It’s not that I do everything Justin Wolfers tells me to do…

But I did find this fun. On the Freakonomics blog today Justin Wolfers uses the 1940 census–which was just scanned and all put online–to find who was living in his house in 1940. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with other US Census records from earlier years. At one point, while taking economic history in graduate school, I found my grandfather and his parents and theirs in Georgia and North Carolina in the 1930, 1920, and 1910 records. I didn’t actually need these things for class; I was supposed to be looking for saloon-hall dancers and prostitutes in the 1860s Colorado mining towns, but that’s a blog post for another day.

I’m in the process of searching for my great grandparents in the 1940 census, as I know they moved around quite a bit after the crash, and my grandfather had already left home by 1940, but I did look at my current address in the Pennsylvania records ala Wolfers. The plaque outside my house in Gettysburg says it was built by a doctor who served in the Civil War and stuck around after it was over. By 1940, however, the house belonged to Helen Culp, a 52-year old single schoolteacher who finished college, and her sister, Margaret, a 37-year old department store employee, who finished high school. Though entirely coincidental, it feels appropriate that I should spend my time in Gettysburg in an educated, female teacher’s house. Helen and Margaret were white, their parents were born in Pennsylvania just as they were, and they grew up speaking English at home*. Helen earned $1400 in 1939 and her sister, $700. Helen’s salary is worth about $22,000 in 2010 dollars if we use Purchasing Power Parity calculations, but could have represented a lot more if we measure it by ‘prestige’ or ‘economic power’. If you haven’t used‘s “How Much is That” tool, you should; it’s super fun.

Helen said the value of her house was $5000. This is almost three years’ salary for her, which tells me that either she was paid very well for the time, or that houses were much cheaper in Gettysburg in 1940. I’m fairly certain I could not purchase my house with three years’ salary (although, Helen, at 52, had likely been teaching for much longer than I have). Currently, houses in Gettysburg are pretty expensive, at least compared to surrounding areas, primarily due to historical value, laws governing historical buildings and their preservation or destruction, and limits on building height and density.

This particular exercise amuses me because I’ve never actually lived in a house that was old enough to be in any of these records. Even in Boulder, CO, which is a fairly old town for the Western US, none of the places I lived was more than 40 or 50 years old. And now, I live in a house that is 145 years old. As an American from a relatively recently populated part of the country, I think all this old stuff is so interesting. It’s how I felt in Boston, too; history just seems to weigh heavier.

I only skimmed the pages before I found my address, but in looking at all the people who lived on my street and neighboring ones, I’m also struck by how little migration there is in and out of Adams County. Most people on the page lived in the same place 5 years before. If they didn’t, they came from New Oxford and Ortanna and Cashtown, towns that are within 7-10 miles of Gettysburg. This internal migration map of the US in 2011 shows that not much has changed. Like the 1940 inhabitants of my house and their neighbors, people don’t really move to, or leave Gettysburg, particularly not when compared to Boulder.

Well, except me (and college students).

*Two respondents per page were asked some supplemental questions about their parents, marriage history, and veteran status. Helen happened to be #14 on the page, so she was asked those questions as well. Some of these questions were standard on earlier Censuses, which is part of how I traced my greatgreatgrandparents back to North Carolina.


Author: ekfletch

I am an independent researcher on issues of gender, labor, violence, education, and children.

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