Tabulating The 1890 Census


A report of the tabulation of the 1890 US Census from the Chicago Tribune, which, for the first time, used Hollerith punch cards for automated counting. Below is an excerpt of a particularly stark depiction of the role statistics played, and the narratives they told:

“The main Census Office is on G street, near the Pension Building. The edifice is of brick and six stories high. It is here that the returns are tabulated by special classes. Lists of the blind, the deaf, the dumb, paupers, and criminal classes are made, with special information about each. In compiling these lists machines invented by a former employee of the bureau are used. The system is very ingenious. A young lady sits at a little table upon which there is a metal plate containing 240 holes. These holes are marked by letters. “B.” means black; “M.,” male; “En.,” speaks English; “O. K. ” free from disease; “Bu.,” guilty of burglary; “Wd.,” widow or widower, according to sex, and so on. With the enumerator’s special returns before her the young lady places a blank card beneath the metal plate. She looks at the special return. The person is a negro. She shoves a punch through the hole marked B. The person is a male. She punches the hole marked M. He speaks English. She sends the punch through the hole marked En. He is free from disease. The punch goes through the hole marked O. K. He is guilty of burglary. The Bu hole is punched.

When the card is removed it appears something like the following:


The card is easily read by experts. Turn it over to a young lady who understands the system and she will read it as follows:

John Jones of Camden is a black man, aged 33 years, a widower. He was born in the United States, and so were his parents. He never served in Army. He is a blacksmith, and illiterate, but able to speak English. He is tree from disease. He was convicted of burglary by the District Court, and sentenced to the penitentiary for three years. He was never apprenticed. He is making brick while serving his term in the penitentiary.”

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