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A Wilthew family through the US Federal Census [part 1]

July 25, 2012

On the 2nd of April 2012, the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released the embargoed images from the 1940 US Federal Census. Volunteers have been indexing the returns since that date, to be available for free, to all, in perpetuity. Which is nice.

I’ve already scoured the earlier census tracing a tragic ancestor and have identified 42 Wilthew’s living in the United States between 1870 and 1940, grouped into 9 family groups and tracking several across consecutive decades (except for the 1890 census, which sadly is largely lost to us following a fire and a librarian who did not effectively ‘library’). Bad Librarian, sit on the naughty step.

My working file: Wilthew's in the United States Census

My working file: Wilthew’s in the United States Census

Of the 42 Wilthew’s identified so far, I’ve identified 10 of their returns in the 1940 census (with the census 87% indexed at the point of writing this). I expect to possibly identify at least one more individual following correspondence with a Wilthew family in Mexico.

It’s interesting to note some of the differences between the UK and US census:

  • In the UK census,questions on race or ethnicity were only added in 1991; In the US, ‘race’ was a key question back to at least 1840 (and obviously also asked questions at this time that wouldn’t be dreamed of even in 1840’s Britain, such as whether an individual was ‘free’ or a ‘slave’)
  • Nationality has always appeared in the UK census in some form, back to the first ‘individual’ census of 1841… but for the US, a land built by immigrants, the questions on this were much more thorough, exploring not only an individuals place of birth, but also each of their parents.
  • No British scruples about discussing your income in the US census – we still don’t declare that in the most recent 2011 census
  • The US census 1940 is also far more thorough in its collecting of data on education and employment.. yet frustratingly does not explore family sizes (such as number of children living or deceased), as the UK census had been since 1911 (and the US census did in 1910).
  • Comparing the 1940 US census to the 1941 UK census is tricky – there was no 1941 UK census, as most of the UK population was involved in a little war with Germany at the time.

Exploring one Wilthew, and tracing his appearance in the census backwards, I’ll use William Henry Wilthew (my second cousin, 4x removed).

1940 US Federal Census

In 1940, William Wilthew is listed as being 73 (so born circa 1867), living with his wide Mary (72) living at 126 East Main Street, Girard, Liberty Township, Trumbull County, Ohio. They have lived there since at least April 1st 1935, and own their house, which was then valued at $4000. For a bit of context, the median value of a house in Ohio in 1940 was $3,415 according to the US Federal Census data collected, at a time when home ownership was at 50% so – the Wilthew’s appear to have been doing reasonably well for themselves..

1940 US Census excerpt for William Henry Wilthew

1940 US Census excerpt for William Henry Wilthew

Both William and Mary had been educated to 8th grade (aged 14). Both had been born in Pennsylvania (the State line is only about 15 km away). Employment wise, neither William nor Mary had been in work at any point during that year (except for Mary indicating she was engaged in housework). Given their ages, this may seem unsurprising, but in 1940 over 40% of the male population over the age of 65 were recorded as being part of the labour force (or labor force if you really have to). William lists himself as being ‘unable’ to work, but having received at least $50 so far that year, so it will be interesting to see if it is possible to identify from where this came from (private or state pension, benefits, private savings or investments etc).

There is no indication of any children – but then any children are likely to have grown up and flown the coup by this point.

1930 US Federal Census

In 1930, William H Wilthew is listed as living at the same address (126 East Main Street, Trumbull, Ohio) along with his wife Mary E Wilthew. They own their property (this time valued at $60001) and they are listed as owning their own radio set, one of 12 million people out of a population of over 122 million.

1930 US Federal Census excerpt for William H Wilthew

1930 US Federal Census excerpt for William H Wilthew

In the 1930 census we also get some more personal details. In 1930, aged 63 and 62, William and Mary have been married for 41 years. As in the 1940 census, both list their birthplace as Pennsylvania, but whereas both of Mary’s parents were born in the United States, William indicates his father was born in England.

William also indicates he is employed and working (he answered the question “were you at work yesterday” with a ‘yes’) as a foreman in a steel mill. At the height of the Great Depression, William could perhaps consider himself lucky to be in work at the time of the 1930 census (taken on the 1st of April 1930). The Ohio Steel industry was not spared the dramatic economic downturn, and it would be interesting to explore through any available employment records (possibly at Youngstown historical center for history and labor or the Western Reserve Historical Society) how he fared in subsequent years.

[In Ohio,] there were 164,400 fewer workers carried on the payrolls in December 1930 than in December 1929 … By the close of 1931 there were 332,700 fewer employed than in December 1929.2

Twelve years after the end of the Great War (and eleven years after the United States entry into the war), and potentially still within the lifetime of veterans of the civil war, the 1930 census also asked the veteran status of individuals. William indicated he was not a military veteran.

1920 US Federal Census

Moving back to the 1920 census, we start to see more details about William’s offspring. William is living at the same address as he is recorded at in 1930 and 1940. The 1920 census did not ask with regards the value of homes, but did ask (if it was owned) if it was owned outright, or with a mortgage. It appears that William and his family lived in their home mortgage free, with William listed as employed as the foreman at a “Bar Mill” (probably a smaller mill producing steel bars, rather than producing steel as a raw product or a larger integrated mill).

Living with William and his wife are four children: Margaret E Wilthew (27), Cyril Wilthew (18), Gerald Wilthew (16) and Robert Wilthew (10). All were born in Ohio (interestingly, in contrast to the 1930 census, William lists his father as having been born in Pennsylvania), and the three son’s are indicated as having attended school at any time since 1st September 1919. For some context, in 1932 only 32% of 14 to 17-year-old youths were enrolled in a school in 1920 despite most States having enacted legislation regarding compulsory education by 1918. Ohio, for instance, was one fo five states which had set a minimum school-leaving age of 18.3 As well as attending school, Cyril is listed as an engineering surveyor, and Gerald as working as a labourer in the steel mill (part-time employment was allowed from the age of 12 or 14).

So, from the census of the three census following the Great War, this Wilthew family seem to have been part of the prosperous, if not rich, middle-class following the fortunes of the steel industry in eastern region of Ohio. William and Mary own their own house, are mortgage free and their children are educated and, where old enough, employed.

To be continued…


1 Shiller, R (2005) Irrational Exuberance (Princeton University Press 2000, Broadway Books 2001, 2nd edition). Data showing home prices since 1890 are available for download and shows that if accurate, the Wilthew’s fall in home value was in contrast to the average for the United States, which did see average falls in house prices of around 30% between 1925 and 1933 during the depression, but house prices beginning to rise again following this and certainly having exceeded their 1930 value by a decade later (although not reaching the average 1925 value until the end of the Second World War)

2 Levine (1934) ‘Workmen’s compensation experience in Ohio during the depression’ Journal of Political Economy Vol. 42, No. 2, p. 239

3 Katz, M. (1976) ‘A History of Compulsory Education Laws. FastbackSeries, No. 75. Bicentennial Series’, p20; Available at http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED119389.pdf. Accessed July 24th 2012.

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