1890 U. S. Census: Up in Smoke, Doused in Water

Let’s visit the U. S. Census again; this time the tragic story of the 1890 census. The 1890 census was historic for a couple of reasons like being the first census to employ an electronic counting device. It was enumerated in the Summer of 1890 and sadly, only about half of it survives today.

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

From the U. S. Census Bureau web site:

Authorizing Legislation — An act signed into law March 1, 1889 authorized the census of 1890, which was modeled after the 1880 enumeration.


Because June 1 was a Sunday, the 1890 enumeration began on June 2. The census employed 175 supervisors, with one or more appointed to each state or territory, except Alaska and the Indian Territory. Subdivisions assigned to a single enumerator were not to exceed 4,000 inhabitants. In cities designated by 1880 census results to have populations under 10,000, the enumeration was to be completed within two weeks. Enumerators were required to collect all information required by the act by a personal visit to each dwelling and family.

The 1890 questionnaire retained almost all of the inquiries from the 1880 census, and a few new questions were added. The 1890 census included a greater number of subjects than any previous census and more than would be included in those immediately following. New entries included questions about ownership and indebtedness of farms and homes; the names, as well as units served in, length of service and residences of surviving Union soldiers and sailors and the names of the widows of those who had died. Another new question dealt with race, including “Japanese” as a category for the first time, along with “Chinese,” “Negro,” “mulatto,” “quadroon,” “octoroon,” and “white.” 

The population schedule was changed so that a separate sheet was used for each family, irrespective of the number of persons included.

As in 1880, experts and special agents were hired to make special enumerations of manufactures, Indians living within the jurisdiction of the United States, and a separate enumeration of Alaska. Furthermore, the schedule collecting social statistics was withdrawn from enumerators; the work of obtaining statistics concerning mines and mining, fisheries, churches, education, insurance, transportation, and wealth, debt, and taxation, also was conducted by experts and special agents. 

For the first time, enumerators were given detailed maps to follow so they could account for every street or road and not stray beyond their assigned boundaries.

Technological Advancement

The 1890 census was notable as the first in which the electric tabulating system, invented by former Census Office employee Herman Hollerith, was used. Tabulation of the 1880 census results took almost a decade to complete, and officials hoped Hollerith’s machine would alleviate delays caused by relying on hand counts and rudimentary tallying machines to process data. 

Hollerith’s machine required information from the census questionnaires to be transferred to a card, which was hole-punched at various places to indicate the characteristics – age, sex, color, marital status, etc. – of a person enumerated. The cards were then run through an electronic tabulating machine, which, using metal pins to complete circuits through the punched holes, counted or cross-tabulated different characteristics.

You can download a free PDF file of the 1890 Census instructions here:

1890 Questionnaire:

For 1890, the Census Office changed the design of the population questionnaire. Residents were still listed individually, but a new questionnaire sheet was used for each family. Additionally, this was the first year that the census distinguished between different East Asian races.

Across the top of the sheet were several organizational questions:

  • Number of dwelling house in the order of visitation by enumerator
  • Number of families in the dwelling houseNumber of persons in the dwelling house
  • Number of this family in order of visitation by enumerator
  • Number of persons in this family
  • The following questions, listed by row number, were asked of each individual resident:
  • Christian name in full, and initial of middle name
  • Surname
  • Was this person a soldier, sailor, or marine during the Civil War (U.S.A. or C.S.A.), or the widow of such a person?
  • Relationship to the head of the family
  • Race
  • Enumerators were instructed to write “White,” “Black,” “Mulatto,” “Quadroon,” “Octoroon,” “Chinese,” “Japanese,” or “Indian.”
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Was the person single, married, widowed, or divorced?
  • Was the person married within the last year?
  • How many children was the person a mother of? How many of those children were living?
  • Person’s place of birth
  • Place of birth of person’s father
  • Place of birth of person’s mother
  • How many years has the person been in the United States?
  • Is the person naturalized?
  • Has the person taken naturalization papers out?
  • Profession, trade, or occupation
  • Number of months unemployed in the past year
  • How many months did the person attend school in the past year?
  • Can the person read?
  • Can the person write?
  • Can the person speak English? If not, what language does he speak?
  • Is the person suffering from an acute chronic disease? If so, what is the name of that disease and the length of time affected?
  • Is the person defective of mind, sight, hearing, or speech? Is the person crippled, maimed, or deformed? If yes, what was the name of his defect?
  • Is the person a prisoner, convict, homeless child, or pauper?
  • Depending on the person’s status in the questions in rows 22, 23,or 24, the enumerator would indicate on this line whether additional information was recorded about him on a special schedule

    The following questions, located at the end of each family’s questionnaire sheet were asked of each family and farm visited:
  • Was the home the family lived in hired, or was it owned by the head or by a member of the family?
  • If owned by a member of the family, was the home free from “mortgage incumbrance?”
  • If the head of the family was a farmer, was the farm which he cultivated hired or was it owned by him or a member of his family?
  • If owned by the head or member of the family, was the farm free from “mortgage incumbrance?”
  • If the home or farm was owned by the head or member of the family, and mortgaged, what was the post office address of the owner?

Unfortunately, in January 1921, a fire in the Commerce Department Building destroyed many of the 1890 census records. All files from Alabama through half of Kentucky (alphabetically) were destroyed. The National Archives has a great two part article on their web site about the fire and the loss of documents which you can find at these links:

“First in the Path of the Firemen” – The Fate of the 1890 Population Census, Part 1

“First in the Path of the Firemen” – The Fate of the 1890 Population Census, Part 2

How many times have you said “if I could only see that 1890 census!?”

I know,..Me too!

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