Census data becomes open to the public after 72 years, so the U.S. government has just released the 1940 census for perusal.
That's the good news. The bad news is the data is put together in a maddeningly frustrating way.
You can't look up individuals by name, only by address. The handwriting can be difficult to decipher. And the order in which addresses are listed is not consistent.
But it can be rewarding: I knew what house my mom grew up in, if not the address. After a little searching I found her father paid $40 a month for their New Jersey apartment; he earned $1,365 working for the WPA in construction, and three of my mom's four grandparents were born in Ireland. (Here's a Web site that can get you started if you know a relevant address.)
What was Houston like back in 1940? Let's look at two blocks, one in the Museum District and one in the Third Ward.
Again, we're not claiming this is comprehensive, due to the nature of the records. But it does offer a glimpse of sorts.
Cherokee Street is in the Museum District near Rice University, and back then, as it is now, it's a street of well-to-do residents. Beulah Street is in the Third Ward, near the intersection of Elgin and Scott. Its residents then, as now, are decidedly less well to do.
A look at (at least much of) the 5300 block of Cherokee and the 3000 block of Beulah offers some stark contrasts.
Mobility Cherokee: Residents moved to Houston from a relatively large number of states: Of the 41 people in the census data who were not live-in help, 18 were born in one of 11 non-Texas states. Residents came from New York and Ohio, although most of the non-natives were from Old South states. Beulah: Of the 57 people included, only four were not native Texans, and three of those were from Louisiana.
Pay Cherokee: Residents weren't exactly eager to share this information. High earners, like an attorney and an orthodontist, for example, refused to answer this question. Of everyone else on the block with a job -- even those renting -- no one made under $2,000 a year. Beulah: There were 24 residents with jobs when the census-takers came around; only one was making over $1,000 -- a cold-storage engineer for a wholesale produce company earning $1,300. More than half of those employed made less than $500 a year.
Maids Cherokee: Four maids lived on the street. Beulah: Eight maids lived on it, but they commuted to their jobs, unlike the Cherokee live-in help.
Education: Cherokee: Of the adults not working as maids, 29 of 30 graduated high school. The exception was an attorney's wife with two years of high school education. Beulah: Among the 40 adults, 13 had four years of high school education and 15 did not get to eighth grade.
What about some individual stories?
Cherokee -- Josie Grappin, 40, lived at 5327 Cherokee (which was valued at $14,000), paying $10 a month for a room. She was a domestic servant for the White family -- William White, 42, was a "contractor/builder" who chose not to list his income. He and his wife had a ten-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son living with them. Grappin was paid $320 a year, although it's not known if meals were provided and not docked from her salary.
-- 5307 Cherokee was rented for $185 a month by attorney Joel H. Berry, 51. Besides his wife and two sons, he had a nurse and a "cook and maid" living there, getting paid $500 each.
-- Home values on Cherokee went from a low of $10,000 to a high of $19,000, for 5317 Cherokee. (Again, this is among the houses we included, it's not comprehensive.)
Beulah -- Of the 14 residences listed, only four were owned. Those homes had values of $2,000, $1,800, $800 and $500; rents ranged from $12 to $20 a month.
-- The resident paying $12 a month rent, Elizabeth Hall (possibly Halls), was 24 and had five relatives living with her: father, sister, nephew, niece and cousin. She and her sister were divorced from their husbands (there were no divorces on Cherokee) and the father was widowed. She, her sister and cousin worked as maids in private homes, earning between $210 and $280 a year.
-- Lucy Blanton, 52, owned a home worth $500 at 3000 Beulah. She had two divorced daughters living with her, both working as maids making $150 and $180 a year. Lucy took in laundry and made $300.
-- Three people listed their occupation as "porter." One worked in a clothing store for $360 a year; another at a barbershop where he earned $300, the third worked at a grocery store and brought in $700.
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-- Thomas Bedford, 35, worked as a chauffeur for a private individual, making $720 and paying $20 a month rent for 3014 Beulah, where he lived with his wife and three daughters.
Two blocks, two different worlds, from a time long ago.