1940 census

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably heard that the National Archives recently released an online version of the 1940 census. I hadn’t thought much about it until last weekend when my brother pulled up info on the family that lived in the house we grew up in (built in 1919). I love a good research challenge and instantly wanted to know more about chezerbey.

When we bought our house in ’06, we ordered the 1930’s photo above from the Washington archives. Along with the photo we received a fact sheet of sorts listing the basic info on the home. Between that and our neighbors, here’s what we know:

Our house was built in 1910 and the carport was added in 1965. The previous owner was a man in his mid-90’s who had been a car mechanic and had lived there since the early ’80’s (he moved into a nursing home a year prior to us buying the house). Prior to that, we know very little and that’s why it was so interesting to uncover the census info.

After an hour or so of hunting (I started with our basic location and then sifted through 15-20 pages of entries to find our house), BAM! This is what I found (click to enlarge):

In 1940, our house was home to Carl and Elsa Nelson and their two teenage children Albert and Alice. Carl and Elsa came to Seattle from Sweden, but the kids were born in Washington. (Our neighborhood has a rich Scandinavian history so we weren’t surprised by this.) Carl worked as a laborer at a brickyard and Elsa stayed at home. The house was valued at $2,000.

I’ve often assumed that because our house is relatively small, it had always been home to a single person or couple. But now, a family of four! With TEENAGERS!

When the house was built, there was no interior stair that connected the main floor to the basement. In fact, the dog-legged version that we eventually demolished looks to have been added in the 60’s, so it’s unlikely that anyone lived in the basement before that. So how did a family of four survive in a one-bedroom house? Did Albert and Alice sleep in the living room? At any rate, it was reassuring in a sense. If the Nelson family could live small, so can we.

Anyone else dig up info on their pre-1940 home? I’m also curious if the teenagers (who would be in their ’70s) are still alive and living in the area. A quick Google search didn’t yield much and with such common names I didn’t dig too deeply. 

[Psst! Speaking of small, we entered chezerbey in Apartment Therapy’s Small Cool 2012 contest. You have through next week to “favorite” us and then the top submissions from each size category move on to final voting where the grand prize is FIVE-THOUSAND DOLLARS! That’s 2.5x chezerbey’s 1940 value!]


25 Responses to “1940 census”

  1. brismod says:

    I love hearing other people’s house history. Our old house was owned by two spinster sisters and their brother. One of the sisters was an author and we just got a copy of her book. It’s fascinating. xx

    • chezerbey says:

      So cool! I totally wish I could go back in time and see what a day in the life of our house was like during the different decades.

  2. Staci says:

    What a great idea! I think I’ll do a little research on who lived in our house at the time… would have been brand new!

  3. tara says:

    Oooh, I love looking at old records. I too am curious how people in the past lived in such small homes. In the home we used to live in, our landlords raised three kids and the house only had two tiny bedrooms, and a very dinky bathroom. There was also evidence of the house having a floor furnace, and I always wondered about the sanity of the mother, trying to corral three little kids away from such a dangerous apparatus, in such a small house. No such news on the house we bought, we’ll have to wait for the 1960 census to find out! Thank you for a peek into the past. My grandpa grew up in Seattle in the 1930’s, I love the photos of your home, because it always makes me think of him.

    • chezerbey says:

      It’s crazy, isn’t it? Then again, this was the depression era so I guess the standards were different. =)

  4. Irene Garvin says:

    I finally found something, they did not list streets at all for our area! There was some debate between the children as to when our house was built vs when it was deeded (our area kept terrible records if they didn’t lose them) and it looks like it couldn’t possibly have been before the 1940s since their dad was still living at home and single! Looks like we’ll have to wait another decade to see more. I did find the father in our house was in the tire business (explains all the tire stickers found plastered all over the garage)

    • chezerbey says:

      I noticed that one document we had lists 1915, but everything else in 1910. Seems odd to get that stuff mixed up, but who knows what record keeping was like then. I think the only reason the state has a good photographic record from the ’30s was b/c it was probably a WPA job or something.

  5. casacaudill says:

    I’d been thinking about the census more in terms of my family’s history but this is a great opportunity to find out about our house! The only thing we know for sure is that it was sold to a crazy lady – and I mean CRAZY – in 1993 and she sold it to us. At some point in the 1980s someone else lived here and did a horrible renovation of the kitchen and bathroom. In the 1970s someone added aluminum windows – poorly. Beyond that we’re in the dark.

    • chezerbey says:

      Have you tried checking with the planning department to see if there are any past records of building permits, etc? We found a little bit of info that way, but even the microfiche records only went back so far. Good luck!

  6. Ericka D says:

    I guess I *have* been living under a rock bc your post is the first I’d heard of the 1940 census. Thanks so much for the tip! Natrually I jumped on-line and did some research. I live in a 1000 sq foot home built shortly after the big 1906 SF quake. In 1940, a family of 6 (5 adults and 1 child) *and* 1 adult tenant shared this 1000 sq foot space! And I thought I didn’t have enough closet space! 🙂

    • chezerbey says:

      Haha, Kyle told me after I posted about it that he hadn’t heard of it until I told him. I must have been listening to NPR at the right times. =) That’s crazy about your place…puts things into perspective!

