23 March 2009

1940 Census Substitute?

I am wondering outloud here:

Why did Ancestry.com release what they are calling a 1940 census substitute? The actual 1940 census will be released in 3 years--scheduled for 2012. That's not all that far in the future.

Ancestry released a series of directories for the 1890 era with the same intent several years ago. I can understand that, given that much of the 1890 census no longer exists. Also it would be nice if Ancestry continued to expand this part of their online collection.

There were several privately published census substitutes for states whose 1790 or 1800 census schedules were similarly destroyed. That kind of "substitute" makes perfect sense. In those cases, tax lists were usually used as the substitute.

For 1890 and 1940, use of the word "substitute" is a poor one in my opinion. For pre-1850 censuses, tax lists were a reasonable substitute given the individuals likely listed on each record. Census records only listed heads of household and tax lists generally listed male property owners. During the pre-1850 census era there was a high proportion of census enumerees who also appeared on tax lists. While I do not have concrete proof of this, it seems reasonable.

Fast forward to the substitutes for 1890 and 1940. Those censuses were every name censuses. One of their goals was to list every resident of the United States. City directories make no claim to listing every name living in a town. It seems to this writer that the use of the word "substitute" is a poor one for censuses of the 1890 and 1940 era. I'm glad to have the directories online, don't get me wrong. It is just that the word choice for the title is poor one.

And why we need a "substitute" for a record that will be released just a little over three years is beyond me as well.