1940 Census and an interview with Mama
[contains iPad info] My Mama pointed to a name on the page of the 1940 census. “This is the boy who – at age 9 – told me the facts of life.”
She pointed to another name. “This was the best teacher I ever had. Ever. And I had some good teachers.”
Her fingers traced a triangle shape on the map where two streets intersected. “This is where we played baseball. There were only two bases. See? First base, Second base, Home.”
These are some of the stories that came out when I interviewed Mama about her memories of growing up. I used the 1940 Census as an oral history question generator and memory sparker.
This article is my description of what I did to use the 1940 Census as the inspiration for an oral history interview. I describe it all – from finding the census pages, to working with printing out image data, to what I used for my audio setup, to interview techniques, to a listing of all the topics discussed, to some iPad file transfer tricks and lessons learned.
If you’re already familiar with any of the preliminary steps, such as how to locate and download census information, feel free to skip forward.
Here are the major topics covered in this post:
Finding the Census forms
Downloading the working with the Census documents
(A Mac OS X trick for working with Census docs)
Audio Equipment Set Up
The Interview Begins
How two little boxes [Yes] [No] brought out so much
More topics covered
Transferring Audio afterwards (iPad tricks)
On April 2, 2012 the day the 1940 census was released and National Archives servers crashed, I wasn’t one of the people hunting for my people on the National Archives 1940 Census site. Nope. My new retina-display iPad arrived and I was wading through Apple’s lengthy terms of service agreements so I could start figuring out how to use the iPad as an audio recording device.
Yes, 1940 Census, I see you. But you’ve waited 70 years, you’re going to have to wait a little longer. For me. Color me contrarian. But I’ve got an end-of-week visit to see Mama and the brother and his daughters who’ve come to town. I need to have this iPad all checked out and tested before I go down there. We can download the 1940 Census info when I’m there.
Here’s what transpired:
Friday Day: Visit with Mom, Brother, nieces. Walk to the Park. Play on playground. Decorate Easter Eggs.
A different kind of Easter Egg Hunt.
Friday Night: On Homestead computer, I surfed to the 1940 census site at the National Archives website— http://1940census.archives.gov/
Since I knew my mother’s address, I used the first option, Do You know the location where the person lived?, and entered the information. Where it asked for a cross street, I could supply that, too, thanks to the “Hey Mom, what was your cross street?” method of information gathering.
I browsed through the pages until I found the one where her family was listed. “Mom, come here and look at this! Here you are.” She was 7 years old at the time of the census. She came into the room and looked over my shoulder. I clicked the Add Bookmark link at the top of the page.
What struck me then was the listing of the other GE Engineers on the same census page. I’ve always thought of Schenectady as a “Company Town”—here I saw just how much of a company town it was.
Naturally, I had to share this with Facebook friends. (Facebook screenshots are edited; some comments removed; commenters made anonymous. Privacy, for the win!)
Then I opened a new browser tab and went on a hunt for my Dad. Once I found Dad, the 1940 Census Hunt and Oral History pretty much ended for the night.
Downloading and working with the census documents
Saturday morning: Once my brother and nieces left, I was back on the 1940 Census hunt again. I downloaded the entire set of images for her neighborhood’s Enumeration District (ED).
The 42 pages of high resolution files came in a 152 MB zipped file. Unzipped, there was a folder containing 42 JPEG image files, around 3.6 MB each.
I also downloaded the maps (1 Map, 4 pages). In Photoshop, I composited the four images of the Schenectady city map back into a single map.
After printing the map, I went outside where my mother was reading the Saturday paper.
“Mama, here’s the 1940 map of Schenectady.”
She pointed to locations and said, “that’s where we lived.” She took a crayon from the egg-decorating supplies, and marked locations on the map. Home. Elementary school.
I asked her which streets I should find information on. She told me. Then she added, “Make sure you get this street, because my best friend Nan A___ lived here.”
Pause. “And here’s where we played baseball—”
“Wait, Mama,” I interrupted. “Wait! I want to get this information when I am recording. I just gave you this map to ‘prime the pump.’ Hold those thoughts until we sit down and record.”
