09 September 2015

Census Records- An Essential Building Block for Your House History

If you've ever poked around ancestry.com, or talked to a genealogist, or looked into your own family history, then you've likely learned that census records, especially the U.S. Federal Census taken every 10 years, are one of the most essential sets of historical records for genealogical research.

The Essential Building Block

Family researchers are instructed to try to gather as many census records for their ancestors as possible, and upon viewing a digital image of a census population schedule, it is easy to see why. One can learn the make-up of each family unit, their ages, relationship to head of household, occupation, whether in school, what state or country born in, where their parents were born, and in some years even whether they owned a radio or not!

Although the original purpose of the US Census was to merely count the young country's population and to accurately apportion numbers of congressmen to each state, the scope of the Census expanded vastly over the years and today provides a ton of meaningful statistical analysis to aid policymakers and the population at large. Every once in a while you'll hear a news story citing a new statistic from the Census Bureau, such as this one, or this one. Population schedules like the one above are currently publicly available up to the 1940 Census and are a boon to genealogists. Nowadays they are indexed and easily searchable, making them an easy place to turn early in research.

Why does this matter to us as we research our home? 

So? How does this help me determine the construction date of the house? Well, why it may not directly help determine the construction date, a house history research project cannot truly come alive until we know something about who has lived here. After all, a house history is a HOME'S genealogy. Knowing a previous owner's occupation can place the family that lived there in the context of the neighborhood (or metro area) at large. Another example-- the census can tell you how much the head of the household earned in salary that year, which can be compared with his neighbors.

For many of the 1900 and later census schedules, the street name is listed in the left-hand margin, with the address number in the first column, helping you determine who lived at the home in that year. Although pre-1900 census schedules generally have less information (and the 1890 census was largely accidentally destroyed), if you are lucky you can trace some, or all, of your previous owners backwards through time in each census recording.

Our house's 1930 and 1940 Census Schedules

One very helpful website for searching census records is familysearch.org, a free website of historical records provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It is bar-none the most extensive and most helpful free genealogical website. One can search for a person in their entire database of indexed records, or you can navigate to a specific record type (ie 1940 US Census) and search only within that record set. For more information on how to search census records, see here.

In what I have shared thus far, you know that a family named the Cantlins owned the house prior to 2001, and that according to my neighbor, the Cantlins may have been the original owners. If so, they would have owned the home for about 80 years. So, let's search for John Cantlin in the 1940 census (latest year available)-- doing so gives us a search hit that matches: a John Cantlin in Abington, Montgomery County, and the following listing:

The Cantlins are listed at an address that is close to the current address, but the street number is off by 100 (this happens to be my first clue that the address number changed at some point in time). John Cantlin was a grocery clerk at a chain store (earning $936 in 1939), and lived with his wife Catherine (the elderly woman whose son and daughter-in law sold the house for her in 2001), and three children-- Jean C. (age 13), John Jr. (age 12), and Robert (age 6). Furthermore, matriarch Catherine was also employed, as a "winder" at a textile mill, for all 52 weeks of the previous year. She actually made $1,204 the previous year, according to what they told the census enumerator-- more than her husband! Interestingly, most of the households on this same sheet earned about $2,000-$2,500 so the Cantlins were right in range with their neighbors.

So, the Cantlins were indeed living here in 1940, and the "O" next to John's name in the 3rd column from the left indicates that he owned the home. The value of our subject house at this time is purportedly $3,000. Let's check 1930:

Here they are, but they are not living in Abington but instead renting at 2926 N. 25th St in Philadelphia. What gives?

Hmm, another thing we can do is page through Abington Township schedules in the 1930 census until we find a listing with our address. A more laborious task, to be sure, but nonetheless, after some searching we find Central Ave, and a family named Stout living at our address:

Eugene Stout was a 53-year-old engineer at a hospital. The "R" indicates that the Stouts rented the home (for $30/month) and did not own it. Eugene lived at the house with his wife, Mary, and their children Mary & Edna (twins?), and Eugene. Could the Stouts have been renting this house from the Cantlins, who had perhaps recently built the house and had not yet moved from the city? A theory, but just that, a theory. However, we now have more information than we did before, and it appears that the Cantlins may not have been the original owners of the house after all. At the very least it appears they were not its first occupants.

Searching the 1920 census for John Cantlin (and Catherine Cantlin) yields no apparent matches (although the info given in the 1930 census suggests they did not marry until 1922). Eugene Stout and his family are living in Abington in 1920, but have not yet moved to Central Ave as they are listed as renters on nearby Jenkintown Rd. Lastly, paging through the schedules for Central Ave addresses in 1920 only gives us addresses in the 800 block, on the other side of Jenkintown Rd. There are no listings at the 400 block, giving strong evidence that the house did not yet exist when the census enumerator circled town in February 1920.

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