My Experience with the 1910 Census

Hooray! I finished my first assignment for HIST 298!

Just before Winter Break, my supervisor and I sat down to discuss what at the time seemed like a long and grueling project:

“Go through the 1910 census (all six wards and corresponding precincts in each), and create a spreadsheet with the following info: every time you find a Jewish resident, take down their name, occupation, language spoken, year of immigration, where they are from, and where their parents are from.”

Since the corresponding UMass microfilm reel was missing (and my interlibrary loan was denied,) I had to use the university library’s subscription to Ancestry. (This had a silver lining: while I didn’t get the experience of using microfilm, it allowed me to work on the project from home during the intersession.) On Ancestry, I was able to view all six wards and districts to search for Jewish residents to add to my database.

There isn’t a clear-cut way of identifying a Jewish resident from the rest of the population, though there were some obvious clues. The quickest way, as my supervisor pointed out to me, was by reading through “Language” and Birthplace.” Interestingly enough, the census takers categorized various birthplaces. For example, a birthplace of Russia could be followed by subcategories like “German,” “Lithuanian,” or (as I was looking for) “Yiddish.” In later wards, “Yiddish” was substituted for “Jewish” or “Hebrew.” (I’m curious if this was a personal preference of the census takers or the families recorded.) The majority of the Jewish residents were Russian, though I also found several Austrians, Germans, and Hungarians.

Within each district, the census grouped families– not necessarily related families, but people living together. Most commonly, I would see a husband and wife and (depending on their age) their children. But oftentimes these families included in-laws, aunts and uncles, cousins, employees, or boarders. Usually, the male was the head of the household – however, if the wife was a widow with children, she would be considered the head.

We were specifically interested in their employment. (I don’t have much background on the various districts, so I do wonder if certain districts were for segregated by class. It appeared that many people employed by the same establishment lived nearby each other.) Most residents worked for a dry goods store (as peddlers or merchants) or in a cotton mill. The most interesting professions were four Hebrew teachers, three rabbis, and one pin boy at the bowling alley!

The most difficult aspect of the project was deciphering handwriting. Ancestry has an index for most of the information, making it easy to scan through several pages in a row. But some of the occupations were almost illegible – my friends and I had fun attempting to make some guesses as to what they might be referring.

All in all, the project took several hours. But it gave me a better basis of the New Bedford community during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, I knew there was large Portuguese population in the New Bedford area, but it’s a completely different realization when I saw each name on the paper. I wrapped my head around the idea that these massive immigrant populations, discussed in my high school history textbooks as “in the major cities,” were represented in smaller, local cities as well. I feel these topics are often overlooked in education – we learn through overviews, and tend to overlook the relevance to local history. I’m glad to be participating in research that emphasizes the importance of communities and local history that we don’t always get the chance to learn in-depth.

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