Comparing 1940 with 1930: The Piotrowski’s

Like many of us, I dove right in last week with the release of the 1940 Census, and was excited to quickly find all four of my grandparents: two in Chicago, one in East Chicago, Indiana, and one in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In my family narrative, the 1940 census offers a glimpse into the dynamics of each of my grandparents’ lives, at an important threshold right before their marriages and the outbreak of World War II. Indeed, by the next census in 1950, each set of grandparents will have families of their own, extending the family tree to the next generation.

When I give programs on various genealogy subjects, I almost always use examples of Stanley Piotrowski, my great-grandfather. Not only did he lead an interesting life, but his genealogical paper trail is fascinating and provides a number of fantastic and instructional examples; comparing the Piotrowski’s of 1930 with the family of 1940 is one of those.

In 1930, Stanley and his wife lived on North Street in Kalamazoo, Michigan with their two children, Stella and Francis. Having moved to the city sometime in 1920 or 1921, Stanley worked as a baker and grocer and also became a leading member of the local lodge of the Polish National Alliance. Here is the family in the 1930 Census:

1930 Census, MI, Kalamazoo Co., Kalamazoo, ED-39-15, p. 9A.

Several things jump out with this example, but the most obvious is Stanley’s wife’s name. What is it? Why is it not listed? Her birth name is Wladyslawa (which may explain the enumerator’s reluctance to include it), but the Americanized name was Winifred, a much less challenging exercise. Had I been searching for just Winifred, I would not have had much luck, to say the least. This example illustrates that despite all the technological advances made in family history over the years, the records will only ever be as good as the information found in them. The real puzzler about this 1930 census page is that all of the other family data is accurate, including date of immigration and birthplace, but for whatever reason, the enumerator did not include Winifred’s name. Is there a story there? Did a neighbor provide the information? Perhaps one of the children? Did Stanley or Winifred, but then forget to give her name? Why is the name not listed? I will likely never know.

Moving forward to 1940, we find that not much has changed for the Piotrowski’s. They all still live at the same address on North Street in Kalamazoo, although Winifred is now identified by name; a pleasant change from the 1930 record! One clue not found, however, is the “x” next to the name showing which family member provided the information to the enumerator. That important mark can give the researcher an idea about the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of the information. Given Winifred’s name gap in the 1930 census, I’m not entirely surprised there is no designated “x” with the 1940 record.

1940 Census, MI, Kalamazoo Co., Kalamazoo, ED 39-19, p. 6A.

This is the last census where the Piotrowski family appears together. Francis was killed during World War II, and Stella married in 1943 and started her own family shortly thereafter. Indeed, given the seismic worldwide impact of the coming Second World War, the 1940 Census offers a singular glimpse into thousands of families across the United States, the Piotrowski family included. Although the surviving family members remained in the Kalamazoo area for decades, that Piotrowski line was never all together again on a census page. All of us have similar family stories or tragedies, which makes our 1940 finds all the more compelling.

1940 vs. 1930: Census Release Day

Having been a local history and genealogy librarian for nearly a dozen years, I’ve now experienced “Census Release Day” on two occasions as a professional, first with the 1930 and now with the 1940. I’m not one to get caught up in the first-day mania, but I do get excited with all of the media attention the day brings to our field of study. Coupled with the success of the “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Finding Your Roots” television series, genealogy and family history has never been as popular or as mainstream as it is today.

As that smiling face behind the reference desk that assists researchers in utilizing the resources, online tools, and various finding aids to locate their ancestors, I’m particularly interested in the first-day experience from the librarian’s perspective. In my experience here in Michigan, the difference between the 1930 census release day back in 2002 and the 1940 release this week is remarkable. I know it’s difficult (or painful) to remember, but life in 2002 didn’t include Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Flickr, or “The Cloud.” Think of how quickly information (or misinformation) spreads in today’s world, whether it be new product launches, content updates, or hot topic news. Social media platforms and new technologies have transformed genealogy research in immeasurable ways; our online habits, research strategies, and information sharing today is so much more immediate, widespread, and sophisticated than in 2002. Of all the stories that the 1940 census will unlock for researchers, the most remarkable just might be how genealogists access and share information and how librarians manage those researchers’ immediate expectations.

Back in 2002, researchers arrived at the library looking for and expecting the 1930 census both on microfilm and online. The researcher’s realization that the data was often not immediately available, accessible, or indexed, due to server overload, data upload, or processing time, was sometimes difficult. I recall that Michigan was one of the earliest states put up online, yet many researchers still used the traditional access strategies brought via microfilm. As we progressed through the decade, however, fewer and fewer researchers utilized the films and instead relied solely on the subscription databases; online indexing, however frustrating, coupled with the lack of traditional indexes certainly accelerated this phenomenon.

Yesterday, a number of researchers visited the library looking for and expecting the 1940 census online; microfilm is an afterthought. Michigan may or may not be one of the earlier states put up online this time around, but researchers now will instinctively use online access via FamilySearch, Ancestry, and the National Archives. Today, researcher frustrations now center around overwhelmed servers, time delays with page loads, and unindexed content, not the absence of microfilm. Certainly, we have experienced a sea change in access and research expectations from one decade to the next.

Over the years, I’ve learned that being a reference librarian also means being a coach, friend, drill sergeant, therapist, handyman, and information guru. Teaching and guiding researchers of all levels in this age of instant access has been interesting, to say the least. Helping researchers understand that thousands – millions? – of genealogists just like them are also anxiously waiting to study those same images has forced me to demonstrate some of my hidden reference talents mentioned above.

I’m already looking forward to the limitless possibilities of the 1950 Census release-date on April 1, 2022. How different will genealogy research be then? Think of how our research has evolved in the last 10 years, or even the last 5 years. What an exciting time to be researching family history!

A missing Kamp

With the release of the 1940 Census now less than 40 days away (!), many researchers are anxiously awaiting the opportunity to explore the records, make new discoveries, and reconnect with lost ancestors.

In my research, there is one couple I am particularly anxious to reconnect with. Frank and Mary Kamp lived in Washington County, Pennsylvania (about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh) at the time of the 1920 Census. Here is the Kamp family in 1920: Frank, Mary, Albert, Jane, and Julia with her husband William Alderson.

The Kamp family, 1920 Census, Peters Twp., Washington Co., PA (ED 209, p. 2B)

Following that enumeration, however, I have been unable to find evidence of either Frank or Mary in any records. By 1930, their son Albert had moved to California, daughter Jane had remained in the Pittsburgh area, and daughter Julia had moved to Chicago. Yet Frank and Mary have continually evaded detection and proven to be my genealogy kryptonite.

The one question from the 1940 Census that I’m most interested in is the “In what place did this person live on April 1, 1935?” query. Think about the value of that question! Given the post-1920 gap in my research, this question could unlock the mysteries surrounding my Kamp research.

Over the years, I’ve had several promising leads and a few educated guesses about Frank and Mary’s whereabouts in 1930 and beyond, but nothing has ever panned out. I’m hoping that, if still alive then, they will represent my first 1940 Census research triumph. Here’s hoping the 1930 Kamp mystery will finally be solved a decade later!