She said, “okay, then, I will go back to reading the paper.” She picked up the paper again, and I went back inside to continue gathering the right 1940 Census documents for our interview.
I surfed to Google Maps and printed out a current-day street map of the area. The current-day map would help me with my next step—deciding which of the 42 pages of census records to print out for Mama.
Census Map Preview, Comments and Selection: A Mac OS X Trick
Here is a Mac OS trick. (I’m in the Leopard/Snow Leopard [10.5/10.6] phase of MacOS X; don’t ask me about Lion yet.) In Finder, when an image file is selected, tap the space bar in order to view the document (In the Finder’s menu, you can also invoke the command by File > Quick Look, or ⌘-Y). A window appears where you can preview the file (You can do the same thing for other file types, as well).
You can use the arrow keys to quickly advance through them all and see which is which. I added comments for each one about what street was what, and changed the document’s label color to highlight the pages that were the likeliest candidates for printout. (To access the File Info window, go to File > Get Info or ⌘-I)
I changed the label color of the likeliest candidates to red or orange. I also changed the view settings so that I could read the comments I made. (To get your Finder Window to match mine exactly, Command-2 changes it to list view, and then Command-J gives you a dialog box where you can click the Show Comments checkbox)
(In View Options, you need to set Comments to be visible)
If you download the high resolution image files—300 ppi—they can be printed on a Legal-sized sheet of legal at a magnification of roughly 50-60% size. I cropped off the supplemental info at the bottom, figuring that the info on the sheet number at the top of the page was the more essential piece of information to display on the printout.
I also adjusted the contrast in Photoshop. (I got rid of the pale gray background and made the sheets white, and made the ink black) You needn’t have Photoshop in order to adjust contrast—on the Mac, iPhoto allows you adjust contrast, and on Windows computers, you can make the same kind of basic adjustment in Picasa. Once the images were higher contrast I printed them out. I marked the sheet where her family was listed, and I found the listing for her best friend’s family who lived on the corner of the next block, and marked that one in yellow as well.
I ended up printing out some half-dozen sheets of census information or so. I wrote the street names in the margins so it would be easy to see which was what.
Setting up for Recording
I set up the recorders at the dining table. Recorders? Plural Yes, dear reader, you could say that my setup was overkill.
Although I’d done a number of test recordings with the iPad, I hadn’t done a test recording of the “sit down for awhile and get so absorbed in the conversation that I forget about the recording device” variety. The previous day I recorded an audio test with my niece using one of the recording apps. I discovered that after the short time-out period after you’ve stopped touching the iPad screen, it goes dark and “locks up.” The app I was using stopped recording once it went into lock-up mode. Ruh roh, not good. If something like that happened during the interview with my mother, I didn’t want to lose the recording, so I used a second recorder. No wait, I’d gotten a new portable under-$99 recorder, and wanted to test that, too. So make that three (3!) recorders.
I set up my audio equipment—I am testing the iPad as a recording device—as well as a redundant audio recorder in case iPad does not work out. (See that stereo microphone attached to the iPad in these photos? That’s the TASCAM iM2 microphone]
—a mic that works with iPads, iPhones, iPod touches—in short, all iOS devices.)
Back to the iPad. Since I didn’t know how long the battery would last, and since the Tascam iM2 microphone has a side USB port that can accept a plug that’s plugged into the iPad’s power source, I used that method to keep the power go into to the iPad.
In the left side of the composite image, the (white) iPad power plug is plugged into a power strip (the black plug on the left is the power supply for the Zoom Handy H1). A USB cable runs from it to the Tascam iM2 microphone, shown at the right side of this dual image.
(I will be writing about recording apps for the iPad and iOS devices in a separate post).
Also: here is an early report on the use of the USB plug in power for the iPad while recording: 60-cycle hum. I need to conduct a full and complete test, but there’s that buzz in the audio that I think is best explained by the power source.
The 1940 Census Interview Begins
Once all three recorders were set up, I called Mama to sit down at the table. I started all three recorders and recorded the slate. (“Today is Saturday, April 7, and I’m Susan Kitchens here in __________, California, with my Mother, _________ Kitchens. We’re looking at the printouts from the 1940 Census.”)
