In: Ask A Genealogist
What Happened To The 1890 Census?
AJT of Philadelphia, PA asks…
“I’ve been looking all over for a place that has the 1890 Census records, but I can’t find any. Why not? Where can I look?”
This is probably one of the most common questions asked. Basically, you are not going crazy. For the most part, they don’t exist.
On the afternoon of January 10, 1921, the Commerce Building fireman, James Foster, reported seeing smoke in the basement where some of the Census Schedules were reportedly stored. The Fire Department was called.
The Fire Department extinguished the fire and contained the damage to the basement, but flooded the area where the records were stored in the process. Most of the schedules were believed to be located in a basement vault that was considered to be fireproof and waterproof. The records remained in the flooded basement overnight. The next day the damage was assessed. The Archivist performing the assessment found a small broken pane of glass which had allowed the water to seep in and damage the schedules that were on the bottom shelves of the storage racks. The schedules that were damaged were later opened, dried and recopied. However, the 1890 schedules were located outside the vault. It was determined that the 1890 records were ruined and that no method of restoration would restore them.
Census director, Sam Rogers wrote to Secretary of Commerce.
“…a cursory examination show that the census schedules from 1790 to and including 1870, with the exception of those for 1830 and 1840, are on the fifth floor of the Commerce Building and have not been damaged. The schedules of the censuses of 1830, 1840, 1880, 1900 and 1910 have been damaged by water, and it is estimated that ten percent of these schedules will have to be opened and dried and some of them recopied.”
He went on to explain the condition of the 1890 schedules
“Approximately 25 percent of these schedules have been destroyed and it is estimated the 50 percent of the remainder have been damaged by water, smoke and fire.”
The cause of that 1921 fire was never determined. Some speculated that a worker was smoking and that started the blaze. Some speculated that the stacks of paper spontaneously combusted.
Based on rumors that the government intended to destroy the records, several writing campaigns were undertaken in hopes of preserving the surviving records. Because of this, 1890 schedules survived for many years outside of the Census Department. But their demise was just around the corner.
In 1921, Census Director William Stuart wrote that the records would gradually deteriorate in their current place. So the records were brought back to the Census building.
In 1932, Chief Clerk of the Bureau of Census sent a list of papers he thought needed to be destroyed to the Librarian of Congress. These papers included the original 1890 schedules that had survived the fire and flood. Nobody seems to know why the Census Records were included. Congress authorized the destruction of the papers listed. So, in 1934, the remaining schedules were destroyed by the Department of Commerce.
Despite this horrible fate, some of the original schedules still exist. In 1942 a bundle of the 1890 Illinois schedules were discovered during a move. Then in 1953 more fragments from a few additional states (Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and the District of Columbia) were discovered. These few remnants have all been microfilmed and are available through your local library, state archive, and Family History Centers. Don’t expect too much though. The entire collection resides on just three microfilms.
So, what are your options? Hmmmm… Good question. Several companies and organizations have compiled a collection of data files known as “1890 Census Substitutes”. For the most part, the “substitutes” are City Directories that provide names, addresses and sometime occupations for working adults in a household. Unfortunately, they don’t provide the depth of information that the 1890 Census would have provided. But since your options are fairly limited, they may be your only “indexed” alternative.
A second option that is available to you is to look for a State Census that may have taken place around the same time. For instance, in 1892, there was a New York State Census taken. This census doesn’t have the depth of the federal census either, but it should give you all the members of the household. The problem is that few of these censuses have been indexed by the various services, but they are on microfilm.
Be sure to check out “First in the Path of the Firemen - The Fate of the 1890 Population Census” By Kellee Blake