The 1920 U.S. Census was held at a pivotal moment in American history. Woodrow Wilson was president, soldiers had returned from World War I, and the country was just recovering from the Spanish Flu pandemic. The country was on the cusp of the Roaring Twenties, with milestones such as the ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, coming in August of that year.
Taking its place in history as the 14th federal population count, the 1920 Census recorded rich details about people's lives as of January 1, 1920—making it a valuable resource for anyone looking to learn more about the lives of their ancestors at that time.
What the Census Revealed About the U.S. Population in 1920
The 1920 Census determined the resident population of the U.S. to be 106,021,537—a 15 percent increase from 1910. For the first time, the majority of the population was defined as urban, meaning that they lived in a place with over 2,500 people.
New York was the largest city in the country, with 5.6 million people; Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Cleveland filled out the top five. Over 13 percent of Americans (about 13.9 million people) were identified as foreign born.
What 1920 U.S. Census Records Can Reveal About Your Ancestors
Census records provide more than a snapshot of the country as a whole. They're also a treasure trove for family historians, filled with fascinating details about past generations.
The 1920 Census asked a range of questions beyond the basics of address, age, and sex. It asked whether a person could read or write, or whether they owned or rented a home. It also covered details about occupation such as trade, profession, and industry or work establishment. So you could uncover interesting stories like an ancestor who worked as a newsboy.
The 1920 Census is especially interesting for researching relatives who immigrated to the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century. Census takers (or enumerators) asked about a person's birthplace, native tongue, naturalization status, and year of immigration. They also asked for the person's parents' birthplace and native tongue. These details can help you learn more about where your family came from and fill gaps in your family tree.
Tips for Searching 1920 U.S. Census Records on Ancestry®
The 1920 United States Federal Census database on Ancestry® is a valuable resource for census record research, containing records for all 50 U.S. states and territories, as well as Military and Naval Forces, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico—and for the first time American Samoa, Guam, and the Panama Canal Zone.
Here are some tips for making the most of your search of census records from 1920 on Ancestry.
Double-check your family's stated place of origin. International boundaries changed after World War I, so some people may not have known what to list as their country of origin. For instance Germany ceded the Alsace and Lorraine regions to France, so someone from those regions may have been given their ethnicity as either German or French. And Poland became an independent state. Enumerators were supposed to report the name of the province for anyone born in Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, or Turkey—since those borders shifted—but you still might have to dig around to confirm birthplaces.
Note that there was no special census for Native Americans in 1920. In 1900 and 1910, special censuses, called schedules, accounted for native peoples living on reservations; but there was no separate schedule in 1920. Instead, people living on reservations were included in the general population count and identified as "Indian" under the "color or race" category.
Remember servicemen stationed abroad were not included as members of a household. There is a separate 1920 census schedule for military and naval personnel living abroad. If a soldier was in Germany but his wife lived in Ohio, he might not show up under her address.
See if women in your family were eligible to vote in 1920. When the 19th Amendment was ratified on August 26, 1920, it gave the right to vote to female citizens aged 21 and older. Many women in the country were left out, though. Native Americans and Chinese immigrants were ineligible for citizenship in 1920. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation tactics effectively disenfranchised many African American citizens until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Search for your family in other censuses and vital records. There's more to your family than what you can glean from the 1920 Census. Look for relatives in other censuses to uncover new details about their circumstances. The 1930 Census, for instance, asked about the value of a person's home or their monthly rent, hinting at how wealthy they were. Birth, marriage, and death records, known as vital records, can fill in details missing from census records. These details, like a woman's maiden name or where someone was living when they died, can help you as you build your family tree.
Explore Your Family Story in the 1920 Census
The 1920 Census gives you a glimpse of your family at an important time in American history. Find your family stories in the 1920 Census today.