Su Lum: Slumming | AspenTimes.com
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Su Lum: Slumming

Su Lum
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

It took a few tries, but I finally got online to http://www.1940census.gov.

I keep trying to come up with advantages to getting old; the pickings are extremely thin, but one is that if you were alive in 1940, chances are you will be able to find yourself in the census.

Luckily, I wasn’t looking up anything complicated. I knew the state, county, town and street address (you can’t look up people by name) and soon was able to bring up a map of Boonton, N.J., and figure out what zone our house was in.



I went to that zone – 32 pages, 80 entries per page, quite blurry, spidery handwriting – and plunged in. The entries were by street name, so I didn’t have to scrutinize every page, but even so it took close to an eye-bending hour before I hit pay dirt on page 30.

Bang – there we were, midway down the page: Fowler, Alexander D., age 38, head of the family; Fowler, Mae Erskine, age 33, wife; Mae Erskine Jr. (not technically correct for a girl, but close enough), age 7, daughter; Fowler, Susan (me), age 3, daughter; Fowler, Robbie Lee, age 58, mother (of my father), listed as “visitor” – probably wishful thinking on my mother’s part, since Gran lived with them until she was well into her 90s.



My little brother wouldn’t come along for another three years.

Citizens were asked 34 questions by the census taker, who went door to door and was taken very, very seriously. In 1940 we were still at the tail end of the Great Depression, so there were several questions about unemployment – whether the head of the household worked for the government, or was an emergency worker (Works Progress Administration, etc.), or was unemployed (if so, how long?).

My father’s occupation was listed as an electrical engineer. Under industry, which could include “cotton mill, retail grocery, farm or shipyard,” it said “Bell Labs.” Salary $4,000 per year (second-highest). Property owner, property value $8,000 (7 acres, big old house).

Of course they asked what color everyone was, sex, birthplace, marital status and highest grade attained in school. My parents were both C4 (four years of college), not par for that page. Gran was an H4 (high school); a lot of the adults had dropped out in E (elementary school).

Every adult woman save one, who was listed as “saleslady,” was identified as “housewife.”

I was surprised how creepy it was to look at this census page. I could picture my mother in the old kitchen, before it was remodeled in 1947, talking to the census taker while Gran futzed at the sink, probably bleaching the net bags the oranges came in, turning them into rough dishrags.

I could picture driving with my mother in the old Plymouth with fuzzy seats and strap handles to do pull-ups on, going to meet my father’s commuter train from the city, he in his suit and hat, occasionally bringing a treat. I could picture playing by the brook with my sister, who would freak me out by pretending she wasn’t really Erkie but another girl, a look-alike, named Carolyn.

I had to shake myself out of the past and into the present, where none of these people, including my then-unborn little brother, still exist.


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