I did a fairly extensive introduction about the 1940 census, and stated the enumeration district number and the sheet number of the page Mama was looking at. Then I opened up the interview with this question:
“Is there anything that strikes you when you look at that?”
Look-at-the-form and tell me whatever comes to mind is open-ended questioning at its widest and most open. An open-ended question is a type of question that does not call for a yes-or-no answer. It elicits stories and explanations. Having my mother look at the census form and discuss anything that came to mind ensured that she’d speak from her memories and associations with what she saw there. This question strategy worked very well. The things that occurred to her were subjects that I could not have predicted would come from this census.
(Where did I get the idea to structure the interview this way? I don’t know. I stumbled on it, and it made the most sense to me. Too, maybe I’ve been influenced by the discussions that Henry Louis Gates Jr. has with the people appearing on his show, Finding Your Roots—he gives the person a book with documents in it, and asks them to look at the document and say what’s there and discuss their reaction to that document.)
The census sheet is similar to a photograph. It is a snapshot of that time and place. Instead of an image, it is data. It doesn’t capture a time and place from a single point of view (the camera) but is a data snapshot of the entire neighborhood.
It’s also a snapshot of the time. Spring, 1940:
Mama: “This is the April before we went out West to pick up my Grandfather Fogler and to see my Aunt Doris and Uncle Virgil in Boulder Creek in Big Timber Montana, which was my introduction to the Great West, and boy, did I love it.”
(over the course of the interview, we would visit that trip west.)
We discussed the data points on the form—professions and salaries (her father’s salary is left blank “He probably refused to give it”—though the although the encircled X for info supplier is next to her mother’s name, so she is the person in that household who was interviewed. I didn’t know at the time the significance of the X on the census form.) In addition, I pointed out that both of her parents’ birthplaces were erroneously listed as being in New York (Grandpa was born in Colorado, and Grandma was born in Massachusetts).
The wealth of stories that spring from two boxes—one marked “yes,” the other marked “no”
The next little data item she noticed led to a wealth of information. Mama saw the item asking whether the person had been in school in the week prior to the census being taken.
My mother, age 7 at the time, had (the box marked Yes), but her brother, age 10, had not (the box marked No). This sparked a recollection about why her brother wasn’t in school—he’d been ill with scarlet fever and was in the hospital.
That topic—childhood illness—and how it was treated in the year 1940, was a base from which Mama jumped to several related topics, covering a history of childhood illnesses that ran in the family:
- The illnesses in 1940 that resulted in hospitalization.
- How ill children were kept in isolation in the hospital (she recalls a brother and sister who both had polio in the 1940s, were there for a month, and their mother was unable to visit them. The younger brother jiggled his bed over to where his sister was so they could be in contact with one another.) Oh, and speaking of polio, a very dear friend of my mother’s mother ran the Sunnyview Hospital in Schenectady New York, where they treated people with polio and cerebral palsy.
- Was this practice of isolation left over from the 1918 flu pandemic? (The pandemic was 22 years before 1940; a recent enough memory to affect how illnesses were treated?)
- A typhoid outbreak in south eastern Colorado in 1903; Mama’s father (my grandfather) had typhoid when he was 3 years old, and nearly died from it.
- A second typhoid outbreak in Colorado between 1918 or 1922. Different location (in Boulder, where my grandfather was attending University), same cause (dairy farms and a stream where they washed the milk cans.) Since Grandpa already had the infection in 1903, he didn’t get it this time. But he knew people that died.
- Why Grandpa’s father started the local creamery in Walsenburg, Colorado—his outrage at the local typhoid outbreak, and doing something about the conditions of the dairy. (He was a shareholder in the Walsenburg Creamery)
- By the time my mother went to school at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in the early 1950s, the typhoid infection from the contaminated stream in Boulder was part of the curriculum for pre-med or medical school students, as a case study in vector analysis.
- A very distressing remark that was probably rooted in this typhoid experience. My mother’s grandmother made a prejudiced statement to my mother during a visit West. It “distressed me very much at the time but I have a better understanding of it,” my mother says. “My grandmother was eminently fair, but she was blind to this thing because she was fearful for her children.”
