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What was Utah like 72 years ago? You can now dig into the 1950 census to find out

Main Street, Salt Lake City, 1952
C. H. Ritter
National Archives
State Street in Salt Lake City, Utah, September 1952. The Mormon Temple is seen in the middleground.

The U.S. Census Bureau has released what genealogists are calling a “treasure trove” of new data from 1950.

Aggregate results from the once-a-decade survey are released shortly after they’re compiled, allowing the government and researchers to understand the broad demographic trends in the country. But personal details for individual households are kept confidential for 72 years in an effort to protect privacy.

Now, the National Archives has opened the records to the public, revealing an intimate view of life in 1950. Anyone can search the handwritten names and ages of every person counted, where they were living, what they were doing for work and even how much they were making.

Jim Ericson, a marketing manager for FamilySearch — a nonprofit records organization funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — said he learned that his father had made $500 a year before the census was taken and worked 25 weeks out of the year.

“I had no idea that at the age of 20 he was selling life insurance,” Ericson said. “It just helped me feel a connection to him and his story and a little bit of what he was experiencing at the time. This is a year and a half before he got married, and he had a lot of choices to make.”

The 1950 Census was the first survey to count baby boomers — the oldest of whom were entering kindergarten — and to ask if households had a television. It captured the locations and occupations of U.S. soldiers who had returned home from World War II and helped track the Great Migration of Black Americans out of the South.

Utah at the time had a population of 688,862, up 25% from the previous decade. The state was also less racially and ethnically diverse than it is today. More than 98% of the population in 1950 was white, compared to about 75% today.

The new data reveals more about the people and places once lost to history, such as a hotel in Japantown located where the Salt Palace now stands. Census records show it was run by a Black man named John Smith, who had 11 Black tenants including a janitor at a retail clothing store, a porter at the Union Pacific railroad and a busboy at Hotel Utah.

Courtesy Ancestry/National Archives

Building off a decades-long collaboration, FamilySearch and the Utah-based genealogy company Ancestry are working to make the handwritten records more accessible.

Ancestry’s handwriting-recognition software first indexes scans of the original census records, which are then converted into a searchable database and turned over to about 200,000 FamilySearch volunteers who will verify their accuracy.

Ericson said the 1940 data was indexed in about six months. Thanks to better technology, he expects the process to be much quicker this time around.

The records from the Census and Ancestry are free for anyone who wants to see where their family was living or catch a glimpse of American life 72 years ago.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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