the method of collecting census information by face-to-face interviewing remained the norm well into the 20th century. The fact that the census was administered in person meant that the field enumerators, ultimately, were responsible for explaining and deciding who should be counted on a “usual residence” standard. This role of enumerator as residence adjudicator was emphasized in the 1880 instructions to enumerators:7

The census law furnishes no definition of the phrase, ‘usual place of abode,’ and it is difficult, under the American system of a protracted enumeration, to afford administrative directions which will wholly obviate the danger that some persons will be reported in two places and others not reported at all. Much must be left to the judgment of the enumerator, who can, if he will take the pains, in the great majority of instances satisfy himself as to the propriety of including or not including doubtful cases in his enumeration of any given family.

Arguably, the most significant change in residence rules and their role in the decennial census was brought about by a major paradigm shift in census operations: the switch from an enumerator-conducted census to a mailed-questionnaire, self-administered response model of census data collection. The 1960 census was the first to move significantly toward this model;8 in that year, households were mailed an “Advance Census Report,” which they were asked to fill out but not return by mail. Instead, enumerators visited the household to collect the forms and transcribe the information onto forms more conducive to the optical film reader then used to process census data. If a household did not complete the advance form, the residents were interviewed directly by the enumerator. Subsequently, legislation passed in 1964 (P.L. 88-530) eliminated the requirement that decennial census enumerators personally visit every dwelling place, enabling broader change in census methodology.


The enumerator instructions and forms for censuses dating back to 1850 are very helpfully archived as part of the documentation of the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series in the “Counting the Past” section of [8/1/06]. Gauthier (2002) also comprehensively lists enumerator instructions and census schedules from 1790 to 2000.


However, the 1960 census was not the first to use the mail in census data collection. The Census Bureau’s procedural history of the 1970 census (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1970) indicates that mail was used in specialized operations as early as 1890, when questionnaires concerning residential finance were mailed to households with a request for mail return (the same was repeated in 1920, and a similar mail-based program on income and finance was used in 1950). Supplemental information on the blind and deaf was requested by mail in 1910, 1920, and 1930, and an “Absent Family Schedule” was used for some follow-up in 1910, 1930, and 1940. Presaging the 1960 approach, an “Advance Schedule of Population” was delivered to households in 1910; farm households also received an advance copy of an agriculture questionnaire administered as part of that census. Prior to implementation of large-scale mailout/mailback in 1970, experiments and tests of the method were conducted in 1948, 1950 (as a census experiment), 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960 (some of the Advance Census Report responses were requested by mail), 1964, and 1965.

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