With the release of the film, Elvis, this year, and Being the Ricardos last year, it seems America is riding a wave of nostalgia for the 1950s. One cannot help but wonder if all this retro-cinema took inspiration from the release of the 1950 United States Census earlier this year.
[If a year ends with the numeral 2, then rest assured it is a big year for genealogists and historians alike. Each census is kept private for 72 years, so the 1960 Census will not be released until 2032. Should we brace ourselves for a renewed summer of love in 10 years?]
If your idea of the 1950s comes from the old sitcom, Happy Days, a gentle reminder of the McCarthy hearings (1954), the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956), and Brown v. Board of Education (1954) helps to reimagine the racial and political divisions of the mid-20th Century as wide as they are today. Due to World War II and the Great Depression in the previous decades, there had not been much development in housing: only 23% of the population lived in the suburbs while most people lived and worked in overcrowded cities (Census.gov). The city of Greensboro, North Carolina, saw an increase of 24.2 % in population since 1940, whereas High Point increased by only 3.7% with a total population of 39,930. In addition, the Southeast had the largest portion of the US population living in rural areas.
Reproductions of the Ricardo’s living room and kitchen in the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Museum in Jamestown, New York. Photographed by Carol M. Highsmith in 2018. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Despite an increasing disparity, throughout the 1950s people shared a love for television no matter where they lived. When the decade began, fewer than 20% of Americans had a television, but by the end of the Fifties, most families owned a console, bringing TV totals to 90% (Encyclopedia.com). Americans had a new pastime, and it would seem a new homogeneity.
Our 1950s television icon, Lucille Ball, provides a perfect introduction to the 1950 Census.
This portion of the 1950 Census shows Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz living with both a butler (George Barker) and a maid (Willia Mae Barker). The census-taker has misspelled Arnaz. Because Desi appears on a sample line (designated with a circled number 8), there were additional questions for him at the bottom of the census page, shown highlighted in the lower illustration. Always check to see if any of your family members have had to answer additional survey questions.
Here, we find Lucy and her husband, Desi, living on Devonshire Street in Los Angeles, California. In many ways, the couple appears just the way we’d expect to find them: Lucy is working as an actress for the movie studios (that same year, she made the films, Fancy Pants and The Fuller Brush Girl); Desi is working as a musician with an orchestra.
Looking at the census, we can see that Lucy is actually a few years older than Desi. The census shows that Desi was born in Cuba, while Lucy was born in Montana—wait a minute—Montana? All of Ball’s biographers agree that she was actually born in New York. What’s up with that? Since Lucy’s family moved back to Montana shortly after her birth, it is perhaps possible that in her youth, she thought she was a Montana girl, no matter Lucy’s own mother’s insistence that she gave birth in her hometown of Jamestown, New York. However, according to Distinctly Montana, “when Ball went to New York in the 1920s, she began telling people she was from Montana and continued to publicly state she was from Montana for many years after.” We can certainly confirm this version of the story just by looking at the 1950 census. Apparently, Lucy really was fond of saying she was from Montana!
For over a hundred years, the Census Bureau gradually added more and more questions, until 1940 when they started to work their way back down by offering a lengthier survey only to selected sample lines while keeping the questionnaire—for most of the population—at a minimum. The 1950 Census continues with that pattern of simplification, surveying even fewer segments of the public. For example, in 1940, the census asks two persons per census page about their usual occupation outside of their current employment. The 1950 Census further restricts this very same question to just one single person in the very last sample line. In our example above, Desi appears in a sample line indicated by the circled number (8), which appears every fifth line down the page. (All other lines are indented.) The extra census questions for Desi appear at the bottom of the page.
From this additional section, we learn that Lucy and Desi are doing quite well, having made over $10,000 in the past year, despite the fact that their hit television show wouldn’t premiere for another three years. In addition, it looks like Desi finished his education at the 12th grade (in Cuba).
Already I have gleaned quite a bit about the famous couple that I did not know: that Lucy was older than Desi, and with a little extra research I found an interesting story about Ball’s heritage to boot. Imagine how much might be learned by researching one’s own family.
