Lessons from the 1940 Census


My great-grandmother Jane Purcell had a wonderfully full life. Part of her story is revealed in the 1940 U.S. Census, which the National Archives and Records Administration made available online to the public in 2012 at: 1940census.archives.gov: .

In 1940, Jane and some of her extended family resided at 1509 Orchlee in Brighton Heights. She was 71 then and listed as “head of house.” Her place of birth was listed as “France.”

She was born in Alsace-Lorraine, after all, and came to America with her family as a girl. Her parents ran a North Side tavern. That’s where Jane met her husband, Thomas Purcell, an Irish immigrant who would become a mill foreman.

Jane and Tom married in 1886, when Jane was 18. They would have seven daughters and one son – and face their share of loss.

One daughter, Adele, died in 1891, at age 3. A second, Stella, died in 1916, at 19. A third, Mary, would give birth to sons Johnny in 1909 and Thomas in 1911, but Thomas would die in 1912 – and Mary would be taken the following year, at 25. Jane would take her grandson Johnny in and raise him.

In 1927, Jane would lose her husband to cancer. He was 65. They’d had a good life and he’d provided well for her.

She was 59 then and fortunate that her only son, Tom Purcell Jr. – my grandfather – would help support her. A charming fellow with a head for numbers, he would soon become a personal accountant working directly for the Mellon family. He’d marry my grandmother Beatrice and have two children, my Aunt Jane and my father, Tom.

The stock market would crash in 1929 and Jane’s family would suffer its effects. With companies going under and jobs being lost, her children and their children would be forced to share homes – some moved back in with her.

Her son Tom was a savior during these years. He enjoyed a secure income, though he spent much of it providing shoes and other necessities for his mother, siblings, nieces and nephews.

But in 1937, Jane would lose her only son, too. My grandfather died of strep throat at the young age of 34, a tremendous blow to Jane and her family.

All of this took place before the 1940 census. The Depression lingered and many households were comprised of extended-family members living together to make ends meet. According to the 1940 census, Great-Grandma Jane’s household included:

Her youngest daughter, Jean, 29, whose occupation was listed as “stenographer.” She earned $900 that year.

Her grandson Johnny, 31, a carpenter by trade, who could find no work in his field. My grandfather had gotten him a job as a bank guard. He listed his income as $2,506.

Her daughter, Helen, 47, and Helen’s husband, Cornelius, 48. Cornelius was a pattern maker, also unable to find work in his field. His occupation was listed as “substitute teacher,” his income as $1,100.

Helen and Cornelius’ sons, Jack, 12, and Tom, 10 – now 85 and 83.

Jack told me the house was always full of activity. There was always someone at home. Every other Saturday, all of Jane’s remaining children and their children would gather. As the adults played cards upstairs, the children played in the fruit cellar in the basement.

When Jane and her family participated in the 1940 census, they had no idea that the country would soon enter the Second World War, that her grandson Johnny would be drafted early (he would make it home) or that her son-in-law Cornelius would soon be working so many hours as a pattern maker – in support of the war effort – that he and Helen would save enough money to buy their own house in 1943.

When they did, Great-Grandma Jane would sell her old home, which held a million wonderful memories. She’d share the proceeds with her children. She’d move in with Cornelius, Helen and their sons. Her grandson Johnny would move in with them when he returned from the war.

For the next four years, she’d enjoy the company of her children and grandchildren, most of whom lived within blocks and would visit her often. Her health suffered during her last few years, and in 1947, she died quietly at home at the age of 78.

So there you have it: a snapshot of the wonderfully full life experienced by my Great-Grandma Purcell – a snapshot made possible, in part, by the 1940 census.

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