Learn about the 1920 United States Census

April 6, 2020  - by 
Old family photo from 1920. 1920 census

The 1920 census was the 14th census taken by the United States government, which is required to conduct a census every 10 years. Enter a name below to begin searching the 1920 census.


1920 Census Questions

As you search 1920 census records, you can use our 1920 census questions graphic to guide you.

1920 census questions

What Makes the 1920 Census Unique?

Woman holds baby outside

A Change in Schedule

The 1920 census was the only census to be taken on January 1. Prior census dates were early August (1790–1820), early June (1830–1900), and April 15 (1910). After 1920, the census date became April 1.

Census takers couldn’t reasonably question everyone on the same day; rather, they asked respondents to answer questions according to what was accurate on that date.

New Immigration Questions

Some immigration questions were new in the 1920 census, such as questions about a person’s native language (“mother tongue”) and the native language of each parent. A question about the year of naturalization was also new.

No Separate Schedule for Native Americans

Native Americans were not enumerated separately in 1920, as they had been previously.

Some Questions Were Removed

In 1920, questions weren’t included about veteran status, neither for the Civil War (which was mentioned in 1910) nor for the recently-concluded Great War.

The 1920 census also didn’t ask adults how long they had been married or women how many children they had borne and how many were still living.

Life in the 1910s and 1920s

It is helpful to understand what was going on in the world when the 1920 census was taken and how it might have affected the census results—and your ancestors’ lives.

In 1920, the United States—along with other nations—was still reeling from recent global events. More than 4 million United States troops had served in the Great War (1914–1918), and over 116,000 didn’t come home. Others returned with physical and emotional wounds that lingered for years. The lives of millions of women were transformed. Many entered the workforce for the first time or served in the Army Nurse Corps and Navy Nurse Corps.

Soldiers in WW1

The Spanish flu epidemic (1918–1919) was still fresh in memory too. The global pandemic that cost more than 50 million lives worldwide took about 675,000 casualties in the United States. The death rate was surprisingly high among young adults, including women of childbearing age, and many families were forever altered.

When you look at a 1920 census entry for your family, keep in mind not only what they had recently experienced—such as the war or the flu pandemic—but what was coming later in 1920. A new, if temporary, era of Prohibition was about to begin. And a more permanent change was on the horizon, signaling a new age of women’s participation in public life—female suffrage.

How did those events change your family? Look in the 1920 census for clues.

Use 1920 Census Records to Create a Genealogy Snapshot

Despite being a little shorter than the previous census, the 1920 census still gathered much information about households in the United States. For example, here’s the entry of my twice-great-grandparents, Willard George Homer and Elvina Josephine Pehrson:

1920 census record screenshot
1920 census entry for Willard G. and Elvina J. Homer, Riverside, Bingham, Idaho, digitized image at FamilySearch.org.

By studying the column headings (outlined in red) for my family’s entry (outlined in yellow), I can reconstruct the following snapshot of their lives:

Willard (46) and Elvina (38) lived in Riverside, Idaho, with eight children—four sons and four daughters. (I can see all their names, ages, and birthplaces.) Willard and Elvina owned their home but were still paying off a mortgage. Willard ran a farm that employed others, possibly one or more of the farm laborers listed on the same census page.

Willard was a native of Utah; his parents were born in Ohio and Missouri. Elvina, born in Denmark to a Danish father and Swedish mother, had become a naturalized citizen. Their 17-year old son was working as a railroad machinist; four younger siblings were in school. Baby Willard was only 3 months old.

Looking at the census record yourself, can you find all those details? A few are subtle, such as “O” in column 7 (by Willard’s name) indicating home ownership and “M” in the next column, showing that he was still paying the mortgage.

To be sure about his status as a farm employer, I looked up what “Em” in column 28 means in the 1920 census enumerator instructions. There, it says that “Em” applies to “one employing persons, other than domestic servants, in transacting his own business.”

Three girls in the 1920s outside

Curious about what your ancestors were doing in 1920? Look for them in the 1920 census.

Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.

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  1. I am grateful this Census asked about naturalization and immigration. I found my ancestors’ immigration through this Census.

    1. Thank you Gary for your question.

      The 1950 Census will be released to the public in April 2022. According to the “72-Year Rule,” the National Archives releases census records to the general public 72 years after Census Day.

  2. Iam unable to trace my family in San Francisco after the 1920 census . Can you advise on a way forward to find information after this period .