For a certain kind of library person - those of us dedicating our time to digging through the archives of local history and scores of genealogical records - the reveal of the 1950 Census was THE event of 2022, anxiously awaited for the past decade. Hidden away for the requisite 72 years, the records of families living in America in the year 1950 were finally going to see the light, and were made fully searchable online by the National Archives on April 1st.
To be fair to those of you who aren’t quite so nerdy, the revealing of a new census might sound a little dry…old records, just lists of endless names and dates and occupations recorded in sometimes-legible script. So, so much scrolling. You might be asking...why should we really care?
Well, for many of us, this census presents a unique opportunity to connect with our elder friends and family members who were alive when their names were recorded almost three quarters of a century ago. This kind of throughline is so rare in genealogy research - to be able to ask a living person about details in a historical record that they witnessed firsthand! If you don't know much about your family history, this could be a chance to find a little piece of evidence to start tracing back through time. It's a tangible record of our parents, grandparents, and beyond.
As soon as online access to the 1950 Census opened, I emailed my grandmother to ask her if she remembered where the family was living at that time. Our family moved around a lot and without her knowledge, I may not have been able to find their names at all. Although she was only three years old in 1950, my grandmother remembered the stories her mother and her own grandmother had passed down to her about their lives. My hurried email brought years of memories flooding back, and we were able to talk about the experiences of three generations of women under one roof: my grandmother Jody, my great grandmother Pat, and my great great grandmother Celeste, or as we call her, Nanny.
We lived in Los Angeles at that time. Your Nanny, GmaPat, and me. Your Nanny used to tell me ‘that was when my life began and I had a real home.’ We were very happy. That was around the time when GmaPat was head usherette at some of the major movie theaters! That was a big deal! To usher at a big glitzy theater was Wow! To be head usherette was BIG TIME! Met all kinds of movie stars! Big movie premiers were 'the thing.' Hollywood was the center of the universe. Within a few years Mom was dancing. Then later she had her own studio.
Gramma was working at a huge laundry, 'Ralph's'. She started as a "presser," she caught her hand in one of the big presses and burned the whole back of her hand, and hid it from everyone. She had the scars her whole life. Gramma worked up from presser, to counter girl, to manager of several of Ralph's laundries.
I remember running around, among the big machines. Worrying Grams, I was a wild, nosey kid. I loved the steamy smell. I even remember sitting on the counter, watching Grams wrap big bundles of clean laundry in real cool brown paper, which came off a huge roll, and then she'd pull real neat twine from a huge spool, and tie it all up into a package…
That quickly inscribed list of their three names captures more than the dry facts of their living in Los Angeles on Census Day 1950. It is a little part of a family narrative of women making a life together through hardships and triumphs, and a reminder of the importance of asking your elders to tell you their stories and carrying them to the next generation. This wouldn't be a library blog post without some resources, so while we can't call your grandmother for you, we can help you with other ways to research!
Check out this genealogy and local history workshop next week! Also, did you know you get access to Ancestry, Newspaper Archives, and other research databases for free with your library card? Visit our Genealogy + Local History Resource Page to get started. If you get stuck, get in touch with us...we're honored to be able to help!
-Ruby Mackinnon-Love is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.