Hidden History in 1940 Census Indexes

Pittard siblings photo

The picture is a group shot of the Pittard siblings taken in 1945. Elizabeth Pittard Mills is in the black dress with white collar.

As additional indexes to the 1940 US census continue to be released, I find myself rushing to the internet to see who else I can uncover.  I’ve already bored countless people with how cool it was to find my one-year-old dad with his parents in Indiana.  As of now, I have found both sets of my–and my husband’s—grandparents, and (of course) lots of aunts, uncles and cousins.  The best part of all has been reading the answers they gave to the questions.

For instance, occupations:  I expected to see humdrum, run of the mill, every day type answers.  There were farmers, milkmen, laborers,  etc.  What I didn’t expect to see was the occupation of my husband’s maternal grandmother:  A fur operator in the retail fur industry.  What in the world was a fur operator?  I don’t know about you, but I’d never heard of one!  So I Googled it, and at Careers.org I found out it is a person who operates a sewing machine that sews furs.  This, according to family stories, fits into what she did for a living.  Before moving to Seattle, Wash., Howard and Elsie Mills lived in Juneau, Alaska.  While there, she raised minks, which she then turned into fur coats.  By the way, I have been informed that minks are mean little critters.

The next perplexing answer I saw was the “American born abroad” status given to Howard Mills’ mother, Elizabeth.  Elizabeth Pittard Mills was born November 1869 in Martock, Somerset, England.  She arrived in New York in 1882 with her father, stepmother and three siblings, according to the records I have.  This left me scratching my head as to why they would list her as an American born abroad.  At the bottom of the census page it states:

Col. 16 Citizenship of the Foreign Born
Naturalized            Na
Having first papers        Pa
Alien                Al
American Citizen born abroad    Am Cit
In prior censuses she has been listed as naturalized.  What in the world would make her (yes, it was her that answered the question—thanks to the mark on this census designating the responder) say that she was an American born abroad.  Or, could it have been the discretion of the census taker?

The most interesting, and enlightening, finds were concerning the money questions.  Thanks to an inflation calculator I found online from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I have been having quite the time calculating the worth of the property and the income of my relatives in today’s numbers.  The numbers seem tiny, but are usually pretty reasonable when you adjust them to modern day.  For instance, $1 in 1940 is $16.39 today.  How ‘bout them apples?

One good example is my mother’s parents’ home in Wayne, Mich.  My grandfather, Charles Arvin, built the house from a kit in 1938/1939.  It is listed as being worth about $2,000.  Today that would be a value of $47, 534.73…well, without taking into consideration “location, location, location” as a realtor might point out.  For an annual income of $1,290 ($21, 144.76), I don’t think they were doing too poorly.

Thankfully, I have been lucky enough to have the majority of my family state indexes up already.  All I have to do is mine the information, and have a few more “what-in-the-world” moments.

Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Shannon Bennett of Locust Grove, Va.

Looking to pull your own family secrets out of the census? Check out The Genealogist’s Census Pocket Reference, on sale for $11.99 from ShopFamilyTree.com!

4 thoughts on “Hidden History in 1940 Census Indexes

  1. Illinois was one of the last states to become indexed, so I had to bide my time locating my parents in 1940 Chicago; 2 months before I was born at Cook County Lyingin Hospital! I had attempted to locate them at two of their known addresses to no avail…that name indexing is GREAT!

  2. I have a correction to what I wrote sent to my by my mother-in-law. It seems that I got my timeline off a bit. Sorry!

    “When she could not work in Alaska at teaching because she was a married woman, she got a job in a fur store and learned to put in linings of fur coats. She did this by hand, and even at an old age, she could still do a “blind” stitch that you could not see even though it was done from the top of the cloth, not underneath. Now when you found her career in WA was cool, did not know she continued until you told me. She did not raise minks until they moved to Sandy, Utah outside of Salt Lake after leaving west coast. She only did it for a few years to sell for money. She said she quit because they were too ill-tempered. I also think getting a teaching job after the war may have helped her decision.”

  3. Don’t discount the possibility that she really was an American born abroad. As far as we can understand from the various naturalization and immigration records, my grandmother was an American citizen before she ever set foot in the U.S…. because her Italian father had been traveling back and forth for years and had managed to secure citizenship. In the late 1800s and early 1900s citizenship was much easier to obtain than it is today.

    Maybe it’s a similar case with your relatives. What is the naturalization status listed for each of her parents? You mention a stepmother; perhaps if it wasn’t the father or stepmother, the citizen was her biological mother.

    Worth checking into.

  4. Emily: Thanks for those thoughts, really something to consider. Elizabeth’s mother, Ann Tachell, died in Wales after her second child was born. Her father, Thomas, married her mother’s younger sister Jane. They had 3 more children in Wales before immigrating to the US about 1882. I have them as a family in the 1871 England Census and the 1881 Wales census and Thomas in the 1851 and 1861 England Censuses. They all list themselves as naturalized citizens on the 1900 and later US Censuses with an arrival date of 1882. This is what lead to my confusion. All of the information I have ever found on her has always listed her and her parents as being English, naturalized citizen, and an arrival date of 1882. Why now the change? Could it have been because of the looming war? Trying to prove that she was an American completely? I don’t know. It could have been that her mother’s family was American. I just don’t know.

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