- On the other side of her family, two of her mother’s sisters died in childhood. My mother isn’t sure what childhood disease they died of. Probably diphtheria?
- A comparison of sewage systems in the various locations where my mother’s immediate elders grew up—it’s different in a well-established location on the East Coast than in a Colorado mining town.
- If you went away to another location and you weren’t familiar with the water source, you’d be sure to boil water when it was “unfamiliar” water so you wouldn’t get diarrhea.
Look at that list. That’s a lot of territory to cover based on two boxes on the form, one marked Yes and one marked No. They all sprang from associations based on I was in school but my brother was not as marked on the census form.
Other than Grandpa telling me of his own experience with the 1918 flu epidemic, and of his experience of schoolmates who died of diphtheria, I’d heard nothing of these illness topics—or prejudice vs. unfairness—before this interview began.
The interview took place in two two-hour sessions. The break between them was lengthy (Mom had an errand to run, and there was a meal to prepare and eat during the break). In the first session, the single sheet of the census page that her household was all that she looked at—and that not much. We did talk about a few people in the neighborhood.
Back to the Census Sheet, and Neighbors
After the sweeping epic of illnesses, we turned once more to the census sheet on which my mother was listed.
I asked her, “Are there any names that you recognize?”
She began to pore over the list of names and tell me what she remembered.
- Mom told me of one person listed there—a boy the same age as herself—and how they somehow got ahold of some matches and lit an empty field on fire.
- Other people—whom she saw at her 50th high school reunion.
- A neighbor girl that, for whatever reason, they could have treated with more kindness.
- A neighbor’s dad, who was listed as working 0 weeks out of the last 52.
- Which led to a lengthy discussion of the Depression and how people made do.
Once more we were off again through a series of associations that had nothing to do with the census sheet. But the stories, the family background was all worth capturing.
- Grandfather’s garage, filled with stuff, reminiscent of Fibber McGee’s closet (from the radio show Fibber McGee and Molly).
- Mama’s Grandfather’s (My GGrapandpa) Model T, and how her father picked it up from the railway station
- My Great-Grandfather was an orphan, and the family who adopted him
- How Great-Grandfather rode his bike from Iowa to Colorado to pursue opportunities there
- The 1940 trip west, background on father’s work
- Mama’s father working for the General Electric company, his skills, some work he did on the trip troubleshooting problems with power generators and steam turbines
- A border crossing into Canada and what happened when the border guard encountered all of Dad’s technical test equipment. (cue hilarity)
- What Mama, her mother and brother did while Grandpa did his work in Dearborne Michigan
- Visting with Aunt and cousin at Grandparents in Walsenburg, Colorado
- All the silver dollars and the State-forged aluminum tax coins that made a big impression on my mother and her brother, who were used to paper money form the East.
- The story of Aunt Pauline
- Being pregnant with her firstborn and being transported by the Navy to the mainland from Hawaii (and leaving Pearl Harbor for the mainland)
- Moving 18 times in 3 years while my father was in the Navy.
- Taking care of her ailing grandmother when she was just barely pregnant.
- Grandmother’s high school diploma with the report card on the back. (including Latin! Greek!)
- Presents exchanged in the mail and the smell of cedar from Montana.
- How schoolteachers were chosen and taken care of in rural Colorado.
- How Mama’s grandparents met (he ran a boarding house for miners in Colorado; she taught school)
- How Mama’s grandparents helped out their nieces after their mother died
- Mama going away to college in Boulder
- After my parents’ marriage, riding the “chuck wagon” trail and staying with friends
- Graduating from college in Long Beach (when I was four years old)
- When Dad left the navy and looked for work, and how my parents moved from smoggy Pasadena to the coast.
Only there, after nearly two hours, did we take a break from the first half of the interview. Whew!
We resumed later, and spent more time looking at the census. I have listened to (and marked up) the first part of the interview, but have not yet listened to the second half, so what I say here comes from memory. We probably spent about an hour in focused conversation about neighbors and the neighborhood which included topics like these:
- Her favorite teacher—the best teacher she ever had
- The boy who told her the facts of life (so. twisted.)
