The 1930 U.S. Census and Your Family at the Start of the Great Depression
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The 1930 U.S. Census was held at a difficult time in the country's history. The 15th population count, it recorded Americans' status as of April 1, 1930, five months after the stock market crash of 1929. It was the start of an era of bank failures, drought, and unemployment—but also resilience and ingenuity.
The 1930 Census can show you where your family stood at the start of the Great Depression, offering a window into their lives at a complex time. The decade that followed would see global economic challenges, gangster Al Capone's conviction, the Dust Bowl in the Great Plains, and the debut of Superman comics. Thousands of infrastructure projects, including the Hoover Dam and LaGuardia Airport, put Americans back to work as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. Yet as World War II brewed in Europe, there was more hardship to come.
What the Census Revealed About the U.S. Population in 1930
The 1930 Census found the resident population of the United States to be 123,202,624—a sixteen percent increase from the population recorded in the 1920 U.S. Census.
Immigration continued to climb in 1930, just as it had every decade since the mid-1800s. And although the proportion of people in America who were immigrants had declined from the previous census count in 1920, foreign-born residents still made up about twelve percent of the population by 1930.
Among the foreign-born population in the U.S. in 1930, Italians were the largest group, with about 1.8 million people. Germans, Poles, and Russians made up the next-largest groups of immigrants.
Population trends revealed the average size of an American household was declining. In 1930, the average household was 4.1 people. That was a decrease of roughly nine percent in just two decades, when compared to 1910.
The population trends also reflected the country's westward expansion. New York City was the largest urban area in the country, with about 6.9 million people, followed by Chicago and Philadelphia, as in previous decades. But new to the list of top 5 cities by population was Los Angeles.
With a population of roughly 1.2 million people in 1930, LA’s population growth in a few short decades could be described as explosive. In 1900, LA was way down at number 36 in the list of U.S. cities by population. Just ten years later, in 1910, it had climbed to the number 17 spot. By 1920, LA was at number ten, that is the tenth-largest city in the U.S. And finally, one decade later, in 1930, LA had more than doubled in size from 1920 to claim its spot as America’s fifth-largest city.
Where were all these Angelenos coming from? Most of LA's growth came from domestic migration; only about 15% of its population (or 181,848 people) consisted of foreign-born residents. Interestingly, census records show that after two decades of growing immigration from across the border, 97,116 Angelenos said they were of Mexican ethnicity.
What 1930 Census Records Can Reveal About Your Ancestors
The 1930 U.S. Census was the last to ask detailed questions of all respondents, rather than a statistical sample. In other words, it's the last one with such substantial details on all Americans. It was similar to the previous two censuses—with basic details like the respondent's address, sex, age, and birthplace—but with some interesting differences that hint at social changes.
How old they were when they first got married. The 1930 Census asked about a person’s age at their first marriage. And the 1900 Census and the 1910 Census also asked about the length of the present marriage. But the 1930 Census was the only one to ask the person's age at their first marriage. Why? For context, after the Roaring Twenties and its flapper culture, social observers feared that women were postponing marriage and added the question on the census. The data revealed that wasn't the case: In 1930, the median age of a woman's first marriage was 21.3 years old, essentially the same age as in 1920 (21.2 years) and not much younger than the age at first marriage in 1890 (22 years).
If they were a “homemaker." Though many censuses include questions about employment, the 1930 Census also asked if there was a “homemaker" at the address. If so, enumerators (census takers) listed it as the person's, usually a woman's, occupation. This reflects the rise of domestic science classes in high schools and the idea that household chores were skills that should be studied.
Their monthly rent. As usual in U.S. censuses, there were questions concerning a person's home. Did they live on a farm? Did they own or rent their home? Aiming for more statistical insights, the census also asked the value of the home or the monthly rent.
If they owned a radio. For the first and only time, this census included a question on whether respondents owned a radio. It found that as of April 1930, about 12 million households—40 percent of the population—owned one, a number that would more than double by the end of the decade. The question could be said to reflect the growing influence of consumerism in early twentieth-century America, as the radio was a way to promote mass-produced goods. But it also was a way for political leaders to gauge the potential for reaching a large percentage of the population—and later proved useful, for instance with President Franklin D Roosevelt’s fireside chats.
Employment status. One new question on the 1930 Census asked “whether a person had worked yesterday (or the previous working day).” The answer might give you a sense of how your ancestors were faring at the start of the Great Depression.
If they could read and write. Over 4.2 million Americans over age 10 were illiterate, according to the 1930 Census. The illiteracy rate had been steadily declining: from 13.3 percent in 1890 to just 4.3 percent in 1930, which is likely why future censuses omitted the literacy question.
Their immigration status and native language. The 1930 Census asked foreign-born respondents what year they immigrated, the language spoken at home before coming to the U.S., if they spoke English, and whether they had been naturalized. It also asked where their parents had been born.
If they had Mexican heritage. The 1930 Census was the only one to have a separate race category for people who were born in Mexico or had parents born there; it counted 1.4 million Mexicans in the U.S.
What war your ancestor fought in. Over 4.7 million Americans served in World War I, but the country was involved in several other wars in the previous decades. Enumerators asked not only if a person was a military or naval veteran, but if so, what war they fought in: World War I (WW), the Spanish-American War (Spa), the Civil War (CW), the Philippine-American War (Phil), the Boxer rebellion (Box), or the Mexican Expedition (Mex).
Tips for Searching 1930 U.S. Census Records on Ancestry®
The 1930 United States Federal Census database on Ancestry is a rich resource for family historians. It includes information on over 123 million Americans, including those living in what were then the territories of Hawaii and Alaska, plus Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
Here are some tips on making the most of these fascinating records and how to use them to discover more insights into your family story.
Remember that people listed together in one household were not always related by ties of kinship. The census instructed enumerators to consider a family “a group of persons living together in the same dwelling place," which could be people other than blood relatives. With money tight during the Great Depression, many homeowners rented out rooms. The number of boarders in 1930 was the highest ever: 3.8 million people. Nine percent of households (2.6 million) rented out a room. Wealthier families might have lived with servants or nannies.
Search for your family in other censuses and vital records. The 1930 Census provides a snapshot of your family in that particular year; you'll want to consult other censuses for comparison. For instance, the 1940 Census asked how many weeks a person was employed the previous year and what their salary was, offering clues to how they were faring after the Depression. Birth, marriage, and death records, known as vital records, can fill in information missing from the census, like a woman's maiden name.
Discover more about veterans listed in the 1930 Census. If you learn that your ancestor fought in World War I, you can search for them in the Ancestry military records collection. Its 24 million World War I draft registration cards, for instance, include a person's birthplace, citizenship, physical description, and the name of his nearest relative.
If you can't read the enumerator's handwriting, take time to study it. 1930 Census records are handwritten, sometimes in a nearly illegible cursive. The same person likely counted everyone listed near your ancestor, so get to know their style. A few educated guesses will help you decode the entry for your ancestor. For example, a “Sawyer" listed under occupation could be “Lawyer" written with a swirly “L".
Explore Your Family Story in the 1930 Census
The 1930 Census presents a snapshot of your family at a challenging time. See what their lives were like during the Great Depression and between the world wars. Discover your family stories in the 1930 Census today.
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