Saturday, April 13, 2013

On Rounds With A Census Taker: 1910

If you've ever looked at a census record you may have wondered exactly what a typical day making rounds was like. One Kalamazoo Telegraph reporter happened to be friends with an census taker and reportedly spent a morning with him. The unnamed enumerator was one of twenty-six who began canvassing Kalamazoo city in mid-April, 1910. [1] The census taker brought with him a badge provided by the U.S. government that he could keep when he had completed his duties. [1] In addition, each carried a parchment stating that the U.S. Government gave him/her the authority to enumerate the population. [2] Among his instructions, the supervisor told his staff to “listen closely when people talk.” Armed with their census books and full fountain pens they set off. [2]

Photo (from the Kalamazoo Evening Telegraph, source 1) presented with permission of the Kalamazoo Public Library.

No one was home at the first door they approached so the enumerator left a census schedule behind. He hoped they would have it filled out when he returned with his supplemental schedule (for any household not enumerated on the first attempt). [2] According to the reporter, an old man, Michael Flynn, came out and informed them the family was away for a few days. [2] He said he lived alone upstairs in the barn where he kept his shop. [2] Flynn continued, “When we came over from County Cork there were five of us. Soon the first two children died. Nora, my wife, went eight years ago too, and now all I have is my boy Terence. He lives in Chicago.” All the while, the enumerator scribbled everything onto his form. “'How old are you?' he asked. 'Let me see,' pondered Flynn. 'I was naturalized in '70 and then I was 34 years old. That makes--' But the enumerator already had him down as 74, widowed, blank under number of years married, three children born and one living, born in Ireland, father and mother both born in Ireland, immigrated in 1861, naturalized, speaks English, mechanic at odd jobs, working on own account, able to read and write, rents home, veteran of the union army, and possessed of his faculties of seeing and hearing.” [3]

During the course of the morning they found numerous people away from home. When wives couldn't recall their husband's ages more second visits would be required. Two traveling men, however, were enumerated from information provided by family members. “It is possible I am duplicating enumerators in other cities with these two men. . . We take in all hotels. But nearly every traveling man who has a home will tell an enumerator so and thus be left out of the enumeration in the city in which he happens to be visiting. The home is the only basis for accuracy,” explained the census man. [3]

At one neat, little house they came upon a woman who evidently hailed from the Netherlands. She feigned ignorance of English, but when it became clear to her that neither taxes nor money was wanted she “suddenly developed a very good knowledge of the English language. She poured forth the desired information so rapidly that Uncle Sam's census taker had to sling ink at lightning speed to keep up with her flow of talk.” [3]

At another house, a Polish woman really didn't understand English. Fortunately, the census taker was prepared, and displayed his proclamation printed in Polish. The woman then brought her daughter from within to translate. [3] One stubborn Polish man refused to answer any questions, only responding “to he--” with the police and the government, even when threatened with fines and imprisonment. [4] The area supervisor would have to try wringing the information from him. [4]

According to the reporter, 74 people in 40 households were enumerated during the course of the morning. [3] “At that rate I'll finish my district in a little over a week. I only have about 12,000 names to get,” the enumerator told his friend. [3]

I was curious to see if I could find the mentioned Michael Flynn in the 1910 census to see where in the city the Telegraph reporter had been. Imagine my surprise when I found no such person in Kalamazoo county when I searched both and Perhaps, I thought, his name was mangled so that it didn't turn up. I tried eliminating his given name, expanded the birth range and didn't bother to include his birth location. I looked in the 1900 census as well and didn't find anything there either. The closest I came was a Michael Madigan of the right approximate age, birthplace, marital status and with one son living with him. Did the reporter change the name to “Michael Flynn” to protect the man's privacy? I have no idea. Now I don't know how much I can trust the article. If the rest is fairly accurate then it gives us a glimpse into how census data about our relatives was collected and that it wasn't strictly a Q&A session.

  1. “Kalamazoo Census Takers Start Out,” Kalamazoo [Mich.] Evening Telegraph, 15 April 1910, page 1, column 2, digital images, Kalamazoo Public Library ( accessed 30 March 2013), Kalamazoo Telegraph Collection.
  2. Kalamazoo Evening Telegraph, 15 April 1910, page 14, column 3.
  3. Kalamazoo Evening Telegraph, 15 April 1910, page 14, column 4.
  4. “Kazoo Census Will Be Shy One Stubborn Pole,” Kalamazoo [Mich.] Evening Telegraph, 30 April 1910, page 1, column 3, digital images, Kalamazoo Public Library ( accessed 30 March 2013), Kalamazoo Telegraph Collection.


  1. The next time I'm blaming the enumerator when I can find an ancestor I'll remember this post :)

  2. I agree with M.J., now I feel bad for bashing them! I've shared your post on my Favorites for April 19. Thanks for a great read!

    1. Well, there were some enumerators who apparently just wanted a quick buck and made things up (see my post Curb Stoning The Census). However, I'm thankful for all the ones who diligently did their job (and who wrote the information legibly).

      Thanks for sharing my post, Heather!