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Census Enumerators

To enumerate is to ascertain the number of something. In the case of the census, this is to count the population as close to its entirety as possible. The people who conduct the count are known as enumerators (for obvious reasons). From 1790 to 1870, the census was conducted by U.S. Marshals who received little training or instruction on how to collect data. It wasn’t even until 1830 that Marshals were given printed schedules to record household responses. Beginning in 1880, specially hired and trained census-takers were utilized for the first time. Door-to-door was the method utilized until 1960 when the census began to be mailed out. However, if someone does not answer or more information is needed, enumerators will still go to houses for the necessary information.

Limited instructions were gained from census acts passed prior to each census. In 1860 for the eighth census, U.S. Marshals and their assistants received actual instructions for what appears to be the first time. The instructions list what is expected of the enumerators, how the returns should be handled and returned, and how to fill out the various sections. The 1870 instructions took pains to note the section, “Profession, Occupation, or Trade” was one of the most important questions on the schedule. It was requested that enumerators be as clear as possible. For example, a man was not to be named as a shoemaker unless he made the entire shoe. If a man instead worked in a shoe factory, that was to be stated instead. The word huckster was to be used “in all cases where it applies.”[1] The 1880 census instructions towards profession were the same as the 1870 instructions with just a few small changes. The 1890 instructions, on the other hand, were very detailed, explaining what was to be noted for a variety of categories. These categories included, but were not limited to, fishing, mining, agricultural pursuits, manufacturing and mechanical pursuits, and domestic and personal service. Enumerators were told to make distinctions between women who made a salary in domestic work, such as a housekeeper, and house wives, who kept house for their family. This distinction means many women who did keep house often had their occupation space left blank.

Up until 1960, enumerators had to visit each household to ascertain the information needed for the census. They were told to visit each and every house to ensure everyone was counted. If a family was not home at the time of an enumerators visit, information was to be obtained from other family or nearby neighbors. Of course, this means that information, especially ages, is not always accurate. Beginning in 1960, census schedules were mailed out. The forms still had to be picked up by an enumerator however. It wasn’t until 1970 that households received the census in the mail and were able to return it in the same way. Since that time, enumerators are only required to visit households in person if a census schedule has missing information or was never returned.     

Notable people who worked as enumerators include John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces during WWI, Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to be elected to the United States Congress, and Kirby Puckett, a professional baseball player who played for the Minnesota Twins. Pershing served as the census supervisor for the 1903 Census of the Philippines. Chisholm became an enumerator for the 1970 Census in Brooklyn due to worries of the minorities being underrepresented. Puckett worked as a temporary census enumerator for the 1980 Census in Chicago.


[1] a person who sells small items, either door-to-door or from a stall or small store.

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