What Happened to the 1890 Census?

Genealogy nerds like me frequently weep and fan themselves to exhaustion over a gaping hole in America’s historical record: The 1890 U.S. Census is gone.

The original was destroyed. No copies exist. No scans. No photos. Therefore nearly all of it has been erased from history.

That, my friends, is no small deal. Every ten years since 1790, we have records of who lived where, with what family members, how old they were…and assorted other nuggets of personal history. Try to research your family history, and you will quickly understand what a treasure chest each census is–“oh look, my great-great grandfather was a ‘gentleman’ by profession in 1910, while in 1900, he was a fruit peddler.” I can tell you when my great grandparents took in my young, distant cousins (after their mother’s dress caught on fire from the stove, and her instincts to run across a field to a neighboring home while aflame were fatal). I can point to the empty, weed-filled lot in Detroit and say with confidence, “Yep, that was my family’s home for over fifty years.” I know all of this because of census records.

But thanks to a deep and bizarre mystery that culminated in the obliteration of the 1890 U.S. Census, I cannot track much of my American ancestors’ history and movement from 1881 to 1899. What happened to it? According to most stories it burned up in 1921. But that isn’t really the truth. Something far stranger happened, and to this day it isn’t clear at all why it happened.

This is the story of the 1890 U.S. Census and how it went from controversial marvel, to disappearing pile of ash. What you are about to read is a tale of greed, incompetence, and mystery.

1890: The Eleventh Census is Taken

It is June, 1890. Across the country, about 86,000 men had recently been hired for temporary work as census enumerators. Now, in the June heat, each man plods door to door within his assigned district to take down a wide range of personal  and confidential family details about births, residences, parents, occupations, race, ethnicity, education, and impairments. For the first time (and what would later turn out to be the only time for many decades to come), there is a separate schedule (sheet of paper) for each family, allowing for unprecedented details to be recorded–and making it a back-breaking job to shuffle all of that paper. (It is said that there is more paper used in this census taking than in all previous ten censuses combined!)

1890 census - suriving page.png

When a family cannot be questioned personally, it is within the power of each enumerator to obtain the needed information from neighbors as proxies. It is important to be efficient in the collection, as the job must be done and reported back to Washington by the July deadline.

The untrained enumerators have sworn an oath to be courteous, confidential, and thorough–the last part being nearly guaranteed, as the men are paid according to what each records. According to the 1890 “Instructions to Enumerators” guide, they are each to be compensated to the tune of 2 cents per death reported, 5 cents per person with a mental or physical defect, or for each prisoner, pauper or homeless child. Each also receives 5 cents for each veteran or veteran’s widow from the “war of the rebellion”, and 2 cents for every other living person.

The data collection is likely grueling, tedious work without long-term prospects, but it is in service of their country and history–or, in some cases, it is a wonderful gesture of patronage by powerful friends and muggity-wumps who want well-placed (and untested) enumerators to advance their political or business agendas. Many deals across the nation hinge on the outcome of this census and what it reveals about changing populations, movements, and resources. In short, a lot of money may be made or lost over the results.

Once the work is complete, each man wraps up his work by following these guidelines as described in the August 30, 1890 issue of Scientific American:

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This is a deviation from the practice of enumerators in past decades, who had previously filed their completed census schedules with County Clerks offices before they were forwarded to Washington. But this year, there is so much data (*sigh*) that the hand-copying burden is an easy excuse for the census records to bypass local offices and head straight to Washington, and only Washington. All eggs in one flammable basket.

This is per the wishes of Congress, in an act to trim funding needed to make the local-level copies. If any local municipalities want to see their census records, they may, instead of leafing through their own copies, simply write to Washington D.C. and request a copy be mailed. The anticipation, of course, is that this will rarely ever happen.

Nevertheless, there is marked excitement about this particular census, moreso than in previous decades, as this is the first time the census is being electronically tabulated by punch cards. This means that the census can be tabulated in about six weeks, with dozens of men and women hard at work at the punch machines.

