Propaganda & Controversy on the Eve of the 1940 Census
March 30th, 2012 by Jessica

Trenton Evening Times

Trenton Evening Times

According to Wikipedia, propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position.  Propaganda is usually repeated and dispersed over a wide variety of media in order to create the desired result in audience attitudes.

A writer for the Trenton Evening Times in Trenton, New Jersey had his doubts about the privacy of information divulged during the 1940 Census.

This article, published on Monday, April 1, 1940 encouraged the public to withhold information from local enumerators. If only they knew just how long we’ve had to wait to see their answers, they may have given the truth and nothing but the truth!


On the eve of the 1940 census, it is gratifying to have the following assurance from Governor Moore:

Everyone can rest assured such information will be kept confidential and will not be used to the detriment of any individual.  The answers are for census purposes only, and may not be examined by other agencies of the Government.

That no doubt represents the sincere intent of the Census Bureau.  However, what bothers a great many citizens is the fact that various potentially embarrassing points of information, including personal income and the past marital status of women, will be given to politically-appointed census takers who may, in specific instances, be neighbors or acquaintances of the persons being questioned.

Moreover, it has not always been true that information handed Government bureaus has been treated in a scrupulously confidential manner.  There have been leaks with respect to income tax reports even when, under the law, such data was supposedly kept beyond reach of the curious.

Regardless of the popular reaction during the next few weeks, Congress may well reconsider the whole problem of census policy and work out a less controversial program for adoption 10 years hence.  Information on unemployment, for example, could probably be procured without resort to the provocative queries printed on the 1940 census sheets.

As a result of Senator Tobey’s agitation, many people probably will show considerable reluctance about answering questions that seem to come within the category of bureaucratic snooping.  Even though answers are finally given because of a fear of jail sentences and fines, the national lawmaking body should regard the present protest movement as a sufficient reason for the rearing of future safeguards against unnecessary invasions of the traditionally American right to privacy.

If that’s not propaganda, I don’t know what is! Here’s hoping your ancestor decided to believe Senator Tobey instead of the writer of this article.

To get all these juicy, embarrassing details about Aunt Betty out into the open public as fast as possible, I urge you to volunteer as an 1940 Census indexer. Check out for more information on how you can volunteer.

Check out for more historical newspapers with cool articles like this.

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© 2013 Jessica M. Green