Since 1790, the United States has conducted a census of its population every ten years. It is a useful source for all sorts of information about residents, but the kind of data collected has changed dramatically over the decades.
For example, until 1850, little information was collected on people born outside the U.S., but by then immigration was becoming more common. In response to that phenomenon more space was devoted to literacy. By 1880 “nativity” included three columns, one each for the person counted, his/her father, and his/her mother. In the 1940 Census (the most recent one available) “mother tongue” was identified. In fact, the amount of data in that Sixteenth Census is incredible, including questions relating to that new-fangled thing called Social Security, and a query about “usual occupation,” which recognized the prior ten years of the Great Depression and its impact on employment. Notwithstanding the occasional glitch in transcription as in the case of my Great-Grandfather Jake mentioned earlier, or the intentional errors also noted earlier, the U.S. Census can provide rich data about ancestors here in the U.S.
Here’s a trick that should make them easier to use. A blank form of each census is available, just click on this link. Downloading or printing them out make for a lot easier reading of the microscopic print that titles each column as you discover your ancestors. Check them out.