1890 Census - punch machines

Even with such innovations, it will still be years before all of the final statistical volumes on the census will be published.

In the meantime, all of the census documents, delivered safely to Washington, remain in their original mailing portfolios, bound in twine, and stacked like sandwiches on wooden shelves in a government office basement. Some of the special schedules are loose and piled willy-nilly, vulnerable to dust and the environment.

This is not typical. The custom would typically be to bind them neatly into volumes of equal thickness, but the expense for such an uniquely enormous collection is seen by Congress as a wasteful cost that cannot be politically supported. So the solution is that instead of storing the records in Room 216 in the attic of the Patent Office Building, as all other previous census records are, the Census Division has decided to stack the 1890 collection in the basement of Marinis Hall. This is how the government saves $30,000 in binding costs and defers a permanent solution until a later date. Little do they know (though they may suspect), this will never happen.

March 22, 1896: Fire at Marinis Hall

2:00 am, Sunday March 22, 1896. Fire breaks out in the basement of Marinis Hall, at 918 E Street, Washington DC. This is the home of the United States Census Office, and where many schedules, totaling more than 300 tons of paper, from the 1890 Census are being housed very near to a stifling boiler.

The fire roars up the back of the building in particular, reaching the second and third floors, and billowing thick smoke. The smoke, in particular, causes some delays in extinguishing the blaze. One eye-witness (the Editor of the Washington Times) claims that the firefighters are sitting idly by as the flames grow, waiting for orders to go to work. Within 30 minutes of the fire report, the flames are extinguished. The firefighters are, however, vexed to find that the fire reignited in the same building by 6am, at which time they are called out again to extinguish the flare-up.

The damages are said to run between $10,000-20,000, and many documents are lost. However, almost immediately, officials comment that most of the papers gone to the fire are of little consequence and will not be missed. This is not entirely true, of course, for it emerges later on that the 1890 special schedules documenting crime, pauperism, mortality, and impairments have been damaged, and are permanently destroyed by Congressional order. The general population census, however, escapes the flames, smoke, and water.

This incident may be considered a cautionary harbinger for the Census Office and its parent, the United States Congress, but leaders seem not to heed the dangers presented by this fire.

March 6, 1902: The Census Records Move

Surprisingly, up until 1902, the Census Office operates rather loosely, reporting directly to Congress but working out of temporary, rented offices (such as the tinderbox Marinis Hall described above). On March 6, 1902, the Department of the Interior absorbs the Census Office, transforming it into the Census Bureau. The census files, including from 1890, are relocated to the new Census Bureau headquarters, at the Department of Commerce Building (or “Union Building”) on G Street in Washington DC.

This is seen as a distressing move by many factions, as the new home is hardly more secure than the last, and the 1890 census remains unbound and particularly vulnerable to age and damage.

But House Appropriates Chairman Joseph G. Gannon is insulted by the suggestion that binding is still necessary, and is further affronted that the country is paying $1,800 per year to rent storage space for this particular census year. He fumes that no one in public or private life is likely to have any use for them and calls the census “antiquated waste paper”. He is wrong, of course.

But his powerful position blunts the demands of Census Director, Senator William J. Harris, of Georgia, who insists that the census files must not go to the Commerce Building, but rather to a more secure location to shield them from fire. He is not the only protestor, and many letters are written relating the invaluable nature of such documents and the need to protect them. All pleas fall on deaf ears. The unbound census files are sent to the basement of the Commerce Building, partially to reside in a new fire-resistant and allegedly waterproof vault.

January 10, 1921: Fire at the Commerce Building

5:30 pm, a night watchman on duty at the Commerce Building notices smoke pouring into the file room from below. This is the building where complete census records from 1790 through present, reside on shelves in a basement vault that is supposed to be waterproof and fireproof. Curiously, the 1890 census itself is stacked just outside of the vault on pine shelves–perhaps because of the sheer size of the tomes.

