NEW YORK (Reuters) - Actress Ginger Rogers won an Oscar, McDonald’s opened its first restaurant, there were only 48 U.S. states, and the average annual salary was $1,299.
The year was 1940. Actor Al Pacino was an infant. James and Mary were the most popular baby names and the 132 million people living in the United States took part in a national census that was released last month by the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) after a 72-year embargo required by law.
Unlike earlier censuses, which were released on microfilm, the 1940 census data is available online.
Genealogists and historians say it contains a treasure trove of information about people who survived the Great Depression and provides a form of time travel for anyone looking for information about lost relatives or friends.
To help them uncover the stories hidden in the data an army of more than 100,000 online volunteers across the U.S. working for the 1940 U.S. Census Community Project (the1940census.com/dashboard), a collaborative effort between NARA, FamilySearch.org, Archives.com, findmypast.com and ProQuest, is transcribing the census information into a searchable index.
When they are done, hopefully by the end of the year, anyone can search the 1940 census index online by name for free to discover stories they didn’t know existed.
For Donna Hawkins, a 64-year-old retired state worker, grandmother and volunteer from New Oxford, Pa., being an indexer and arbitrator on the project is her way of learning about her ancestors.
“This is a way to give back because I wouldn’t have found members of my family if someone wasn’t indexing,” she said in an interview.
“I knew of a lot of these people, that’s what it means to me.”
So far nearly 42 percent of the entire index of 132 million people is complete, including six states that are published, 10 more that are about to be published and eight others that are 50 percent or more complete.
In a record-breaking day 34,947 volunteers busily transcribed the data. More than 3 million records were indexed in a 24-hour period.
“The volunteers are indexing like crazy,” said David Rencher, the chief genealogist for FamilySearch and a spokesperson for the project. “The way things are going I don’t think there is any way that we won’t have this done by the end of the year.”
Rencher described the census data as a great grab bag of information about the millions of people who took part in it who are still alive, and for everyone who can remember a relative who was living in 1940.
“What really is a standout for me is watching the migration,” Rencher said. “You are coming out of the Depression and it is just before World War Two and many people listed in 1940 will not survive to the 1950 census because they will be killed in the war.”
In 1940 along with questions about name, gender, age and relationship to head of household, education and salary, which Hawkins said “wasn’t a heck of a lot,” people were asked for the first time where they were five years earlier in 1935.
Rencher believes the information could provide answers for families who had lost contact with relatives who had fled Europe at the onset of World War Two. It is a stepping stone for uncovering the stories.
“That is when the magic happens,” he said.
Hawkins agrees that the project holds enormous possibilities for anyone searching for their ancestry.
Since the census data was released in April she has indexed or arbitrated more than 10,000 names, and she isn’t even doing it full time. For accuracy each entry is indexed twice and any inconsistencies are sent to an arbitrator.
“You start to see the movements,” she said. “I think it is important. I have more family. I don’t know where they lived. I have completely lost track of them. But I have to wait till it (the indexing) is done and I might find some distant cousins I didn’t know I had.”
Hawkins, an amateur genealogist who has traced one branch of her family back six generations, has already discovered facts about her family and revelations about how people lived seven decades ago.
“There is so much information. I didn’t know my father did not have a job in 1940 and was looking for work. I am finding out, on a personal level, things I didn’t know. I didn’t know about their education. I didn’t know where they worked, I didn’t know what they did. I think I am closer to my family,” she said.
“It’s addictive. I’ve told people it is better than Angry Birds,” she added, referring to the popular videogame.
Reporting by Patricia Reaney, editing by Paul Casciato