- A friend—they each stole money from their mothers’ purses, and went to the store and bought penny candy with it.
- The music teacher who played piano for the music classes at school.
- All about Nan A, her best friend (the As were family friends). Nan was my mother’s maid of honor at her wedding.
The last half hour of the interview was probably more rambling than normal. (There’s topics that range all over, and then there’s what happens when two tiring people continue talking.) We stopped the interview and moved onto other things. Like dinner.
Transferring Audio Afterwards
Even though I recorded the interview on multiple recorders, I also did a file copy of one of the recordings to the Homestead computer. I live by the LOCKSS method of data safety. Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe.
I also used this as an opportunity to test how the iPad FiRe app allows you to transfer files from the iPad to the computer. I tried out two different methods offered by the app:
Files can be transferred inside the same WiFi network by turning the iPad into a (very) temporary web server. From the computer, open a browser and surf to the location indicated inside the same WiFi network.
Here are two views from the iPad inside of FiRe: First, enabling browser access (left) and checking out the web address.
Once I used the computer’s web browser to surf to that address and begin downloading the file, the iPad’s image changed to the file transfer mode shown on the right.
Sharing via iTunes is the second method I used to transfer the second audio file from the iPad to the Homestead computer.
First, I went to the sharing options for that recording and selected AIF as the file type (AIF and WAV are both uncompressed audio file types). I tapped the Share in iTunes button. The App displayed a similar slow-moving progress bar (as above, right) while it wrote out a 1.5GB audio file.
Before I connected the iPad to the computer, I made sure that it would not sync automatically and wipe out all my data.
Warning! If connecting an iPad to a computer other than your home-base syncing computer, as I was doing (this was the Homestead computer, not my main computer), it’s important to set the preferences for iTunes so that it won’t sync up. Go to iTunes preferences. Click the Devices icon. Uncheck the box that says Prevent iPods, iPhones, and iPads from syncing automatically.
Once I made that important change to my iTunes preferences, I connected the iPad to the computer.
In iTunes, I went to the iPad device, and the Apps pane. The top view shows all my apps and the appearance of my iPad. I scrolled down to the File Sharing area. On the left side, I clicked the icon for the FiRe app. The exported files shared through iTunes appeared on the right side. I selected the one I wished, clicked the Save… button at the bottom, and copied the file to the Homestead computer using that method.
Note: each of these audio files, being around 2 hours in length, were well over 1GB in size. The file transfer took a while to do.
Once I got home, I repeated the file transfer from the iPad to my own computer. I also connected the audio recorders and copied off the audio files from the Zoom Handy H1 and the Tascam DR-08. All audio files copied, and the next time my computer was backed up, all those files were backed up.
1940 Census Interview: Lessons Learned
Here are some of the most important lessons to draw from in interviewing family members using the 1940 Census
Let the person look at the pages of the census
If it’s possible, let the person have a printed copy of the census form to look at during the interview. You won’t stand in between the person and whatever memories or associations come to mind.
This is also a good thing if the person you’re interviewing is apt to be intimidated by the presence of recording equipment. It’s much easier to forget the presence of the recorder when looking at the pages of the census. (This is similar to interviewing using photo albums—the interviewee focuses on what’s right there in front, and doesn’t look at that intimidating recorder.)
If you are not able to give the person access to the census form (because, say, you are talking to a family member on the phone), be sure to make note of every little thing that might be worth comment, and mention it to the person you’re talking to.
(alternatively, if you can download the image and email it to them or to someone who can print it out for them, try that.)
I will be doing a phone interview based on the census a little later on. I’ll be interviewing my uncle—Mama’s brother, the one who had scarlet fever at 10. He’s got something else going on at the moment, so the interview will have to wait. Mama has called her brother and talked some of this through with him, already.
Make peace with tangents, rambling, and topics that go all over
Now, my mother is a talker. She’s not afraid of sitting down with three recorders at the table. She’ll go on at length about any given topic and her mind leaps from one topic to the next in a string of associations.
I confess—sometimes this tendency of hers drives me bonkers (usually in a phone call when I wish to get one single piece of information that somehow must be teased out of a story that wanders all over). This interview felt the most successful to me in terms of how I felt inside myself while the interview was taking place. I was patient. Unhurried. I welcomed wherever the conversation went. My expectations about the interview were aligned with my mother’s style of speaking.
