If you have ever searched the US Census records, you have probably noticed there are some records missing. The year 1890 seems to have been a pivotal time in the histories of the families I’ve researched. But most of that year’s census records no longer exist.
In addition to standard questions such as name, sex, age, race, occupation, and place of birth, the 1890 census asked about a person’s ability to read and write and to speak English, whether a person owned their home and how much they paid, whether they had a disability, disease, or illness, whether a person had been naturalized or was working toward that end, and whether they had served in the Civil War. The 1890 census was also significant in that it was the first one processed by a machine using punch cards.
The National Archives did not exist until 1934. Prior to that, governmental agencies kept (or as was often the case, did not keep) track of their own records. The Census Bureau once fell under the US Department of Commerce and Labor, and the Bureau’s records were kept in that department’s building. On January 10, 1921, a fire broke out in the basement. Fire fighters responded as they do and put out the blaze. A vault, supposedly fire- and waterproof, housed most of the census records. Water managed to seep in and damaged some of them. The 1910 records sustained the most significant damage of those records inside the vault. The 1890 census sat outside the vault.
What caused the fire? Faulty electrical wires? A careless smoker? Spontaneous combustion? Investigators never determined the cause with any certainty. But the paper documents, and the wooden shelves holding them, burned quickly.
Any records not damaged by the fire still had to contend with the water. Sure, water extinguishes fire, removes the immediate threat, but then you have a bunch of wet paper. Not only does water affect the legibility of records – ink can run, pages can stick together – but if the documents remain wet for very long, mold will gather. When mold gathers, it multiplies and infests.
Modern day disaster recovery for such a situation usually involves companies who will take your waterlogged documents and freeze-dry them. In addition to drying the documents, the extreme cold kills mold spores (and bugs).
But of course, in 1921, they didn’t have modern-day recovery methods. And although many people called for a national archives and better storage facilities, especially after this particular fire, somehow the 1890 census got left out of the vault, so to speak, once again.
In 1932, the Census Bureau sent a list of items no longer needed for its purposes to the Librarian of Congress, whose responsibilities included identification of historically significant documents. The 1890 Census, or what was left of it, was on the list, but the librarian did not identify it as historical or worth saving. I’m not sure if the true condition of those documents was known. Maybe they were a lost cause, a pile of charred papers. Or maybe they were covered in mold. Maybe they were recoverable, maybe not. But I know I would appreciate having that year’s census to refer to when doing research.
The genealogy research website Ancestry.com has compiled other resources such as state censuses, city directories, and voter registration lists for the year 1890 to fill in some of the gap (you need a subscription to access them; many public libraries enable access on-site). Some of these records are also available at archives archives and other research facilities. Locally, the Detroit Public Library has excellent resources as part of the Burton Historical Collection.
For a great detailed write up of the 1890 census history, check out the article First in the Path of the Firemen: The Fate of the 1890 Population Census by Kellee Blake.