The front desk calls the fire department, which arrives in approximately 30 minutes, (only then electing to evacuate the building of personnel). By this time, the smoke is thick and it takes large streams of water flooding the basement to extinguish the blaze. The firefighters chop and drill through floors in order to reach the root of the fire. The predicament is made worse by a carpenter’s shop that adjoins the basement vault, with scattered wood shavings fueling the fire.

The records in the vault (located at in the southeast end of the building), which are supposed to be safe, are exposed to the disaster by a broken window in the vault’s door, and a floor that does not hold to its waterproof promise. The drilling and chopping performed by the firefighters only further compromises the integrity of basement storage.

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Outside, over 10,000 people are reported to be watching the inferno.

By about 10:30 pm, the firemen wrap up their work and head home, as do the workers and onlookers, aside from a few night watchmen. A clerk opens one or more windows to allow the smoke to diffuse into the night air, but the damaged pages sit idle and unaided. The smokey, and waterlogged tomes of the 1890 Census remain untouched overnight.

What probably started as a stray spark in the basement carpenter shop has now created a bureaucratic mess of how to manage the charred, soggy scene. Many people are surely culpable for failings on many levels (including whomever decided that a carpenter shop should be placed next to invaluable paper records stored on wooden shelves).

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January, 1921: The Remains of the 1890 Census are Relocated

At first, officials bemoan a total loss of records, but what quickly emerges is the reality that only about one-quarter of the 1890 census records are totally and utterly destroyed. Another 37% or so have some smoke and water damage, and it is insinuated by those in the know that as much as 37% of the collection (approximately) is completely unharmed.

However, a week or more goes by before salvage personnel are permitted to examine, remove, and treat the volumes, pending insurance company examinations. It is the end of January before the damaged items are removed to another location–the stable of the old Heurich Brewery where they are piled indiscriminately in a large, solid heap.

As months go by, (and, presumably, estimates of time, expenses, and manpower involved in salvaging and preserving the records are reviewed) a chilling rumor grows that current Census Director, Sam Rogers, is now recommending to Congress the complete destruction of the entire 1890 census. Several groups launch campaigns to prevent such a horror, including the Daughters of the American Revolution, genealogical groups, and many prominent figures. The Census Bureau reacts with reassurances that the rumors are unfounded and with suggestions that a National Archive is the key to preventing such disasters in the future.

May, 1921: The Remains of the 1890 Census are Returned to the Commerce Building

It is now May, 1921, and a new Census Director, named William Steuart, has taken charge. He understandably gripes that the 1890 census records are rotting untouched and unorganized in the nearby warehouse, and that should they remain in such a state, Congress might as well destroy them rather than paying rent for their decay. Once again, genealogical and historical groups are riled.

The Congressional Appropriations Committee, which generally is apt to balk at any census expense, is rather shocked to learn from Steuart that there are no other copies of the census. It is shortly after this revelation that Steuart is able to order the transfer of the collection back to the Commerce Building for sorting and accessible storage. This is a very interesting move, for it further suggests that much, or at least some, of the 1890 census was salvageable, even legible and usable. If restoration funds and efforts are applied, the implication is that much of the 1890 census may endure this second fire.

December, 1932: The Ordered Destruction of the 1890 Census

It is now December, 1932. More than a decade has passed since the fire at the Commerce Building. The Department of Commerce has even just completed construction on a new headquarters in Washington DC–an ornate building that is larger than any other office building in the world.

This is the landmark month when a very curious thing happens out of the Census Bureau: The Chief Clerk of the Bureau sends the Congressional Librarian a list of documents and papers that are longer needed and scheduled to be destroyed. This is done as a matter of routine according to the “useless papers report” disposal procedure that was put in place (in lieu of spending budget dollars on a secure archive) to prevent unnecessary paper kindling posing a fire hazard.