  7. Doug in SF says:

    I learned my >550 sq. ft. home (part of a larger structure built in 1914) was also occupied by a family from Sweden in 1940. A mother, and her two adult (both in their 20’s) sons. While technically it’s a two bedroom… well, see my first sentence. Their rent was $17.50 a month.

  8. Bunny says:

    Have you tried your local library? Ours has all the old phone books which list by address and name. We found out a bunch of interesting info that way. (For example, our 1922 house was owed by the local coca-cola rep which explains the uncharacteristic red and white exterior color scheme.)
    I did check out the 1940 census and found some more info too. Thanks for posting!

    • chezerbey says:

      Hmm…I haven’t tried the library and had no idea that old phone books would list by address too. Thanks for the tip!

  9. divinemslulu says:

    That’s so interesting! I’m really curious about my own older home now… I’ll have to do some research of my own, thanks for the inspiration 🙂 My house was built in the 40’s and was quite the fixer upper, it’s come together nicely now and actually looks like it belongs with the rest of the upgraded neighborhood! I look forward to reading more and following along.

  10. Kelly says:

    I definitely have been living under a rock because I had no idea, but I am so grateful for your post. My husband and I just bought our house, which was built in 1860, last summer. We haven’d had a chance to go to the Recorded of Deeds office to research the property history, but this is census is a little window!

    We found out a guy named Joseph McKenna and his sister rented our place for $20 a month. He was an umemployed machinist and she worked in a wool mill. They were both never married. One of these days I’ll have to go to the Deed office and find out more.

  11. Sara says:

    Hadn’t heard of this archive either, but looked up our Seattle house and block. A 60-ish couple lived in our house then, but across the street a family of 7! lived in a teeny 2 bedroom house.

  12. Isabelle says:

    Our house is from 1873, and as our part of town was an independent village until 1934, the people have done a lot of research on every brick in the village. From that, we know that our house was the house of the barrel maker (there were vineyards right behind the house until the early 1900’s), who had his shop in the basement. There is some “rumor” that the house must have also served as the public laundry place as there was a stream/ well under the house – we need to dig and research this information more deeply. We found beautiful photos in the city archives of large families standing in front of the house, who all lived in this tiny space (about 1000 sqfeet) excluding the bathroom which was later added by transforming the goat shed. We know from the neighbours about the last 3 owners, who all lived with two children in this space with the 2 girls sharing the bedroom which is about 65 sqfeet *omg”. Incredible. We will go back to the “notary” to try and get the names and entries on the house in the next weeks/ months. In fact, I am grieving when I see a lot of beautiful houses and barns being tron down without any hesitation while there have been some really nice projects around here to modernise them and bring them into the 21st century.

  13. Sometimes you can find people on pipl.com -search your own name and you’ll be amazed, if not horrified! You search the name, and state/city. I don’t know how far it goes back, but I’ve had very effective searches for more recent people. Good luck!

  14. melanie c says:

    ah so fun! i just looked up a couple of the places i’ve lived in Hoboken, NJ. My current place is a 2 unit brick row – 5 bedrooms total for the building. There was a couple that rented it, and 7 other “lodgers” – all men, middle aged, some married, that did blue collar jobs, and mostly from Germany. (do you think they lived there and sent money home?) The previous place we lived in was a 4-unit brick row, each having 2 bedrooms and about 800 sq ft. One of those units had a family of 3, the other, a family of 3 plus one of their 50 year old sisters! The owner was brick layer – and now that answers why our place had a most unique and intricate brick staircase!

  15. Lynn says:

    Thanks so much for this! I had no idea this census info was available online. Found out a family of 5 from Canada were living in my 2-br, 1,500 sqft house in SF, paying $45/month rent. The dad made $4,000/year as the assistant manager of an insurance company, more than double what any other people on the nearby pages were (it was a decidedly blue collar neighborhood). Interestingly, I rent the house out now, and my tenants are paying the same percentage of their income as he was. But what I love most, and why I bought the house, is that all the owners and tenants in between did an excellent job of preserving the home’s original character. Wish I could find them all and thank them 🙂

  16. amanda says:

    I don’t have an old home (yet) but I have a “big family in a little space” story: My grandparents raised four children from birth to college-age in a one bedroom, 600 sq ft Chicago apartment. My dad and his two brothers shared the bedroom, my aunt slept in the dining room and my grandparents in the livingroom on a fold-out couch. It still blows my mind, I can’t imagine how they did it. And without killing each other, as my brother and I (though I love him dearly) would likely have done if we were teenagers in that household- and there’s just two of us!

    BTW, I’ve been kind of stalking your blog since I discovered it a few weeks ago but have never felt inclined to comment until now. Just wanted to say I love your style. I studied architecture for a year before switching majors, and I’ve never really been sold on the mid-century modern style but you two do it in a way that feels like a home and not a museum exhibit, if that makes any sense, haha. Anyway, I’ve really enjoyed reading back and discovering the evolution of chezerbey.

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