The 1950 Census finds Elvis Presley at home with his parents, Vernon and Gladys, as well as his grandmother, Minnie. The census-taker has misspelled this family’s last name, too! Since Vernon is listed on a sample line (designated with a circled number 20), he must answer additional questions at the bottom of the page (highlighted).
Our other 1950s icon, Elvis Presley, is fifteen years old and living with his parents in Memphis, Tennessee, at the time of the census. Here we find him with his grandmother, Minnie, as well. It is always a great boon to researchers to find an extra generation in any given household. Each member of the Presley household was born in Mississippi, and we can see that Elvis’s father, Vernon, is working for a paint factory. Like Desi, Vernon appears on a sample line with the circled number 20. We learn from the sample questions that the family had only recently moved to this address and that Vernon had not completed the 6th grade. Even so, he worked steadily the previous year (52 weeks) earning over $1800. A little additional income came in from wages collected by others in the household.
The survey of the Presley family in the 1950 Census is only three short years before Elvis would start a long recording career, beginning with Sun Records in Memphis. The photo shows Sun Recording Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis made is first recording shortly after graduating from high school. Photographed by Carol M. Highsmith in 2021. Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
The 1950 Census finds John Coltrane living with his mother, Alice, on 12th Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As we can see, Coltrane is already working as a musician in cafés and hotels. At the time, he was performing with Dizzy Gillespie and his big band with whom he played until 1951. (Philadelphiamusicalliance.org)
The 1950 Census also finds High Point’s own recording superstar, John Coltrane, living with his supportive mother, Alice Blair Coltrane, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 1950s proved to be Coltrane’s formative years. After serving his country, Coltrane used the GI Bill to pay for his education at the Granoff School of Music (Wikipedia), studying with Dennis Sandole. According to the census, Coltrane is already working as a musician, performing at cafes and hotels. He would later work with Jazz greats Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, to mention only a few. By 1957, he would release his solo debut album.
John Coltrane’s house and living room at 1511 North 33rd Street, Philadelphia. Coltrane and his mother moved here in 1952. The historical marker currently outside the house reads, “John W. Coltrane, a pioneering African American Jazz musician, composer, saxophonist. Coltrane used African and Indian elements to create a distinctive style which at first shocked audiences but ultimately gained wide acceptance. He lived here 1952-1958.” Photographs for the Historic American Landscapes Survey, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
With Ball, Presley, and Coltrane, the 1950 Census allows researchers to catch an intimate glimpse of each star just before they reached celebrity status. The census will yield equally intimate details about your own relatives. Fortunately, an army of volunteers indexed the census in a relatively short period, and the database is now fully searchable for North Carolina.
Accessing the 1950 census…
For those of you who are interested in viewing the 1950 Census right away from your own home (bear in mind, some parts of the country are still being indexed), anyone with a library card can access Heritage Quest which is owned by Ancestry.com. The database is part of NCLive to which all NC library cardholders have access. You will want to make certain your library account is up to date because you will have to enter your library card number in order to gain access to the website. Once you are on the NCLive website, the easiest way to find the database amidst the vast array of resources is simply to type “HeritageQuest” right into the search box and it should be the first link provided under the heading “Best Bets.” From the Heritage Quest website, scroll down to the bottom of the page and select the “Search US Census” box. If you scroll down to the bottom of the census search page, you can select specifically the 1950 Census, otherwise your search will come up with results for all the census years at the same time.
If you would like assistance, or if you’d like to research other databases, please feel free to drop by the Heritage Research Center at the High Point Public Library and tell us you’d like some pointers on how to get started researching the 1950 Census. At the Library, you will find thousands of other databases included with Ancestry.com that are not included with their sister site, Heritage Quest. Since researchers must access Ancestry at the library (there is no remote connection), the convenience of working from home on Heritage Quest often offsets the thrill of jumping down all the rabbit holes available on Ancestry. Plus, you can “rock around the clock”—as the bestselling single of the 1950s says—whereas here at the Library we’re open only 9-8 Tuesday – Thursday, and then 9-6 Monday, Friday and Saturday (closing 1-2 for lunch on Saturday).
Be there or be square!
For more information on researching your family history, visit the staff at the Heritage Research Center or start with these links for resources and tips:
Stephan Rantz is a Research Associate in the Heritage Research Center at the High Point Public Library. Contact him at 336.883.3637 or email@example.com.