“The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”

~U.S. Const. art. I, § 2

By Tim Bean

On its surface, the US Census seems an overwhelming exercise in data-gathering and tabulation, or an enthusiastic accountant’s fantasy. In reality, it is the yardstick with which we measure the evolution of the United States, and is also a powerful political tool, determining the number of Representatives each state sends to Congress.

When the Constitution was written (1787), the US population totaled roughly 3.5 million people. 250 years later, it is approaching 330 million people. Conducting a comprehensive and accurate national census of hundreds of millions of residents is daunting, and arguably possible only with the assistance of modern technology.

Technologically speaking, never in our country’s history was the hand of census technology more apparent than during the 1890 US Census. This technology tabulated a wealth of data that tragically will remain a black hole in the history of America.

Scientific American cover: August, 1890

Our Nation’s History Most Advanced Census

Superintendents from the Census Office (since renamed the United States Census Bureau) ignited the imagination of the country when they announced the use of the Hollerith tabulation machine to compile 1890’s raw census data. These tabulation machine were among our earliest electromechanical computers and could accomplish in minutes tasks that took humans hours. More importantly, they could do it with reliable accuracy.

New York inventor Herman Hollerith, inspired by the ticket-punching of railroad conductors, constructed an electromechanical machine that performed a similar operation, called the Hollerith tabulator. He fed punch cards into his machine, with small holes representing units of data (an early binary code—punched or unpunched). Wires would pass through open holes into a shallow pool of mercury below, completing a circuit. This completed circuit was recorded by a mechanical counter.


Two Years?

Instead of requiring eight years to sort, analyze, and apply census data, the Census Office superintendents promised to accomplish it in six, with the earliest data available only weeks after the census. Today, this doesn’t sound like an efficiency increase worthy of the cover of Scientific American, but it was more than a novelty in 1890. The public recognized the potential of these early computers: what was completed slowly yesterday could be completed quicker today, and more quickly tomorrow.

The faster tabulation also offered a more pragmatic advantage: two years is the exact term of a US Representative. Any changes in the country’s demographics would have a dramatic effect a full term earlier than ever before. In 1890, the United States was a nation of immigrants and social mobility, where actions mattered more than heredity. These remain a defining characteristic of the United States. Coupled with booming industry and abundant natural resources, the US was well on its way to becoming an international superpower.


Discoveries of the 1890 Census

Although we’ll never see the exact picture painted by the 1890 Census, the Census Office did share some remarkable findings. As of 1890, the American frontier, which had represented the country’s ideals and ideas, had officially disappeared—there was no longer a frontier (coupled with this is the tragic decrease in the country’s Native-American population, from ~400,000 in 1850 to under 250,000 in 1890).

The population of the United States had also exploded, largely because of increased immigration. 63 million people now resided in the country, an increase of 25% since 1880. The United States now boasted three cities with populations over one million: New York City was the most populated city; Chicago the second most. Industry had left its mark as well—over 28 million tons of cargo had passed through the Great Lakes in the last decade, and the country had produced almost 10 million tons of pig-iron and 4.5 million tons of steel.

Burning a Hole in History

Today, U.S. Census data is carefully protected by cutting-edge encryption and hard copy backups, stored both onsite and offsite by the Census Bureau and the National Archives. Any agency or citizen (mostly) can request, analyze and interpret this mountain of raw data, and the practical applications are limitless. This safeguarding resulted directly from the sad fate of the 1890 Census data.


For three decades, the 1890 Census data sat in neat but unorganized piles on pine shelves in the unlocked basement of the Commerce Building in Washington. D.C. Even then, this haphazard safekeeping upset members of the building staff, but nothing was done. At 5 PM, on January 10th, 1921, staff noticed dark smoke billowing from the Commerce Building’s boiler room. The fire department arrived quickly, and the building was evacuated. The firefighters would have made short work of the blaze had it been on or above the building’s ground floors, but it was in the basement, which contained nothing but paper fuel.

The fireproof floor of the Commerce Building also acted like a double-edged sword: it protected the lives of staffers on the ground floor, but also allowed the fire to feed on the stacks of census data in the basement. For five hours, firemen flooded water into the basement. At 10:30 that evening, the fire was finally extinguished, leaving shelves full of soggy, charred records.

Inexplicably, the firefighters and staffers simply went home, worn out from the dramatic events.  No lives were lost thankfully, but staffers would soon learn the fire took a heavy toll on the unique data stored in the burned-out basement. When they returned the next day, they discovered the 1890 Census data, which had been stored closest to the firefighters’ powerful hoses, had taken the brunt of the damage (several other census years’ suffered damaged records as well, but none as total as 1890). A clerk from the Census Office determined 25% of these 1890 records were completely destroyed and 50% were partially destroyed.

Allowing the records to remain damp overnight had caused the ink to fade, smear, and run. What was left was illegible. The Census Office determined a salvage operation—copying the waterlogged data by hand—would take several years. That was an optimistic estimate.


The 1890 Census Vanishes

Rumors of the fire’s origin swirled heavily in Washington for years, but officials never determined the exact cause of the fire. Congressional inaction completed what the fire had started. The damaged archives were stored outside the Commerce Building, but no salvage operation was forthcoming. Skinflint members of Congress toyed with the idea of simply destroying the damaged records instead of tying up millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours in restoring them. Since they already had the broad strokes of the 1890 Census, did the original records matter that much?

Many protested the inaction, but the national turmoil of the late 1920s and early 1930s eclipsed the controversy surrounding the damaged census data. A few legible records were not rewritten but rebound and stored. Historians believe the rest were quietly destroyed in the mid-1930s, forever leaving gaps in America’s permanent record.

What Did We Lose? 

As stated, the national findings of the 1890 Census data are accurate and available, but the greatest loss was at the municipal level. Villages, towns, and cities lost the best and sometimes only record of their citizenry. Genealogical searches, even today, often end at those missing records. This destroyed data left thousands or millions of family trees forever pruned.

Historical statisticians seldom cross the 1890 barrier because of this twenty-year gap in reliable data, leaving us to wonder how life today compares to life between 1880 and 1890. In fact, only a handful of states have ANY substantial amounts of data available from that doomed census: Georgia, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, New Jersey, Alabama, Texas, Washington D.C., Ohio, and South Dakota.

The rest is all gone.


*This article discusses the 1890 Census entirely in a historic context. Any Facebook comments blaming, shaming, or naming contemporary political parties in relation to the census will be met with a frowny face. Let’s be civil. 

Would You Like to Know More? 

For a more comprehensive narrative on the contents, conclusions, and fate of the 1890 Census, read “First in the Path of the Firemen,” a three-part article from Prologue Magazine, the official magazine of the US National Archives. An excellent read from an absolute authority.

If you’d like to browse the Census Office’s official 1891 Census U.S. Census Report, have at it, but it’s a dense and sometimes confusing clump of summarized data.