The census originated with the very birth of the nation, being incorporated into the United States Constitution for the purpose of determining representation in the House of Representatives, levying taxes, and assessing the nation’s prospective war-time mobilization. But while today we can expect that answers are confidential, this was not assumed for much of its history. As we’ll see, even when promises of confidentiality first materialized it was not for reasons we might have expected.
The papers of Peter Curtenius held by the New-York Historical Society provide a glimpse of the administering of the nation’s second census, in 1810, at the local level. Curtenius served as a United States Marshal of the District of New York from 1806 until his replacement in 1813. That fact may seem irrelevant except that that agency conducted the census from its inception through 1870.
The 1810 census is noteworthy for being the first to include a census of manufactures. Coming at the behest of secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin, it signaled America’s steady march toward becoming an economic power accelerated fourteen years later with the opening of the Erie Canal.
But because it was not compulsory, participation in the census of manufactures lagged until officials recognized the need for assurances that details weren’t being shared with competitors and the wider public. Thus brought the first steps in bringing confidentiality to the census. Beginning in 1840, marshals solicited businesses by promising that details would not be made public. Later, the Census Act of 1879, in overhauling the system to improve data collection, further inscribed confidentiality while laying out stern penalties for those who broached it. But this was only for businesses, not individuals. (Incidentally, the act also relieved marshals of their responsibility by entrusting subsequent censuses to trained supervisors and enumerators.)
This context enlivens what is an otherwise mundane exchange between Joseph Dame Weeks and Austin & Austin in late 1882 and early 1883. In his November 24, 1882 letter, Weeks, a special agent conducting the census of manufactures, politely follows up on a previous request for information. Despite the new confidentiality law, Weeks tries to entice Austin & Austin, the owners of Hope Mill and producers of paper in Catskill, NY into waiving their firm’s anonymity. Dripping with flattery, Weeks explains that he counts them among “prominent establishments,” and that “The information will of course be confidential if you desire, though I would prefer to publish your name as giving it.”
Austin & Austin’s reply follows on February 8, 1883, but only after further prodding. They offer some details but apparently can’t respond to much of the query; however, most interesting for us, they explicitly indicate that they “do not care to be mentioned in your report.” This may reflect a simple desire for privacy but the letter suggests business at the mill has not been especially brisk: “Have not done much business with the mill for the last 10 years,” and then “running only 3 or 4 months each year.” It’s been suggested that they ran out of business in the mid-1880s, which has been difficult to confirm but certainly explains their stance .
Confidentiality for individuals ostensibly arrived with President Taft’s 1910 proclamation on the subject. Yet, in reality, the question continued to simmer well into the 20th century. Despite intermittent battles that have ensued over its stipulations, the passing of Title 13 in 1950 established that data collected about individuals cannot be used for “nonstatistical purposes.”
Of course, this is just a small chapter in the history of the census. But it is suggestive of its many dimensions, as well as the key role it plays in how our nation functions, and its relationship to the average American.
This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Curator of Manuscripts.
If you’re interested in the early history of the census, visit the New-York Historical Society in person to see The People Count: The Census in the Making of America from the David M. Rubenstein Americana Collection, currently on view through November 8th.