In 1940, the Census Bureau produced two short films trumpeting
the general census that year and the first-ever census of
housing. In the film on the general census, “Know
Your U.S.A.“ (3 min.), the narrator exhorts citizens to
cooperate with the census: “You cannot know your country unless
your country knows you.” The film tells us that there were 130
million free people and 7 million farms in 1940. (Now there are
312 million people and 2.1 million farms.) The narrator
practically gushes over the “mechanical marvels of accuracy”
tabulating the received data.
The second film, “The
1940 Census of Housing” (11 min.), begins with the reasoning
behind the census and provides background information about what
constitutes a dwelling. It includes this funny yet sad list: “In
addition, places not intended for habitation but in which people
are living must be enumerated and this includes such usual
places as stables, fruit sheds, box cars, houses that are
falling down, temporary shacks, boats, trucks and any other such
place actually being used as a dwelling.”
It then continues with dramatizations of a
census taker asking various homeowners questions meant to draw
attention to fine distinctions between categories. There are
repeated shots of a pen filling out a census form. The acting is
charmingly stiff and self-conscious.
A transcript of one interview with a
homeowner reveals that even back then, mortgagors might be
confused about who held their mortgage (a problem, of course,
during the recent financial crisis):
Census Taker (CT): Who holds the
first mortgage on your house?
Homeowner (H): The Institution
CT: Does the Institution Mortgage
Company actually hold the mortgage, or do you simply make
H: I’m not sure about that. I
believe somebody else actually holds the mortgage and the
Institution Mortgage Company merely makes the collections. Yes I
remember now. I received a notice from the mortgage company that
they had sold the mortgage to somebody else.
CT: Do you remember to whom they
sold the mortgage?
H: I am not sure which one, but I
know it was a life insurance company.
For more facts from the housing census:
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