Which One-Step Census Form Should I Use?
Stephen P. Morse, PhD   Joel D. Weintraub, PhD  David R. Kehs, PhD

Special Note for 1940 and 1950

If you are interested in the 1940 or 1950 Census and you don't want to read everything here, you can go directly to one of the following One-Step tools.

1940 Tutorial Quiz
1950 Tutorial Quiz

and read the following two papers for more details on searching in the 1940 and 1950 censuses.

Getting Ready for the 1940 Census: Searching without a Name Index
Getting Ready for the 1950 Census: Searching without a Name Index

A. Overview

This project consists of various census tools.  There's a lot of overlap, and it's a bit confusing to know which tool to use when.  So below I will  briefly summarize each one and explain the differences between them.   You should also look at the 1940 Tutorial Quiz, and the 1950 Tutorial Quiz -- they take you through a series of questions to determine your particular situation and then suggests your best strategy for using the various tools.
But first let me mention that there are two ways of searching the census -- by name and by address.  Name searching is the easier one to do, and when it works you get instant gratification.  However, due to misspellings and other oddities, name searching doesn't always work.  And when it doesn't, you might need to resort to the more difficult address searching.  Items 1 through 4 below deal with address searching, and 5 through 6 with name searching.

1a. Obtaining EDs for the 1880 to 1950 Census -- (Unified 1880 to 1950 ED Finder)

Starting in 1880, all information in the census is arranged by Enumeration District (ED) and stored on microfilm rolls.  In order to know which microfilm roll to look in, you need to know the ED in which the person lived.

This One-Step tool allows you to determine the 1880, 1900, 1910, 1930, 1940, or 1950 ED if you know the person's address.  It is a street-based search utility for large cities and a town-based search utility for smaller municipalities.  For 1880 it covers about 40 of the largest cities.  For 1900 and 1910 it covers the top 100 cities in population plus a few others.  For 1920 and 1930, all cities having a population over 25,000 (over 400 cities) are included.  For 1940 it includes all cities over 25,000, as well as a number of smaller ones, for a total of about 900 cities.  For 1950, it includes practically all urban areas over 20,000, and most urban areas between 5,000 to 20,000 for a total of about 2,500 cities and townships.

We have resources to help individuals or societies add more cities to these utilities.  Please contact Joel Weintraub if interested.

1b. Finding Transcribed ED Descriptions (1880 to 1950 Transcribed Enumeration District Descriptions Form)
This One-Step tool provides a way to obtain descriptions of EDs and vice versa for the 1880 through 1950 censuses.  Location names are searchable within states.  This tool is one of the ways of finding EDs for smaller communities in the years covered because it completely defines all EDs from rural areas, and smaller urban areas.

For the large cities, this does not present as much information as the street based tool (1a above).  In particular, our 1940 and 1950 transcribed descriptions do not show streets but instead includes only political definitions and institutional names.  If you want to see the streets within the specific EDs in these cities, you can use our 1870-1950 Census Street Finder.  For 1940 and 1950, the ED descriptions include a link (Details, "view") to the National Archives film descriptions of each ED; for large cities you will be able to see the descriptions of each block within each ED.

If you use this ED Descriptions Form to find a 1930 ED, you will also obtain links to convert it to a 1920 or 1940 ED (see 3 below).  Similarly, if you use this ED Descriptions form to find a 1920 or 1940 ED, you will obtain links to convert to a 1930 ED.

2. Obtaining Microfilm Rolls for all Census Years (Obtaining Microfilm Rolls Form)
Once you've found the ED by using the previous tools, you'll want to view the images of the pages in that ED.  To do that you'll need to know the number of the microfilm roll that contains that ED and also how the EDs are arranged on that roll.

This One-Step tool allows you to determine the microfilm roll number and to see a layout of that roll.  Furthermore, this tool will let you view the images of the pages on that roll or in that ED.

3. Obtaining and/or Converting 1920-1930-1940 Census EDs (1920-1930-1940 ED Finder/Converter Form)
Obtaining EDs

Using this tool, you can specify a state and be presented with a list of cities, towns, and villages that have three or more EDs.  You can select the one you are interested in, and see a list of the 1920, 1930, or 1940 EDs for that area.  This is quick, but it is not as high a resolution as 1b above, which should be your first approach.

Converting EDs

Once you've found the ED of a census, and perhaps the corresponding census record as well, you'll probably want to try finding the family in other census years.  This tool allows you to convert the ED you've already found to the ED that you'll need for the other year.  Of course this assumes the family you want hasn't moved during the intervening time period.

4. Viewing ED Maps for the 1940 or 1950 Census (1940-1950 ED Maps Tool)

For the first time, ED maps for counties and urban areas have been put online by the National Archives.  This tool will quickly identify those maps and provide links to them.  The maps can sometimes be useful for determining your ED, especially in rural areas.

5. Census Search by Name ( Ancestry.com Search Form)
If you have an ancestry.com subsciption, you will be able to search all the census years for a person by name (without knowing the address) and then view the image of that person's census page.  There are various forms on the ancestry website that allows you to do this search.

The tool presented here provides ancestry.com subscribers with an even more powerful search form than the one contained on the ancestry.com websites.  You can search in ways that were not possible otherwise.

6. Free Census Search by Name (Familysearch.org Search Form)

You don't need a subscription to search by name using the familysearch.com website.  The tool presented here makes it even easier to search the data that is on the familysearch website.

B. Search Strategies: Using a Combination of One-Step Tools

The simplest way to find a person is to do a name search using my Ancestry.com (or FamilySearch.org) Search Form.  If you are lucky enough to find the person and to view the corresponding image of the census page, you are done and have no need for my other forms.

However there are several things that might prevent you from being successful.  My other forms help with some of these problems.

One problem is that the name might be so illegible that it was not read correctly, and you will never find the person, no matter how creative you are in your use of the name search on my Ancestry.com (or FamilySearch.org) Form.  In that case you will need to know the person's address, and then use my Unified Enumeration District Form in conjunction with my Microfilm Roll Form to find the image of the census page.  These two forms are actually designed to work together -- when you find the ED using my Unified Enumeration District form, you can click on a button and will get to my Microfilm Rolls Form with the state and ED prefilled for you.

Another problem is that the entire census page might have been skipped over when the names were transcribed.  An example of that (which ancestry.com eventually fixed) was the 1930 census, New York State, Kings County, ED 24-502.  Although the microfilm images for this ED were on the ancestry.com site and could be viewed with my Microfilm Rolls Form, no person in this ED could be found using my Ancestry.com Search Form.  So again you would have to use the other two forms.

You might be successful in finding the person using my Ancestry.com Search Form, but then you discover that there is no link to the image of the census page.  For some reason, that link was not displayed on the results page that ancestry.com provided.  But the results page does give the ED in which the person lived, and even gives the page number within that ED.  With that information you can go to my Microfilm Roll Form and view the image of the census page.  So this is an example where my Ancestry.com Search Form was used in conjunction with my Microfilm Roll Form.

If you are interested in 1940 specifically, use the 1940 Tutorial Quiz, which suggests a number of search strategies and second opinions for finding EDs.  Similarly with 1950 and the 1950 Tutorial Quiz.

These were just a few examples.  Once you get familiar with this, you'll come up with strategies of your own.  Good luck with your searches.