By Stephanie Krom, Kerry Heimer, and Salome Jeronimo
The process of transcribing data from the 1920 census of West 9th Street proved to be tedious yet interesting. Reading through the pages of census data offers a representation of West 9th Street and its residents that would be otherwise inaccessible. In choosing 1920, a relatively recent decade, we expected the handwriting on the census chart to be reasonably legible. However, we soon discovered, particularly with handwritten documents, the quality of the scan could be more important to legibility than the handwriting on the chart.
When reading a census chart from one street during this era, you are generally reading the handwriting of one or two people – the census taker, or “enumerator” for that district or street (in our case, mostly Robert B. Murphy and Eleanor L. Armstrong). In this way, the legibility is almost entirely dependent on the penmanship of one or two people. Neither Mr. Murphy nor Ms. Armstrong’s penmanship was terribly difficult to read – both wrote in more modern script than most of the handwriting in census charts from previous decades. However, we still found our documents difficult (in some cases, impossible) to read due to the image quality of the scanned charts – many necessary entries were only partially visible as a result of discoloration and blurring of the words on the pages.
For the purpose of completing our project, it was necessary to take our best guess and draw inferences from the text that was visible. By virtue of this, the accuracy of the data we entered into PastMapper for this census year should be understood through this lens of legibility issues. Once we were beyond deciphering the entries and our data was compiled in a more accessible format, we began our analysis of the social, familial, and occupational trends of the period. We found several points of interest in the data regarding the countries of origin of West 9th Street’s residents, their occupations, and the dynamics of their households.
We found a marked correlation between the country of origin of the residents and the occupations they tended to hold. A significant portion of the 1920 Census participants were immigrants, the majority of which had come from Europe. The most represented foreign countries were Ireland, England and France, with smaller numbers representing Canada, Eastern European nations and Asia. Often, the occupations of immigrants tended to be in housework. Many listed their occupations as housekeepers, cooks, gardeners, butlers, butchers and maids, stating their workplace to be “a private family.” This speaks to the type of work that could be found for immigrants in the 1910s and 1920s. The amount of industries available to them outside of private housework appears to have been quite limited, and it may have been easier for a recent immigrant to work as a waitress or housekeeper rather than pursue a career in an office environment.
There are, however, some notable deviations from this pattern. Several entries for immigrants from England, France and Canada indicate that work in occupations such as office jobs, stenographers, clerks or salesmen/women were a rare exception. This could possibly be due to the likelihood that people from England and Canada would have a stronger grasp of the English language. Also, there were several single women from France that listed their occupations as milliners. With several of these entries, one is able to see the ‘necessity’ for access to fine women’s hats in New York City in the 1920s. This not only speaks to a shift in the fashions of the time but also to the luxurious, extravagant spending of the Roaring 1920s.
In addition to trends in nationality and occupation, we found that the data provided interesting information about the personal dynamics within households. The overwhelming majority of houses appear to have been headed by married couples, many of them employing the immigrants previously mentioned as working for “private families.” Though the entries for these individuals recognized their respective occupations, their relationships to the families they lived with was noted as “servant.” Homes with larger families specifically those with children, seem to have been more likely to employ multiple servants, one usually being designated as a nurse.
Another point of interest regarding the dynamics of the households is the amount of entries indicating “Partner” relationships between a head of household and another individual. In terms of data numbers this type of relationship was certainly uncommon, however, it is interesting to note that there is no indication of the nature of the partnership. With no specific information we are unsure as to whether these relationships were business related, romantic, or simply two individuals sharing fiscal responsibilities. Since the census is from 1920 and same-sex relationships were not yet generally publicized or accepted, we are reluctant to assume that these entries represent domestic partnerships. However, this distinction of relationships other than spouse, friend, or lodger shows us that “alternative” households may not have been unusual in an area that drew artists, writers and bohemians.