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U.S. Census Connections: A Resource Guide

History of the U.S. Census

Thomas Worth, artist. Taking the Census. 1870. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Mandated by law and billed as the largest peacetime mobilization effort anywhere in the world, the U.S. Decennial Census, officially known as the Census of Population and Housing, has been conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau every ten years since 1790—the year the first census was taken. An attempt is made to count every individual and to survey a percentage of the populace for a snapshot of the nation's inhabitants.

Preparations for collecting this vast body of information involves months and years of planning and strategy—coordinating the efforts of thousands of people and partnerships at various governmental and organizational levels—and massive data collection efforts and data tabulations using a variety of methods, some quite complex, all culminating in the publishing of a plethora of census data products over a span of several years.

Statistics show that as the Nation's population grew and its demographics changed, so did the decennial census evolve in order to measure that growth and change. As a result, no two censuses are exactly alike. To count a population of 3,329,326 in 1790, the census cost $44,377, utilized 1,650 enumerators, and culminated in one published volume totaling 56 pages.1 The 1990 Census counted a population of 248,709,873, cost $2.5 billion, and culminated in published census reports totaling 450,000 pages.2 For the 2010 Census, 308.7 million people were counted at an estimated cost of $12.9 billion, using 635,000 enumerators3 and the resulting data was published strictly online.

Census programs and the data collection and processing procedures associated with them are formidable operations that generate census data reports and products in a variety of formats including print, microfiche, computer tape, CD-ROM, and DVD-ROMs and, in recent decades, online. Printed reports were a major method of publication for the decennial census and a primary method for the economic census, but the advent of computer technology signaled a dubious future for printed reports. The 1960 Decennial Census became the first to be tabulated completely by computer, and the 1990 Decennial Census was the first census to go online, offering much of its data in PDF format. The 2000 and 2010 Decennial Census data was fully available online via the American FactFinder—the Bureau's online data retrieval tool. In 2020 it was replaced by the new Census data portal: data.census.gov. As a result, the Census Bureau ceased publishing of all printed census reports. In a similar fashion, printed reports were substantially reduced for the 1997 Economic Census and were discontinued entirely starting with the 2007 Economic Census.

Print Materials on Census History

These print resources provide general background information on the development of the decennial and economic census programs. The following materials link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to digital content are provided when available.

Notes

  1. Merriam, William Rush. American census taken from the first census of the United States. Reprinted from The Century Magazine for April 1903, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1904. Pages 12, 14, and 32. Back to text
  2. U.S. Census Bureau. Census 1990 Fast Facts. Back to text
  3. U.S. Census Bureau. Census 2010 Fast Facts. Back to text