The 1950 U.S. Census gives us a snapshot of the country at one of the most interesting points in American history, just after the Second World War and before a decade of advances in science, civil rights, and entertainment. It was taken on April 1, 1950, roughly a year before the first color television program was broadcast. Three years later, scientists would discover the structure of DNA. And by mid-decade, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks would refuse to vacate her seat on an Alabama bus.
If your family members were among the over 151 million people living in the U.S. on Census Day in April of 1950, you could learn rich details about their lives through 1950 census records.
The 1950 census provides more Americans than ever the opportunity to learn about ancestors whose stories are still in living memory. Upon the census’ release, 30 million people aged nine and younger appeared for the first time in a U.S. federal census.
When Was the 1950 census Released?
Federal censuses take place every decade, as required by the Constitution. But the information collected is not immediately made public.
Instead, access to census records is restricted to the individual whose name is on the record, or their legal heir, for 72 years. This is due to the “72-Year-Rule,” which became law in 1978. It requires that the National Archives wait 72 years after Census Day to release census records to the general public.
Many people think that the 72-Year-Rule was put in place because 72 years was the average lifespan at the time. But experts believe this is a myth.
Similarly, federal census records from 1950 were released to the public by the National Archives in April of 2022, which is 72 years after the census was taken, on April 1, 1950.
What Did the 1950 census Reveal About the U.S. Population?
The 1950 census determined the resident population of the U.S. to be 151,325,798—a 14.5% increase from the previous census in 1940.
When comparing the 1950 census to the 1940 Census, the three most populous American cities remained New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, in that order. Los Angeles surpassed Detroit as the 4th-most-populated U.S. city, with Detroit dropping to the 5th-largest city by population.
Americans living in Alaska and Hawaii in 1950 were not residents of a U.S. state, as Alaska and Hawaii would not become the 49th and 50th states, respectively, until 1959. However, they were included in the census, as the 1950 census included the territories of Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Canal Zone, the Virgin Islands of the United States, and some of the smaller island territories.
The 1950 census was the first federal census that took place after the end of World War II, in which 16 million Americans fought. Several years prior, Congress, seeking to help soldiers readjust to civilian life after the war, had passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the “G.I. Bill.” It gave servicemen and servicewomen access to multiple forms of economic assistance, including:
- Guarantees for loans to purchase a home, business, or farm
- Job counseling and a weekly unemployment benefit of $20 for up to one year for veterans looking for work
- Tuition-free education, up to $500, along with a cost of living stipend
As a result of the G.I. Bill, about half (49%) of college admissions in 1947 were veterans. The combination of greater access to higher education, job counseling, and the availability of government-guaranteed loans set the stage for the increased economic prosperity of the 1950s and the accompanying “baby boom.”
To provide some context on the economic boom: The gross national product more than doubled, from $200 billion to more than $500 billion, between 1945 and 1960. And throughout the 1950s, about 4 million babies were born each year. The 1950 census caught a snapshot of the country at the beginning of this “baby boom,” as it had started a few years prior, in 1946.
What the 1950 U.S. Census Can Reveal About Your Ancestors
The 1950 census provides an intriguing snapshot of the country as a whole. But it can also provide you with rich details about the lives of your family members who were living in the U.S. at the time and were among the 151 million people enumerated, or counted, in the census.
In addition to biographical details like their age in 1950, their address, gender, race, and if they were married, the 1950 census also can give you a detailed picture of what they did for a living.
The 1950 census also included supplemental questions. On each census page, the fourth person and then every subsequent fifth person was asked supplemental questions—for a total of six people per page. This means that for households with five or more members, presumably someone would get the additional questions. These supplemental questions included deeper life details such as the birthplaces of both parents and the highest grade of school attended.
And based on the responses of family members who answered the supplemental questions for those 14 and older, you could get a really detailed picture of your family’s finances back in 1950, including how much money that person earned in 1949 and how much money they and other members of the household each received from interest, dividends, veterans’ allowances, pensions, rents, or other income.
Tips for Searching 1950 U.S. Census Records on Ancestry®
Search for your family in other censuses and vital records. A lot can happen in a decade—especially during one in which there was a world war. You can get a sense of how your family’s life changed over the previous decade by comparing the information you find in the 1940 Census to the 1950 census. For instance, you might find out if they were single in 1940 and married by 1950; further investigation could uncover that they’d married their wartime sweetheart. Or, since families are listed together, along with the ages of everyone in the household, you might discover some of your ancestors had young children, signaling they were part of the great baby boom that was the hallmark of their generation.
