1920 U.S. Census
The 1920 census began on 1 January 1920. The enumeration was to be completed within thirty days, or within two weeks for communities with populations of more than 2,500. The official census population count was 106,021,537.
Questions Asked in the 1920 Census
The 1920 census form called for the name of the street, avenue, road, and such; the house number or farm; the dwelling and family numbers in order of visitation; the name of each person whose place of abode was with the family; the relationship of person enumerated to the head of the family; whether home was owned or rented; if owned, whether free or mortgaged; each individual’s sex; color or race; age at last birthday; whether he or she was single, married, widowed, or divorced; the year when he or she emigrated to the United States; whether he or she was naturalized or an alien; if naturalized, the year of naturalization; whether he or she attended school any time since 1 September 1919; whether he or she was able to read or write; the place of each individual’s birth; his or her mother tongue; his or her father’s place of birth, and mother tongue; his or her mother’s place of birth and mother tongue; whether he or she was able to speak English; his or her trade, profession, or particular kind of work done; the industry, business, or establishment in which the person worked, and whether he or she was an employer, salaried or waged a worker, or working on his or her own account. It also includes, if applicable, the number of the corresponding farm schedule.
Other Significant Facts about the 1920 Census
The date of the enumeration appears on the heading of each page of the census schedule. All responses supposedly reflect the individual’s status as of 1 January 1920, even if that status had changed between 1 January and the day of enumeration. Children born between 1 January and the day of enumeration were not to be listed, while individuals alive on 1 January but deceased when the enumerator arrived were to be counted.
Unlike the 1910 census, the 1920 census did not have questions regarding unemployment, Union or Confederate military service, number of children, or duration of marriage. It did, however, include four new question columns: one asked the year of naturalization and three inquired about mother tongue. The 1920 census also asked the year of arrival and status of every foreign-born person, and inquired about the year of naturalization for those individuals who had become U.S. citizens. In 1920 the census included, for the first time, Guam, American Samoa, and the Panama Canal Zone. Also unlike the 1910 census, the 1920 census has a microfilmed index for each state and territory.
Due to boundary modifications in Europe resulting from World War I, some individuals were uncertain about how to identify their national origin. Enumerators were instructed to spell out the name of the city, state, province, or region of respondents who declared that they or their parents had been born in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, or Turkey. Interpretation of the birthplace varied from one enumerator to another. Some failed to identify specific birthplaces within those named countries, and others provided an exact birthplace in countries not designated in the instructions. See Fourteenth Census of the United States, January 1, 1920: Instructions to Enumerators, produced by the Bureau of the Census.16
There are no separate Indian population schedules in the 1920 census. Inhabitants of reservations were enumerated in the general population schedules.
Enumerators were instructed not to report servicemen in the family enumerations but to treat them as residents of their duty posts. The 1920 census includes schedules and a Soundex index for overseas military and naval forces. Soundex cards for institutions are found at the end of each state’s Soundex index. It is important to note that many institutions, even if enumerated at their street addresses, are found at the end of the enumeration section. The original 1920 census schedules were destroyed by authorization of the Eighty-third Congress, so it is not possible to consult originals when microfilm copies prove unreadable.
Research Tips for the 1920 Census
The 1920 census is a good tool for determining approximate dates and places to search for marriage records, birth and death records of children, and the marriages of children not listed. The 1920 census sometimes makes it possible to verify family traditions, identify unknown family members, and link what is known to other sources, such as earlier censuses, school attendance rolls, property holdings, and employment and occupational records. In several instances, women, rather than men, have been listed as heads of household in the 1920 Soundex index (see image); therefore, a search focused on a male name in this index may be unsuccessful.
The 1920 census asked the foreign-born for the year of their arrival in the United States, making it easier to pinpoint the date of passenger arrival records. It also asked the naturalization status of every foreign-born person and inquired about the year of naturalization for those individuals who had become U.S. citizens, thus facilitating searches in naturalization records.
Due to the more specific questions asked of immigrants from Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Turkey regarding their birthplaces and those of their parents, many researchers will be able to discover the exact towns or regions from which their families emigrated. The fact that the 1920 census asked for the mother tongue of each respondent and that of each parent will further help to define the origins of many families.
For additional information regarding the 1920 census, see the following sources:
- Green, Kellee. “The Fourteenth Numbering of the People: The 1920 Census.” Prologue (Summer 1991): 131–45.
- National Archives. The 1920 Federal Population Census: Catalog of National Archives Microfilm. Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1991.
- Shepard, JoAnne (Bureau of the Census). Age Search Information. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1990.
For boundary changes and identification of missing census schedules, see William Thorndale and William Dollarhide, Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790–1920.