On this particular list of December, 1932, the 22nd item on the list reads, “Schedules, Population… 1890, original”. It is the duty of the Librarian to review the list and weed out any historically important items that require preservation and protection.

This is the mystery that will come to haunt historians and genealogists for centuries: Why was the 1890 census ever on the list, and why did the Librarian not flag it for preservation?

It takes a little over a year for Congress to approve the request, and by 1934, the 1890 Census is said to be completely and intentionally destroyed by the U.S. Government.

Reflections on the Loss

From the time of the 1890 census’s original compilation to its ultimate destruction, the United States government acted with extreme negligence, carelessness, irreverence, and myopia. It is, frankly, a wonder that any of our census records have survived, and that we only bemoan the loss of one set. Congress repeatedly utterly failed to protect a product of our Constitution.

But, still, why is it gone? Or, more enigmatically, where has it gone?

As I see it, there are three plausible scenarios as to the fate of this census.

The most likely is that after the 1921 relocation of the records back to the Commerce Building, they continued to rot. Mold and decay may have destroyed what precious pages and volumes remained. And maybe what passed between the Librarian and the Census Bureau (without any known record of such a communication), was that they were, quite embarrassingly, unsalvageable due to sheer incompetence. So very quietly, without making any newspaper headlines, the humiliating heap is eliminated.

A slightly less likely scenario is that it was all one big mistake, a colossal oversight by some pencil pushers at the Census Bureau, as well as the Congressional Librarian, and, eventually, Congress. While this is far from impossible, given the bureaucratic track record of handling the census to that date, it seems farfetched–especially since someone, at some point, had to take the bother of writing out the request on the list. And when the mountains of paper were removed from the Commerce Building and trucked out the back door, surely someone would have noticed and minded.

And still there is one more theory: What if much of the 1890 census survives still?

Small batches of 1890 census papers have been found intact (more or less) on two separate occasions: Once in 1942, during a Census Bureau office move, and again in 1953.  They are tiny volumes, but they provide hope that somewhere in a crate, in a warehouse, in a basement somewhere, other bundles survived. Perhaps the Congressional destruction request is misunderstood by us today.

Maybe the phone call between the maligned Librarian and the Census Bureau staff confirmed that the pieces being destroyed were only those that could no longer be read–a fraction of the overall collection. Consider that this was a time of great shifting, moving, and a virtual revolving door of bureaucrats. The Great Depression was bogging down Washington, the National Archives were about to be built within the next year.

With all of the movement and change, it seems reasonable that the ruined muck of pages would finally be removed for destruction. But what about the rest? Might they have been shuffled off and misplaced? Crated up and housed somewhere that has long been forgotten by the bureaucratic fog of time?

At the very least, there is hope that a census staffer spirited away the files from his home county, or a few volumes as a token of history and service. If he or she stuffed them in a drawer, and they migrated to an attic or file box, then maybe they aren’t lost. Perhaps the papers will still turn up tucked in a desk at an auction, at an antique shop misidentified as a water-stained copy of the original (which, of course, doesn’t actually exist).

It has happened before, it could happen again.

Or, even more likely, the Census Bureau crated up the remaining collection to await funds for binding, or for the move to the planned National Archives building, and no one ever followed through. In a warehouse somewhere in the country sits a crate of very old, very frail papers just waiting to be discovered.

There is always hope.


  1. “The Census of the United States,” Scientific American 63 (30 August 1890).
  2. “Eleventh Census of the United States: Instructions to Enumerators,” Department of the Interior, Census Office, 1890.
  3. Blake, Kellee. “First in the Path of the Firemen: The Fate of the 1890 Population Census.” Prologue, Vol. 28, no. 1 (Spring 1996) : 64–81.
  4. Dorman, Robert L. “The Creation and Destruction of the 1890 Federal Census”.
  5. Washington Evening Star, Mar. 23, 1896.
  6. Washington Times, Mar. 23, 1896.
  7. Washington Evening Star, Jan. 11, 1921.

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