Remember you can glean details that tell deeper stories, like if your ancestors were beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill. College students included in the 1950 census were enumerated where they were living while attending school, rather than where their family was living. So if your ancestor was from Maine but pursuing higher education in Massachusetts in 1950, they would appear in Massachusetts in the census. They would be listed as a student, and it’s possible they were one of the millions of Americans who benefited from the G.I. Bill to further their education.
The 1950 census could lead you to learn more about veterans in your family. Every fifth person in the 1950 census was asked additional questions. For those age 14 and older, one of those supplemental questions included if the person served “in the U.S. Armed Forces during WWI or WWII, or any other service, including the present.” Information you uncover in the 1950 census, such as age, can help you then find additional military records and honor your ancestors who served.
Study the census taker's handwriting if it's hard to read. Enumerators for the 1950 census wrote down the responses by hand. You may find an instance where the handwriting is hard to read. Find other words that you can read perfectly to help you make an educated guess: A “sawyer” listed under occupation could say “lawyer," but with an L that resembles an S.
Don’t forget to look for photos of family members you find in the 1950 census. Eastman Kodak had introduced the Box Brownie camera five decades before the 1950 census, as a low-cost, simple-to-use camera. Its initial price was $1 (equivalent to roughly $28 today). By 1950, Kodak’s first internally synchronized flash camera, the Six-20 Flash Brownie, had been around for ten years. These technological advances meant your family appearing in the 1950 census had greater access to cameras than ever before. And you could find some of their photos on Ancestry® family trees. You could also find your ancestors’ yearbook photos among the collection of more than 450,000 yearbooks on Ancestry®, using biographical details you learn in the 1950 census.
Talk to family members about family stories. The 1950 census is recent enough that you may either have family members who were part of that census or family members who have firsthand memories of ancestors who were included in that census. They may have photos or other memorabilia you didn’t realize the family had. Or they may have additional details about family, such as where they were born, that could help you continue your family history journey.
What interesting discoveries about your family might you uncover in the 1950 census?
“1950 census Instructions to Enumerators.” United States Census Bureau. Accessed October 26, 2021. https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/decennial-census/technical-documentation/questionnaires/1950/1950-instructions.html.
“1950 Overview.” United States Census Bureau. Accessed October 26, 2021. https://www.census.gov/history/www/through_the_decades/overview/1950.html. “The 1950s.” History.com, June 17, 2010. https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/1950s.
“5 Innovations That Changed Photography Forever.” Microsoft. Accessed October 26, 2021. https://blogs.windows.com/devices/2012/11/01/5-innovations-that-changed-photography-forever/.
“About Census Records.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed October 26, 2021. https://www.archives.gov/research/census/about.
“Brownie (Camera).” Wikipedia. Accessed October 26, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brownie_(camera).
“G.I. Bill.” History.com, May 27, 2010. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/gi-bill.
“Inflation Calculator.” US Inflation Calculator. Accessed October 26, 2021. https://www.usinflationcalculator.com/.
Morse, Stephen P., and Joel D. Weintraub. “Getting Ready for the 1950 census: Searching With and Without a Name Index.” stevemorse.org, October 2019. https://stevemorse.org/census/1950census.htm.
Parkinson, Hilary. “1950 census on Track for 2022 Release, Despite Pandemic.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed October 26, 2021. https://www.archives.gov/news/articles/1950-census-pandemic.
“POP Culture: 1950.” United States Census Bureau. Accessed October 26, 2021. https://www.census.gov/history/www/through_the_decades/fast_facts/1950_fast_facts.html.
“Research Starters: The G.I. Bill.” The National WWII Museum | New Orleans. Accessed October 26, 2021. https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/research-starters-gi-bill.
“When Will Census Records Be Available?” United States Census Bureau. Accessed October 26, 2021. https://www.census.gov/history/www/faqs/genealogy_faqs/when_will_census_records_be_available.html.
“WWII Veteran Statistics: The Passing of the WII Generation.” The National WWII Museum | New Orleans. Accessed October 26, 2021. https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/wwii-veteran-statistics.