The United States recently released the 1940 census manuscripts. They are fascinating. I am sad and depressed to realize that right-wing craziness means that our grandchildren in 2080 will not see the like for 2010, where the census was pared down to ten incredibly-boring questions. Hopefully, that will change.
It isn’t that those people (or, God forbid, robots) won’t be able to call up information about their ancestors in 2010. I have no doubt that with a flick of the hand towards some sort of hyper-attuned artificial intelligence agent — or at least a verbal request delivered in natural English — they’ll be able to instantly recall all the information that exists about any one of us. No, it’s that they won’t be able to call up the same sort of information about the people who lived in same place they live in. Because, you see, we don’t record that stuff anymore. And it’s fascinating! Social change made real.
We moved around a lot when I was a kid, albeit always within the counties of New York, Kings, Nassau, and what is today called Miami-Dade. I don’t recall the exact address of the house in North Miami Beach or the one in Bayville or the apt on 93rd; and neither 1780 First Avenue nor 34 Vanderbilt Plaza nor 100 Ocean Parkway existed in 1940. But 414 East 115th Street, 317 West 77th Street, and 416 East 71st Street were there!
East Harlem is today becoming a Mexican neighborhood, filled with young children and struggling parents, with lots of green-white-and-red alongside Old Glory. In 1940, it looked about the same, just without the eagle.
414 East 115th Street then, like now, had five families in it. The first listed is the Squittieri clan. Dominick and Geneviene had been born in Italy in 1888 and 1890 respectively. Dominick ran a grocery store and worked a 60-hour week to earn $1300 per year — $20,800 in 2011 dollars. They rented for $35 a month, or $561 in 2011 dollars. Dominick was listed as having had two years of schooling; his wife had never been to school at all. They lived with their ten children: Carmine, 24; Alphonse, 23; James, 22; Helen, 20; Yolanda, 18; John, 17; Mary, 16; Domenick Jr., 15; Louise, 12; and Gilda, 10.
You can see the lingering effect of the Depression in the statistics. Carmine worked as a painter (a 48-hour work week) for $1190 a year — $19,100 in 2011 dollars. Alphonse was not in the labor force. It isn’t completely clear why: there is a squiggle that is probably an “H,” meaning he was doing “housework.” It could, however, be a “U,” which would indicate “unable,” meaning a disability. He was not a student. His sister, Helen, was also out of the labor force and clearly listed as doing “housework.”
James, Yolanda, and John were unemployed and looking for work. The enumerator put “new worker” as their profession. All three had been unemployed for over a year. Carmine, Alphonse, James, Helen and Yolanda had all dropped out of school in the eighth grade; John had finished one year of high school before dropping out. The four youngest children were all in school.
Of course, it was a different time. I do not know what happened to the Squittieri family, but I bet you they went on to economic success — something that a Mexican-American family with the same statistics today will probably not achieve. But I don’t know: in 2022, it might be possible to try to track them down in the 1950 census.
The Mango family looked a lot like the Squittieris. Anthony had been born in Italy in 1880. His wife Antonette, however, had been born in America in 1887. Still, being born in America hadn’t given her any more opportunities — like Geneviene Squittieri, she was listed as having no education. (Anthony had eight years of schooling.) Anthony worked as a pressman in a junk shop for $926 per year, no vacations, and a 54-hour work week. ($14,800 in today’s money.) They lived with their seven children: John, 27; Louie, 26; Theresa, 22; Josephine, 20; Mary, 18; Emily, 14; and James, 12. None of the adult males made it past the eighth grade; Josephine had one year of high school and Mary had two — Emily and James were in school.
The Mango children did a little better in the labor market. John worked as a “shearer,” which can’t mean what I think it means. (Where the hell would you find sheep in Manhattan?) He cleared $1480 ($23,700 today) working 35 weeks at 40 hours. Louie was a shipping clerk, earning $625 ($10,000 today) on a 40-hour week for a full year. Theresa did something I can’t make out—“Frlnger”?—also for $625 and the same terms. The total household income, therefore, was $58,500 in today’s dollars. Mary was unemployed and looking for work; Josephine was not, helping out around the house instead. They paid only $32 per month in rent, or $513 in today’s money. Still, remember, I lived in those apartments: they were about 600 square feet, plus change, and that rent is actually not that different in real terms from the 1970s and early 1980s. (Our toilet had a cable that you had to full down to flush, something I’m pretty sure had to have been installed before World War Two, so these families enjoyed private bathrooms along with central heat and electricity.)
The other families looked a little more modern. Angelina Lombardo was from Italy, eighty years old, and lived alone. Her rent was $7 per month. No wage income was listed, but average monthly social security benefits for widows in 1940 were $20.36, although the program had only just started and I do not know if she would have qualified. Hopefully, she had some savings or support from children.
The Caldarise family were New York-born, 33 and 32 years, old, with three children (Dorothy, Joseph, and Violet) aged 10, 8, and 6. They had started young, but appeared to have taken control of their fertility: Antonette Caldarise had not had any children since she was 27, as opposed to Antonette Mango, who had her last child at age 41 with no more than a four-year gap between them, let alone Geneviene Squittieri. Joseph Caldarise worked (I think) making chromium plates for $1352 ($21,700) per year and a reasonable 40-hour week. (No vacations, though.) They paid $19 ($305) per month in rent.
Finally, there are the Antonuccis. Michael Antonucci, New York born, was 44-years-old and unemployed. He had, however, only been unemployed for six weeks — he had previously worked as a “buyer” for $1040 per year. His wife was quite a bit younger: Millie Antonucci, also New York-born was only 28. Neither had more than an eighth-grade education. They had only one child, baby Virginia, aged nine months. Rent? Twenty dollars.
Now for something important: language. The census did not ask every person about the language spoken at home. Rather, each census manuscript page asked two randomly-selected people “Language spoken in home in earliest childhood.” On the two pages covered by 414 East 115th, all four people asked happened to have been born in America ... and three of them reported “Italian.” The only one to report English was little Violet Caldarise, who had two young New York-born parents.
For those of you who know the statistics, this is not surprising: Mexican-Americans are learning English (and losing Spanish) quite a bit more rapidly than their Italian predecessors. But it is, I think, worth repeating.
Next up: 317 West 77th Street.