1940 Census data offers snapshot of Issaquah after Great Depression

May 8, 2012

By Christina Lords

1940 Census ledger from Issaquah

For historians around the world, including members of the Issaquah History Museums, April 2 was a big day.

Executive Director Erica Maniez had her own personal countdown going for that particular Monday, because after finally fulfilling the mandatory 72-year waiting period, records from the 1940 U.S. Census were released by the U.S. National Archives.

“It was interesting to see some of the old familiar families, and how the next generations down were living in their own households,” she said. “I’ve noticed quite a few people that I’ve known since I worked here who have since passed away, but I did know some people here that are still living.”

Mysteries get solved

The document helps individual genealogists and historians piece together information from Issaquah’s past, she said.

“You can always learn something about your family that you didn’t know before,” she said. “You would be amazed at the tiny little mysteries that get solved.”

The federal government requires a census be taken once every 10 years to determine the number of members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The first was taken in 1790.

The 1940 data, collected entirely by enumerators going door-to-door, reflect the economic tumult of the Great Depression and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal recovery programs of the 1930s.

“It shows us the value of education versus the difficulties of the depression,” Maniez said. “I think a lot of people didn’t bother finishing high school because it was more important to get out and work.”

Men tended to have only a couple of years into high school, while women more commonly graduated because there was less opportunity to join the workforce, she said.

Significant population growth

Get involved

FamilySearch.org is crowd-sourcing indexing work for the 1940 Census. Volunteer indexers can go to the site and download indexing software, and then download pages to index. The records for Washington are now available for indexing.

On the Web

See a scan of the 1940 Census document and the PDF version of the actual instructions given to enumerators at www.1940census.archives.gov /questions-asked.

Between 1930 and 1940, the population of the continental United States (Hawaii and Alaska were not yet states) increased 7.2 percent to 131,669,275, according to the National Archives. Issaquah’s population increased by 47 people, from 765 people in 1930 to 812 people in 1940, during that same time frame.

Maniez said there was a more significant increase in the “greater Issaquah” or Gilman precinct. The 1930 Census tallied 906 people, while the 1940 Census reflected the area’s growth with 1,381 people.

“More people were moving to the area,” she said. “That has to do with the fact that Issaquah was established. It had a lot of services that it could provide for the people who lived nearby. It was becoming an attractive place.”

Ahh, progress

Aside from identifying the name, age, relationship and occupation of each person, the 1940 Census included questions about internal migration; employment status; participation in the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration and National Youth Administration programs; and years of education a person had.

The Issaquah Salmon Hatchery and the town’s sewer system were examples of WPA projects completed during that time.

“We had information before about how many people were working for the government, for WPA and CCC, but this gives us the opportunity to see who those people were in Issaquah,” Maniez said.

The information will help track the migration of Issaquah residents from place to place more closely, she said.

“It’s relatively easy to look at the census and see where people were coming from,” she said, “but we won’t be able to tell until the whole thing is indexed where people went when they left Issaquah. I’m sure there are people who moved away, but we won’t know where they went until the whole thing is indexed.”

There were 10 people employed under a “laborer or odd jobs” category in 1930, but with the hardships of the Great Depression, that category of worker ceased to exist as everyone looking for work would be eager to take on odd jobs.

“What was called laborer/odd jobs in 1930 was basic survival in 1940,” Maniez said.

People began to take on different — and more specialized — types of work during that period. Many of the miners listed in the census said they were unemployed or underemployed, indicating coal mining was less dominating an industry than it once was. After the Grand Ridge mine closed in 1925, many of Issaquah’s miners were either working in smaller mines or traveling to places like Newcastle to work.

“It was definitely not a coal mining town anymore. It was much more of a logging town by that point,” Maniez said. “There was still a lot of dairy farming and poultry farming going on.”

Merchants, interesting jobs increase

Maniez said Issaquah experienced a healthy increase in merchants — from about 21 merchants in 1930 to 30 offering services in 1940 — but more telling was the number of residents employed by them. That number went from 11 to 45, more than quadrupling that portion of the business sector.

“Business was at a point where store owners were able to hire more staff,” she said. “You start to see things like … a beauty shop. There’s a tea room. There’s more than one restaurant.”

As transportation by automobile became more common and affordable, more auto-related services began to spring up — something reflected by the employment questions of the census. People began to list themselves as gas station operators and attendants, mechanics and car salespeople. Increases were also seen in those doing road construction.

Maniez said other people held interesting jobs, including Ray Blasterwalt who claimed to be a gold miner, Kenneth Golbert who listed himself as an “author, literary profession” and Margaret Lee who was a stenographer at a box company.

Christina Lords: 392-6434, ext. 239, or newcastle@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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