A ten-year census of the United States, to determine apportionment of taxes and congressional representation of the states, was mandated with the adoption of the United States census in 1787.
United States constitution, Article 1 section 2:
"…Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. 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. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the State of New Hampshire shall be entitled to chuse three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations one, Connecticut five, New-York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Carolina five, and Georgia three."
The first U.S. census was taken on August 2, 1790. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was the first Census Bureau Director.
Between the 1780s and 1820s British potteries capitalized on American patriotism by producing and exporting pieces that celebrated the new nation and its heroes. This transfer-printed creamware pitcher lists the population figures recorded by the first U.S. census in 1790.
Three additional states had been added to the Union since the last census.
U.S. Marshals conducting the 1800 census used whatever paper they had available to collect the information required. Marshals completed the census schedule based on their interpretation of how best to collect the required information. For this reason, census schedules differ from state to state, and city to city.
America's population had grown 36.4% since 1800.
This map of the United States shows the boundaries of the states and territories at the time of the 1810 census.
The 1820 census was the first to ask if respondents were engaged in agriculture, commerce or manufacturing.
This image shows an excerpt from an 1820 census schedule. Notice it is entirely created by hand.
The first uniform pre-printed census schedules were used to record the data of the 1830 census.
An excerpt from an 1830 census schedule.
School attendance, literacy status and occupations were recorded for the first time.
This map of the United States illustrates the nation's population density using 1840 census data.
For the first time, every person in the household was listed by name – not just the head of household.
A census taker enumerates ("counts") members of a household during the 1850 census.
During the 1860s, census headquarters was located on 7th and F Streets, NW, Washington, DC, in the U.S. Patent Office. This building is now the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery and the National Collection of Fine Arts.
The 1870 census made use of the earliest tallying machine, invented by Charles W. Seaton, to help count and tabulate the responses.
The 1870 census marked the first enumeration following the end of slavery and, therefore, counted all inhabitants of the United States on a single population schedule.
Mortality and vital statistics are included for the first time in the 1880 census.
John Shaw Billings' work with vital statistics on the 1880 census was pioneering. The list of Billings' other notable achievements is lengthy and impressive.
The 1890 census data was tabulated for the first time using an electric machine, invented by Herman Hollerith.
In 1888, the U.S. Census Bureau held a competition to find a more efficient method to process and tabulate data. Three contestants accepted the Census Bureau's challenge, and former Census Bureau employee Herman Hollerith won. The win earned Hollerith a contract to process and tabulate 1890 census data. Modified versions of his technology would continue to be used at the Census Bureau until replaced by computers in the 1950s.
Most of the 1890 census' population schedules were badly damaged by a fire in January 1921. For more information about the fire, the National Archives published an article, "First in the Path of the Firemen: The Fate of the 1890 Population Census,", opens a new window in its Spring 1996 Prologue.
Enumerators of the 1900 census each received a 64-page instruction booklet. View PDF of instruction booklet, opens a new window.
The Census Bureau used the pantograph machine to prepare the results from the 1900 census. The machine punched holes in a card that represented data from the census schedule. The punch cards were then sorted and tabulated with Hollerith tabulators.
Census Day is moved from June 1 to April 15 to try to avoid families being away on summer vacations.
Census enumerators were issued badges during the 1910 census as evidence of their authority to collect data from households.
Another date change for Census Day was requested by the Department of Agriculture so the 1920 census took place on January 1.
Until 1960, when mail delivery of census questionnaires began, the decennial census was conducted entirely by personal interviews, like this one conducted by an enumerator in 1920.
The Great Depression had just begun. Congress required a special unemployment census for January 1931; the data it produced confirmed the severity of the situation.
Visiting households in a city or town to conduct the census may be considered "easy" since enumerators can follow numbered streets and visit groups of houses or apartments in a small area. Enumerating households in rural areas was (and still is) a much more demanding task. Enumerators must frequently find creative solutions to reach isolated households. For this 1930 census enumerator, transportation by pony proved the best means of transportation in the southwestern United States.
The 1940 census is the latest census we are able to view in its entirety. Following the "72-Year Rule", personally identifiable information is made public 72 years after it was collected, protecting the privacy of respondents. The complete 1950 census will be released in 2022.
A farmer takes a break from his chores to provide information to an enumerator during the 1940 census.
Americans living abroad were enumerated for the first time in 1950.
The electronic tabulator was used in the 1950 Census. In 1951, the Census Bureau received its first computer.
Census questionnaires were sent out through the mail for the first time in 1960.
The U.S. Census Bureau first used Film Optical Sensing Devise for Input to Computers (FOSDIC) to process the 1960 decennial census.
For the first time in 1970, a letter explaining the need for the data collected and emphasizing the confidentiality of responses accompanied all census questionnaires.
1970 Census Envelope
Mailing census questionnaires proved successful, so 95% of the U.S. population received their census packets that way in 1980.
The U.S. Census Bureau uses promotional items to advertise the census and raise awareness about its importance.
Americans were alerted to the importance of responding to the 1990 census by extensive public television, radio, and print advertising.
Enumerators seek out populations wherever they live, even if it requires them to search under bridges, ride snowmobiles into remote areas of Alaska, or ride a horse to count families in New Mexico.
In 2000, the census message - "This is your future. Don't leave it blank." - was seen or heard an average of 50 times per person and had reached 99 percent of the U.S. population.
From February 15, 2000, to April 15, 2000, 12 Road Tour Vehicles (RTVs) visited locations across the United States promoting Census 2000.
The 2010 census advertising campaign included television, radio, print, outdoor and internet advertising, produced in an unprecedented 28 languages.
2010 Census Confidentiality Poster