Do not look at the census and think that an interview about it will be a very linear collection of additional data points based on what’s in the census. If you expect that you can collect your relative’s memories with the systematic dispatch of a census worker going door to door, collecting memories of one neighbor after another (check, check, check), stop it. Just stop that thinking right now. You’ll need to nudge yourself away from linear checkbox expectations. Assume that your interview will need to fit the messy reality of the way memories become stored in tangles inside the human mind. You can sort things out later.
I’ll repeat good advice by Kim von Apsern-Parker from my interviewing series. She says,
If somebody starts talking to you about a story, don’t get so focused in on the fact that you’re trying to get Grandma’s birthdates that you don’t listen to the story that they’re telling you.
That advice applies here, too.
Listen, and let the memories and associations unfold.
Back up your recordings as soon as possible!
Lots of copies keeps stuff safe. The stories are worth preserving, and the first step is to make sure that your files are in more than 1 location.
I’d like to hear from you!
I’d love to read any of your stories of interviews or discussions you’ve conducted with family members over the 1940 Census.
Were any of the steps I described here helpful for you?
Please share in the comments.
No one paid me to write about the products mentioned here. If you purchase any through my affiliate links, you support my ongoing research into the tools and techniques of capturing family stories in digital audio formats.
What a valuable storehouse of stories you have managed to collect from the 1940 census-inspired interview with your mom! You’re so on the money to encourage open ended questions. I did the same thing when eliciting stories from my mom by phone. The 1940 census is a great conversation starter, even for my “why the heck would you want to be interested in genealogy?” mother.
Jane, thanks for stopping by; I was hoping you would. I remember your story from the Geneabloggers blogtalkradio show last week in which you said that hearing the neighbor’s names, etc., totally brought it all back for your mother. (Complete with whatever the pastry that the neighbor cooked, right?)
I’m wondering what it is that makes the difference for the why genealogy person get into it. It’s no longer a hunt through vital records, etc., Rather, it’s the sense that “I was there.”
Susan, I spent my Easter doing the same thing with my Mom. She was so nosy, that I had to teach her how to log on herself so she could peruse the ENTIRE TOWN. She had a story for everyone. Starting on page one she knew everyone’s occupation before we could even scroll over to the right to see that column. Her town had a lot of estates, and she was fascinated to see how many servants some folks had, and if the servants were Irish, English or whatever. Best of all, she looked up all the folks she used to babysit for, including the grandchildren of General Patton. The Patton estate didn’t list the General, he must have been off somewhere gearing up for the war. I wish I had recorded all this like you did, but I took a lot of notes! My Mom calls me often since now she knows how to look up her town, and she gives me more stories over the phone. Usually its things like “That house was worth only $1500 back then, but it sold recently for $350,000.”.
I wished I could ask my mom or dad about the neighbors, but both are gone now, my dad did get to see three census he was in and always was helpful when I asked about where he was or about the neighbors. My mom was always who cares they are all dead now.
I did wander around the neighborhood when I was looking up my parents and grandparents, and I remember a lot of the neighbors they talked about and some I even remember.
I saw your presentation at RootsTech yesterday. I especially loved your segment from your mom’s interview about burning down the field. I was hoping to show my husband your adorable adaptation, but I couldn’t find it on here. Is it posted here? If not, would you consider posting it here because I LOVED it and was very inspired as to what can be done with the spoken word.
Squee! I’m so glad you LOVED it. I’m not ready yet to post it online…. that movie, by the way, is a work in progress. I need to incorporate the census sheets and stuff like that into the movie itself and work on some of the visual setup.
For the presentation at Rootstech, I made some custom Keynote (presentation app) slides of the 1940 census page to help with the movie setup, but the movie’s not ready yet to stand on its own. So sorry. I’ll be sure to let you know when it appears.
As a consolation, here’s a link to the extra “eye candy” movie that I showed afterwards. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KooVC1B0Ato
In other news, I saw my mother yesterday and showed her the movie. She liked it, she really liked it!!