Matching memory with paper: Northampton and the 1950 census

  • Main Street in Northampton in the 1950s was a happening place, residents recall, in a town with three movie theaters, three hardware stores, three finishing schools and five pharmacies. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Same place, another time: Main Street Northampton in 1957 is worlds removed from the present day. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Main Street Northampton, 1955. —GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Well-dressed women cross Main Street in Northampton in September 1957, a seemingly idyllic slice of Americana. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Main Street Northampton, 1955. —GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Main Street Northampton, McCallums 1950. —GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Julie Bartlett Nelson, the Archivst at Forbes Library, on Main Street Northampton, Thursday morning, June 16, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Julie Bartlett Nelson, the archivist at Forbes Library, is seen on Main Street Northampton. She’s excited but cautious about the rich data in the 1950 census. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 6/17/2022 6:36:00 PM

A ring of teenage boys stashes cigarettes under stacks of napkins. A fleet of college girls whizzes past on bicycles, black robes billowing out behind them. Another pack of boys gathers on a bridge, ready to pelt them with water balloons.

With the recent release of the 1950 census, some of Northampton’s oldest residents can find themselves in 1950. Maybe that snapshot will bring back their days of scurrying away for a clandestine smoke after class, of buying a bike off an out-of-state Smith girl at the end of the semester, of filling up a water balloon and lying in wait.

But maybe, if they’re like some people in Northampton and around the country, the census won’t bring back anything at all. Maybe the census will hold no record of their existence.

This year, 2022, marks the end of the 72-year waiting period between the 1950 census’s collection and its release: on April 1, for the first time ever, the American government’s most comprehensive picture of the country in 1950 was opened to the public.

Julie Bartlett Nelson, archivist at Northampton’s Forbes Library puts it succinctly: “It’s a big deal that the census was released at all,” she says. 

Collected every 10 years, the national census provides the closest thing we have to a comprehensive list of every person in the country. The census lists names and addresses, but also includes demographic information. The questions vary every year but typically involve inquiries about people’s sex, race, employment status, or any number of details the government deems relevant. The census is used, among other things, to give the population count that determines states’ representation in Congress. 

But despite the importance of the information it provides, the census often goes overlooked. It’s hard to find an American who thinks about the census at all aside from a run-in with a volunteer who knocks on their door once a decade. Many people don’t even know that the Constitution requires it. 

Much of why the census flies under the radar, Nelson says, is that 72-year waiting period. Any American can expect to participate in the census, but for most of the country’s history, very few could expect to find themselves in it. Seventy-two years might sound like an arbitrary length of time, but this waiting period was initially determined based on life expectancy data: for privacy reasons, the government wanted to minimize the number of living people whose information could be traced by strangers.

Life expectancy, however, is quickly outpacing those 72 years. The census now is more personal than ever. With more people living longer, an increasing number of people are finding themselves in the census data. Many of them live here in Northampton.

An ‘elegant time’

America in 1950 was a nation on the cusp of modernity. After the trauma of the Great Depression and the two World Wars, as industry and babies boomed, Americans seized new economic opportunities and sought a cultural return to the home and the family.

At the same time, the social currents that would come to the surface in later years simmered: the rustlings of civil rights and women’s liberation drew attention to the injustices beneath a polished exterior. The 1950 census, therefore, captures America at the nexus of multiple critical points. 

Northampton met the ’50s with energy. The town, in the memory of some of its residents, flourished. It was an elegant time. 

“You had to wear your best clothing if you were on Main Street,” recalls Mike Ryan, a former board member at Historic Northampton.

Much of this elegance was a consequence of Smith College’s presence. Susan Bell, another resident, remembers Smith girls in long black academic robes, the kind you see, she says, “in British TV shows.” Green Street was lined with sophisticated clothing stores that catered to Smith students, many of whom brought their own horses to school.

Smith, as multiple residents noted, had a reputation as a sort of “finishing school” that brought Northampton a sense of high-class prestige.

Northampton was home to three movie theaters, three hardware stores, three finishing schools and five pharmacies. Everyone had a bike. Teenagers frequented Wally’s Soda Bar, Old College Diner, and Serio’s, which had “the best soda bar in town,” as longtime resident Jim Lucey recalls. Even for people from what Bell jokingly labels “the wrong side of the tracks,” Northampton in the ’50s was a place of community and excitement.

The changing face of the census

But Northampton was no exception to the mid-century’s shifting currents. While factories like Pro Brush and large hospitals like Cooley Dickinson remained consistent sources of employment, says Nelson, and the town’s traditional ethnic neighborhoods largely persisted, postwar Northampton found itself changed.

Some of these changes were structural. Northampton’s ethnic neighborhoods, Nelson notes, faced demographic shifts as cultural groups mixed. Initially functioning as enclaves for the town’s French-Canadian, Polish, Irish, Jewish, and Italian communities, the cultural boundaries among Northampton’s neighborhoods blurred throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Over 1945 and 1946, many of the town’s street names also changed as Northampton and Florence grew apart. Many of these names were chosen to honor local men who died in the war. Thanks to loans from the Department of Veterans Affairs, new developmentsincluding Florence Heights and Hampshire Heights cropped up to house returning servicemen and their families — though only, that is, returning white servicemen and their white families, which Nelson is careful to note.

Denny Nolan, a longtime Northampton resident and real estate agent, credits Smith College with bringing diversity to town. His memories of Northampton in the ’50s involve a much more homogenous environment.

