The Census



Scott, themes:

  1. Legibility: States want to be able to measure consistently, and so they shape society in ways that produces the kinds of populations they need.
  2. Organizational hubris: a belief that centralized management is the solution to the world’s problems.

Russia Elections: Dmitri Kobak

The census:

  1. US state borrows from the gridded strategies that Scott and Foucault describe.
  2. Directly shapes evolving strategies of information technology.
  3. Shapes the way a population sees itself as part of an aggregate going forward.

Why do we have a census?

To ensure fair and even representation in Congress..

Article 1, section 2, clause 3:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand […provisions for the first congress…]

Why not just count votes?

Because non-voters need representation, too, and apportionment can’t just shift

In the American context, this means, paradoxically, enslaved people, who are “represented” by the population of their masters.

And it means some people–“Indians not Taxed”–are excluded.

Evolving Census Data

Find any location in the US here:


In 1790, assistant marshals listed the name of each head of household, and asked the following questions:

  • The number of free White males aged:
    • under 16 years
    • of 16 years and upward
  • Number of free White females
  • Number of other free persons
  • Number of slaves


In 1800, assistant marshals recorded the name of the county, parish, township, town, or city in which each family resided. Each family was listed by the name of the head of the household, and was asked the following questions:

  • The number of free White males and females aged, respectively:
    • under 10 years of age
    • of 10 years but under 16 years
    • of 16 years but under 26 years
    • of 26 years but under 45 years
    • 45 years and upward
  • Number of all other free persons
  • Number of slaves

Census continues to expand every year.

  • 1810: More ages, Economic data (on and off)
  • 1830: More ages, Number of blind people by race.
  • 1850: Listing individuals, not households. Profession/age/marriage/blindness; separate slave schedules.
  • 1870: Citizenship, voting rights, parents’ place of birth
  • By 1940, 41 questions including type of work, specific ethnic classes, remarriage, veteran fathers, etc.

1940 Census sheet, Washington Place, NYC

Census frontier line

Center of population

Negro populations

Tracking the Negro population

Tracking the Negro population

National Archives

Center of New Jersey


Experimental Work.


Center of Population

Tracking Work

Census Technology

Punch card machine

Punching a Hollerith Card

Template for an 1890 Census Card

Punch-card storage by the 1950s

Data storage machines from the 1950 census