The U. S. government conducts a census of the nation every ten years. At the turn of a new decade, census takers count all residents of the U. S., whether citizen or not, and record basic information about them. As a practical matter, census takers record households, so that a census record for a certain address would list all residents of the house by name, their ages, sex, and occupations. In 1905, 1915, 1925, and 1935, the State of Rhode Island conducted a state census.

Some censuses are indexed. Others require that one know the address of a person first, so they are typically used in conjunction with city directories. The federal census records are open for examination after 70 years, meaning that sometime after 2000, the 1930 records will be opened. Microfilm of the federal records is available in libraries and historical societies around the country and can be purchased. Rhode Island State census manuscripts are all open and available in the State Archives.

Historians look at them to verify residence, relationship of one person to another, occupation, ages, etc. They are careful, however, to crosscheck information in the census records because it is not always accurate. If a resident does not speak English, it may be difficult for the census taker to understand the person’s name, for example. Misspellings abound in census records, as do inaccuracies about age, relationship, and occupation. For many reasons, residents may not give their true occupation to the census taker, or reveal the extra jobs they do to get by.

The curators used the census records to verify information about the family and workers. They were able to tell when children were born, and what spouses did. They could also tell how many people were living with the family, and who they were. Since Italian immigrants tended to live together in extended families, the census records were helpful in discovering how those households were constituted. It also was a very good way to track when immigrants became naturalized citizens.

Research in the census records was also very revealing about the clients. Using the 1920 census, the curators were able to see where the clients lived and who else lived in the neighborhood. They uncovered "Clients’ Row," and found neighborhoods where many clients lived only a few houses apart. Census records were also helpful in finding out what the husbands’ jobs were, how old the children were, and if there were servants in the household. Significantly, unlike many kinds of records–such as wills and even obituaries–census records show the women clearly as well as the men.

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Much of the information in the People Database was confirmed with reference to census records.