May 24, 2012

Telling the Stories of “The Greatest Generation” Just Got Easier

Telling the stories of “the greatest generation” just got easier
1940 Census released. Creates “tsunami” of interest
Aliza Giammatteo, Roots in the boot
By Aliza Giammatteo

The release of the 1940 census on April 2, 2012, after a 72 year embargo, created a frenzy among family history enthusiasts. Demand was so great that the National Archives website crashed, with 22 million hits in the first four hours; and the site has maintained an average of 40 million hits a day since then.

A treasure trove of information is now available for those Americans we proudly call “the greatest generation”. Chances are that we all know someone from that generation, so this census hits closer to home, which partially explains the “tsunami” of interest described by websites.

I’ll give you the scoop on why it’s so important, what to expect, where and how to look, how you can help; and last but not least, I’ll share a touching tale about how younger generations are using the census to make history in their own way.

What’s the buzz about?

If you’ve seen the TV shows about tracing your roots, you know the first record that experts usually look for is a census record; and there’s a reason for that. Census records are like a roadmap for the next phases of your search. In fact, they’re so important that neglecting census records in a family search is like doing a crossword puzzle without the clues.

Census records are only taken—and released—every 10 years, so anytime one is released it’s news, but why is this particular census so important? There are many reasons, but let’s start with this one: 1940 was at the end of the great depression and right before World War II, so it was an eventful time in American history, to put it mildly.

Many in this census survived one of this country’s biggest challenges only to immediately go into the next one. Is it any wonder why we call them “the greatest generation?” They did it all, and we’re better off for it. We can learn a lot from their stories and they deserve to be told.

1940 Census image
1940 census ad campaign poster. There was such a demand to see the 1940 census when it was released in April that the National Archives website crashed. 134 Million census images were downloaded in the first 10 days.

If that weren’t enough reason, ponder this: 21 million of the 132 million people enumerated in the 1940 census are still living. Who knows how many millions of others have parents, grandparents or great-grandparents in the census? Those people think of all the mysteries, the unanswered—or unasked—questions, the stories that could be told, if they could go back in time and access that information. Ah, but now they can! That’s the beauty of these records.

What will I find?

It contains the usual information that those familiar with 20th century censuses would expect, such as: immigration date and citizenship status, relationship to other members of the household, occupations, age, marital status, place of birth, etc. (all of which can serve as a guide to locating additional records. For example: if an immigration date of 1910 is listed then you can start looking for a ship record around the year 1910.)
In addition to that, there was new data collected in 1940, such as:
  •       Yearly income
  •       Highest level of education achieved
  •       Where they resided 5 years before
  •       Detailed employment information (13 columns!)*
*Because the US was still coming out of the great depression, detailed employment questions were asked to assess how the recovery going.

 “Nobody ever told me that!”

I hear that all the time from my clients and now that I’ve found my own family in the 1940 census, which contains relatives closer to my generation, I found myself saying the same thing.

One “nobody told me that!” moment was learning that my Great Grandfather Giuseppe “Joseph” D’Angelo had a year of college. That story was never passed down (maybe no one knew it?).  I thought my generation was the first in my direct line to attend college. But as is often the case with family oral history, it appears that story was wrong. I never imagined an immigrant ancestor of mine, born in the 1800s, attended college!  Now, thanks to this census, I can set the record straight.

early census record
Part of the 1940 census record for the author’s Great Grandfather Joseph V. (sic) D’Angelo, born in 1887. The “C1” mark (third column from right) means he had one year of college, which was news to the author’s family!

Where and how to look

The good news is the census is online and available for FREE. Several websites partnered up to meet demand; here are a couple:
The bad news, (for now), is that only Delaware and Nevada are indexed, meaning you cannot search for people by name yet, unless they resided in Delaware or Nevada in 1940. So, how do you search? The best way is by ED, or enumeration district. If you know the street they lived on, you can find the ED by plugging it into an ED finder. The websites above have ED-finding tools.

You can help make history!

To make the other states searchable by name, the census must be indexed, name by name, by volunteers. Volunteers review handwritten census pages and type the data into their computer. The census has 132 million names so that’s one huge undertaking!

It’s quite a challenge, but we’re up for it. Turns out, my generation may not be “the greatest generation”, but we’re not so bad either. A mind-blowing 113,000 people volunteered on the website and more sign up every day.

The volunteer websites also crashed from the overwhelming response. Now how often do you hear something like that—too many people volunteering? But even with all those volunteers, indexers will be needed for months to come, long after this story drops from the headlines, so if you’d like to help, please sign up. In this unprecedented effort, we’re making history in our own way.

My company’s Facebook page: will post updates when new states are completed, so subscribe or “like” our page to stay in the loop.

Lessons from “the greatest generation”

Neighbors helped neighbors during the great depression and WWII. They worked together to overcome challenges. My generation hasn’t faced the challenges they did, but with this census release, many in my generation are taking a page from their playbook and coming together to help one another in ways that you don’t ordinarily see.

I had a particularly tough puzzle I was trying to solve for an elderly client who told me it was her life-long dream to solve a family mystery. She suddenly became ill with heart problems and I didn’t know how much time I had to piece the puzzle together.

My heart was breaking at the thought of telling her we didn’t have an answer so I had to look for another solution. The 1940 census came out just in time. I put out an urgent request for help on a professional genealogy message board. Within minutes, I got responses from people all over the world offering to help me hunt for her family, page by page, in the un-indexed 1940 census. Responses came from as far away as Jerusalem. We pooled our talent and did the search together, pro bono.

We found what we were looking for and solved part of the mystery. This generation showed what they’re made of. I won’t argue the assertion that many in the younger generations are too focused on gadgets these days—cell phones and computers—but now an army of volunteers, many from those generations, are using those very skills to give something back to “the greatest generation” and show they’re ready to earn some stripes too.

If you’ve ever doubted if the younger generations still care about those old family stories, I hope you’ll remember the story above, and the tens of thousands of volunteers who are working feverishly to tell the stories of the “greatest generation”…all 132 million of them…one keystroke at a time.


Aliza Giammatteo is the Owner and Head Researcher at Roots in the Boot, an Italian genealogy business based in Las Vegas, NV. She can be reached at: or 646-255-9565.

One Response to “Telling the Stories of “The Greatest Generation” Just Got Easier”

  1. Thanks for a marvelous posting! I quite enjoyed reading it, you
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    I want to encourage you continue your great posts, have a nice morning!

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