Whenever I find myself mentally whining that my 1920s house is too small in some places, I remind myself that the original owners managed to raise three kids there, so two people should be able to navigate around its choke points without much difficulty.


The fact that my nearly 1,800-square-foot house seems "cozy" is yet another testimony to how our expectations about the way we live have changed in the time since our house was built. I was reminded of this by the recent release of the 1940 Census data. While I already knew who lived in our house at that point  -- and have met the three people then listed on the census form as children living in the house -- I still was curious to see what I could learn from the form.

I had to wade well into the document to find the specific house I was looking for, but that gave me more of an overall glimpse of my neighborhood on the way. Several things were clear: Families were larger. Very few women worked, with usually only a single wage earner per household. Live-in maids weren't unheard of; there were usually one or two per block, including with that family of seven down the block that somehow crammed into a home not that much bigger than my own. There were extended families living under one roof, with offspring and their spouses living with the in-laws.

Most of the residents were from Minnesota or surrounding Upper Midwest states. But a few, like the owner of our home, came from Norway.

The census reports also revealed something about house values and relative affordability. In 1940, the Minneapolis house I now live in was valued at $9,000. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $138,371 in 2010 dollars. Even with the prolonged market downturn, the tax assessor says our house is worth more than twice that now, so that says something about the value of real estate in the extremely long term. The original homeowner earned $4,500 in 1940, exactly half the value of the home  --.and about $69,000 in 2010 dollars. While now most of the people in neighborhood feel the need of two professional incomes, in 1940 families got by on one, and the most common professions were clerks, stenographers and insurance salesmen. Lots and lots of insurance salesmen.

If you want to learn more about the people who lived in your current house, or where you grew up, check out www.stevemorse.org/census/unified.html. You'll be searching by address, not by ancestor, and you'll want to plug in a cross street to winnow down the search results. And be forewarned that even though the address you're searching for produces a document for an Enumeration District, the address you're looking for might well not be on the first page that (slowly) comes up, so you may need to hit the next button several times before finding what you're looking for. But that way you'll glean an idea of who lived in your neighborhood back before the trees matured and the front porch changed.