper schedules exist.)


Training and Supervision


The critical importance of systematic uniform training was recognized along with the deficiencies of the training in prior census years.  “The Census staff has become increasingly aware that the weakest link in the preparation of its statistics is the individual enumerator.”  Instead of teaching district supervisors “who were more interested in their pressing administrative problems than in [census] schedule content” or in teaching individual enumerators, there would be a group of “200 to 300 experienced trainers, largely from the permanent staff,” who would train 8,300 crew leaders in small classes.  The Crew Leaders would receive and be instructed from “prepackaged” standardized training materials that included manuals, guides, and workbooks.  Besides classwork instruction, there would be filmstrips, practice exercises, mock interviews, and actual practice enumerations.  There would be more emphasis “on how to conduct an interview, how to handle refusals, how to get complete coverage, and how to fill the schedule, and less on subject matter concepts and exceptions to the rules concerning them.”


The Crew Leader, which was a new position in 1950, would be in charge of 18 enumerators in urban areas or 15 in rural areas.  He or she would closely supervise enumerators, review their work, edit (correct) their mistakes, and arrange “for the replacement of an obviously incompetent enumerator in the work, before the enumerator has wasted precious weeks of time.”


Planning and Statistics


Dr. Shryock discussed at length the planning that went into the 1950 census, including determination of census questions, experience gained with the Current Population Survey, pre-test censuses conducted in various locations in 1948 and 1949 (for which no schedules exist), and improved mapping.


For the first time following a decennial census, there would be a post-enumerative quality check with a representative national sample of 25,000 households re-enumerated by interviewers with special training. This check would test both completeness of coverage and accuracy of the data collected. (Re-enumeration schedules do not exist.)


The published statistics would use different terminology and cover more or larger areas than in earlier reports:


  • “A central city plus its urban fringe will be called an ‘urbanized area.’”


  • “Standard metropolitan areas will replace not only these metropolitan districts [of 1940] but also the ‘industrial areas’ of the Census of Manufactures and similar types of areas previously used by other federal statistical agencies. The new areas will be defined for cities of 50,000 or more, and each area will consist of one or more whole counties, economically and socially integrated with the central city or cities.”  (In New England, towns would be the basic unit instead of counties.)


  • “Census tract statistics will be published for 75 large cities in 1950 as compared with 57 in 1940.  This number is exclusive of satellite cities tracted because they are adjacent to central cities.  Whereas in 1940 the adjacent area was tracted for 24 large cities, the corresponding figure in 1950 will be 49."


Dr. Shryock noted that plans for post-census publication of the statistical data were still tentative and had not been finalized at the time he wrote his article.




Dr. Shryock’s article provides valuable insight on the 1950 census from someone who was “in the room” participating in the planning, decision-making, policymaking, and conduct of that census.  He served as the 7th Secretary (1950-1953) and the 19th President (1955-1956) of the Population Association of America, and a 1988 interview with him is online.