This Is What the First Census Looked Like in 1790

The first U.S. Census looked very different than it does today.

As early as March 20, U.S. residents will receive instructions for filling out the 2020 U.S. Census. Like the inaugural U.S. census in 1790, it will only ask a few short questions. The two couldn’t be more different, however. Today’s census can be conveniently filled out online, by mail, or by telephone. In 1790, there was only one option: in person when a U.S. marshall came to your door to collect the information. And the questions? Well, they were very different than they are today.

When was the first U.S. Census?

The first U.S. census was established under President George Washington in the year 1790, who put future president and fellow founding father, Thomas Jefferson in charge. The information was collected by U.S. marshalls who traveled from house to house to record the data by hand. The questionnaire is shocking today since it includes questions regarding how many slaves resided in a particular household and enslaved peoples were not listed by name, gender, or age. Omissions like this are part of the reason we don’t learn enough about Black History Month in school.

What is the U.S. Census?

first us census historical 1790Courtesy U.S. Census Bureau

The data collected in the 1790 U.S. Census was used to essentially perform a headcount and determine how many congressional representatives each area would receive in our fledgling government. Since then the census has been used for enhanced purposes, including re-defining state and legislative districts and delegating federal funds, grants, and other means of support. From the beginning, U.S. census information has been released publically, and the data is also used by businesses to determine where to establish new factories, facilities, stores, and outposts. Here are more facts about America most Americans don’t know.

What if there’s a mistake?

Humans aren’t perfect. People make mistakes. Poor handwriting can be misinterpreted. Sometimes, people may even give false information on purpose (but please don’t do this when filling out the census because you can incur up to a $500 fine). So, what happens when a mistake is made with the U.S. census? Apparently nothing. Although the official U.S. census website acknowledges there are inaccuracies in the census, it also says they can’t correct the records since they are historic documents. If you are a genealogist or family historian using the U.S. census, they suggest making a note in your personal family record for future generations. Speaking of mistakes, everyone keeps getting these geography mistakes wrong.

What do I need to know about the 2020 U.S. Census?

historical US first census population results 1790Courtesy U.S. Census BureauMost of the country will receive an official mailing from the U.S. Census in March containing instructions for how to respond. For most, the simplest methods are phone, mail, or online. For everyone else, and anyone who doesn’t respond, census workers will visit in person to collect the required data. It’s important to know that any U.S. census worker who comes to your door will carry an official I.D. badge with their name, photograph, a U.S. Department of Commerce watermark, and expiration date. This year, there will only be a handful of brief questions, mainly pertaining to general information about age, gender, and race. If all of this information about the census has you wondering how many people are in the world, we’ve got the answers.

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Tamara Gane
Tamara Gane is a regular contributor to Reader's Digest covering travel, lifestyle, history, and culture. Her work has also appeared in The Washington Post, NPR, Al Jazeera, Wine Enthusiast, Lonely Planet, HuffPost Food, and more. You can follow her on Twitter @TamaraGane