It was a decade when tens of millions of people in the U.S. experienced mass unemployment and social upheaval as the nation clawed its way out of the Great Depression and rumblings of global war were heard from abroad.
Now, intimate details of 132 million people who lived through the 1930s will be disclosed as the U.S. government releases the 1940 census on April 2 to the public for the first time after 72 years of being kept confidential.
More than 120,000 enumerators surveyed 132 million people for the Sixteenth Decennial Census — 21 million of whom are alive today in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Access to the records will be free and open to anyone on the Internet — but they will not be immediately name searchable.
Not to worry, though, several groups are working hard to create the name indexes that will allow you to search for the people you are interested in. Here's what Ancestry.com says:
At midnight on April 2, 2012, the National Archives will hand off the 1940 census records to Ancestry.com. Then we will start working around the clock to get each census page online so you can browse it with our new image viewer. And Ancestry.com will also provide you with updates, advice and custom guidance throughout the process, allowing you to make your discoveries as quickly and easily as possible.
There are many social science questions that can be asked with these data--they are not simply useful for personal family histories.
Margo Anderson, a census historian, said the release of the records could help answer questions about Japanese-Americans interned in camps after the outbreak of WWII.
"What we'll be able to do now, which we really couldn't do, is to take a look at what the Japanese-American community looked like on the eve of evacuation," said Anderson, a professor of history and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Keep in mind that you can also now put your own family data into broader historical context by downloading data from the 1% sample of census records of the 1940 census that are already available at the www.ipums.org website of the University of Minnesota's Population Center.