“Back then I never saw a person of color,” he says. “Diversity was the biggest issue.”

Accordingly, the most influential changes that Nelson lists were social. Although the culture of the ’50s extolled the home and the nuclear family, notions of spatial ties and mobility were still very different from what they are today. “People could just up and leave their families,” she explains.

This fact, Nelson notes, could explain some confusing discrepancies on the census: the high number of women listed as widows, for example, were likely not all widows: whether they were single mothers, had been abandoned by their husbands, or sought to avoid what Nelson labels “divorce stigma,” these women used the census to build a new truth to fit their new lives. Many others did the same.

The question of the census’s representation of the truth, to Nelson, is fundamental. As in almost every town across the country, the official picture of Northampton almost certainly doesn’t tell the full story. Nelson wants to investigate that.

She poses a potent question: “Do we have the otherness that’s not being represented?”

The “otherness” that Nelson questions could mean many things in Northampton. On one hand, it could refer to the erasure of difference. This erasure could be on the part of the census taker. Nelson, referring to the 1940 census, points out that people received one of only two racial classifications: Black or white. Those who were of different races or of a mixed-race background were subsumed into one category or the other based on the census taker’s visual assessment.

By 1950, separate categories had been added for those of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Native American, or “other” descent, but these ethnic classifications were still up to the census taker’s discretion.

Nelson also explains the nuances of classifying residents in the area’s many hospitals — whether they were listed on the census as “staff,” “patient,” or “inmate,” despite the vastly different connotations that these terms carry, depended largely on the preference of whoever recorded their information.

Additionally, Nelson notes, this erasure could be self-perpetuated to avoid creating a written record of a family secret or compromising situation. She cites instances of young, unwed mothers being “literally hidden” to avoid stigma and therefore disappearing from the record.

The census, then, is an authoritative document, but what’s written there is by no means 100% objective. It’s possible, therefore, that a person searching for themselves or their loved ones in the census might find something they didn’t expect. Nelson is keenly aware of this fact. In her many conversations in anticipation of the census’s release, she spoke to people who were aware of it too.

Nelson paraphrases an older man preparing to find himself in the census: “I’m prepared that life in my head might not be the reality on paper,” she recounts him saying.

Cracking the code of family history

Brian Tabor, a genealogist and librarian at Forbes Library, witnessed these gaps between memory and paper firsthand when finding his own family in the census. 

“I had a great-grandfather who was listed in 1950 as age 88,” he says. Despite the new inroads in adding nuance to classifications of information like ethnicity and employment, Tabor explains, “they just gave his name and his age and the state where he was born, and nothing else at all.”

Tabor cites differences in cultural attitudes, especially toward the elderly, as a possible explanation for this missing information. 

“How we regard personal info today is much different from 72 years ago,” he says. 

The fact remains, according to Tabor, that the questions on the census that went unanswered — or unasked — can undermine its potential as a meaningful historical document.

But Nelson also cautions that the census could bring decades-old secrets to light. While much of the incorrect information in the census is likely just that, some of it might be more complicated.

“Is it really not correct,” Nelson posits, “or is it not what they thought it would be, or what they were told?”

Stephanie Levine, adult services coordinator at the Emily Williston Memorial Library and Museum, shares Nelson’s concerns about the accuracy of the census.

“A lot of the time, what’s written down just becomes fact,” she explains, despite possible discrepancies between the truth and what a person was willing to share or what the census taker heard. “I take it with a grain of salt.”

Combing through the census, then, might be a worrisome prospect. It’s possible that the information a person intends to find simply won’t be there. It’s also entirely possible that what is there won’t be true, or will reveal secrets that have been kept hidden for nearly a century. Nelson cites unknown relatives or hidden divorces, but the range of secrets the census could reveal is wide and varied. 

Nelson and Levine, however, are still excited. In a place with a history as rich as Northampton’s, the census offers an unparalleled opportunity to match memory with paper. That’s hard to discount.

For people just starting out in investigating their family history, says Levine, the census can function as a sort of genealogy gateway: “You could just have an address or a last name,” she explains. “That could open up doors.”

An avid genealogist, Levine already knew much of her family’s history thanks to her role as “de facto family historian” and her mother’s gift for storytelling. She was able to find both her mother and her great-grandmother, who lived just blocks apart — or, as Levine puts it, “right next door to each other” — in Brooklyn’s Sicilian-American community.

These findings tracked, she explains, with her mother’s stories of her tight-knit family gathering for multigenerational Sunday dinners at Levine’s great-grandmother’s house. In terms of her maternal family’s connection to their history, Levine says, “I’m lucky in that respect.”

But Levine’s paternal side was very different. Her father came from a Jewish family, which made tracking their history more of a detective project. “It was very exciting to, like, kind of crack that code,” she explains.

Though she couldn’t find her father’s family in the census, through her genealogy work Levine was able to pinpoint the village in Poland where her grandmother’s family originated. This discovery, she notes, was “very meaningful.”

The process of genealogy as a key to the past, Levine explains, is equally rewarding, at least for her. “It makes you feel more connected to it in terms of your history in general,” she says. “Just, kind of, knowing where you came from.”

Many people, though, aren’t able to crack the code of their own origins because of the limitations of resources like the census. As people around the country prepare to investigate what’s in the census, they might need to investigate what’s not there, too.

Smith College students Aria Martinelli, Kate Keelan and Laura Fay wrote this story as part of a class called Journalism: Principles and Practice.
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