A federal census was taken in the United States in 1890, as it had been every decade since 1790. It was especially notable for being the first federal census to provide a separate schedule form for each family, a method that would not be used again until 1970. The result was a volume of papers that far exceeded that of the previous ten federal censuses combined, which Carroll D. Wright, Commissioner of Labor, implied in his 1900 report on The History and Growth of the United States Census may have driven the ill-fated decision not to make copies.
The first damage to the 1890 census occurred on 22 March 1896, when a fire in the Census Building badly damaged the original schedules relating to mortality, crime, pauperism, and benevolence, and the special classes (deaf, dumb, blind, insane, etc.), as well as a portion of the transportation and insurance schedules. First-person accounts claim that carelessness resulted in an unnecessary delay in fighting the fire, yet another tragedy to the 1890 census.1 These damaged 1890 special schedules were believed to have been later destroyed by an order from the Department of the Interior.
The U.S. National Archives was not established until 1934, so the remaining 1890 census schedules, including the population schedules, were languishing in the basement of the Department of Commerce Building in Washington, DC, when fire broke out in January 1921, damaging a good portion of the 1890 census schedules. Many organizations, including the National Genealogical Society and Daughters of the American Revolution petitioned that the remaining damaged and waterlogged volumes be preserved. Despite this public outcry, however, thirteen years on 21 February 1933 Congress authorized the destruction of the surviving 1890 schedules, deeming them as "useless papers" under an Act originally passed by Congress on 16 February 1889 as an “Act to authorize and provide for the disposition of useless papers in the Executive Departments.2 The damaged, but surviving, 1890 federal census schedules were, unfortunately, among the last papers disposed of under this act, an act soon thereafter succeeded by the 1934 law establishing the National Archives.
In the 1940s and 1950s a few bundles of surviving census schedules from 1890 were discovered and moved to the National Archives. However, just 6,160 names were recovered from these surviving fragments of a census which originally counted nearly 63 million Americans.
- Harry Park, "Careless Fire Service Claimed," The Morning Times, Washington, D.C., 23 March 1896, page 4, col. 6.
- U.S. Congress, Disposition of Useless Papers in the Department of Commerce, 72nd Congress, 2nd Session, House Report No. 2080 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1933), no. 22 "Schedules, population 1890, original."
For Further Research:
- Dorman, Robert L. "The Creation and Destruction of the 1890 Federal Census." The American Archivist, Vol. 71 (Fall/Winter 2008) : 350-383.
- Blake, Kellee. "First in the Path of the Firemen: The Fate of the 1890 Population Census." Prologue, Vol. 28, no. 1 (Spring 1996) : 64-81.