The Census: Reading Between the Lines

Did you fill out the 2020 Census? Ever wonder how that information is used?

In addition to being essential for political representation and deciding federal funding, census data is crucial for historians. But to protect people’s privacy, historians can’t access census data until 72 years later. Every 10 years, another census record becomes available for the public to access. On April 1,2022, NARA released the 1950 census data and for a museum dedicated to public records research, this is especially important.

In this digital exhibit, use an interactive timeline to get a behind-the-scenes look at how our Museum historians have used the census to learn how residents of the Lower East Side lived.

The Census is a chance to be part of history.

For 230 years, the United States Census -the federal count of the nation’s population conducted every ten years- has provided a snapshot of who Americans are and how we live. Although data about our individual lives in 2020 will not become available to the public until the 72-year privacy period expires in 2092, the data collected plays an immediate role in our lives and communities by helping the government proportionally structure legislative representation, allocate funding, and distribute resources.

test - content block layout: callout


The first U.S. census


The first U.S. census with online response
Tour Duration


When the 2020 U.S. census will be made public

For us at the Tenement Museum, the Census is important in another way: as a time capsule that helps us research the stories of real families who called 97 and 103 Orchard Street home. The foundation for these stories includes research compiled through the Census, alongside research from other historic sources.

While not everything can be learned from census records alone, it’s the job of historians to take what they can see in documents and “read between the lines” to ask questions about what is and isn’t there.

In this digital exhibit, we explore the ways in which the US Census Bureau expressed government concerns through these counts of the population, and we examine moments in the history of 97 Orchard Street as shown through census records collected by museum researchers.

1790 Census

Migration and Representation

In 1790, the United States became the first nation in history to conduct regular census enumerations. These enumerations play a crucial role in the way American democracy functions—the counts inform how tax dollars are distributed and our representation in Congress. But who do we count, and where? Debates over how to count the population were held during the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and the ideas about who should be counted give us a sense of the prejudices and limitations of the early Republic. Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution mandates:

George Washington looks out over a crowd, with an American flag behind him and the Constitution on a desk in front of him being signed by a delegate

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be  apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union according to their Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not Taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons.” 

As expressed here, untaxed citizens of Native American Indian nations (“Indians”) were not counted, and they are not included on the federal census from 1790-1840. “Other persons” refers to the population of enslaved people. While the institution of slavery prevailed throughout the United States, the population of enslaved people was greater in southern states. In order to establish representational equity and to preserve the Union, members of the Convention reached the Three-Fifths Compromise- an equation that counted every five enslaved people as three individuals.

The Three-Fifths Compromise is written into the Constitution but was made obsolete after the 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865, abolishing slavery in the United States. Thus, the 1870 Census is the first to fully count formerly enslaved people.

A black placard describing the history of the Museum building hangs above black steps leading up to the doors of 97 Orchard Street

The 1870 Census was also the first to ask questions specifically about immigrants and the first for 97 Orchard Street. We see almost exclusively immigrants and their children in this building over time. Few concerns have proven as central to the US Census Bureau’s work than immigration. Beginning in 1870, the Census includes questions such as place of birth, year of arrival, and ability to speak English, revealing the federal government’s focus on determining how newcomers were shaping the country. 

1870 Census

Little Germany: Diversity and Do-Over

Drawing of a family with small children in an apartment answering the census taker who's sitting down and taking notes

The people of 97 Orchard Street were first counted by the U.S. federal government in 1870. This was the first census to ask questions related to immigration and place of birth, and 97 Orchard Street’s residents were all immigrants or the US-born children of immigrants.  

97 Orchard Street in 1870


Percentage of people from German states


Number of nations represented (including 4 German states)


Different jobs held by residents

The 1870 Census also had to be conducted twice! Before our modern era of self-completion and online forms, enumerators had to go to people’s homes and ask them questions directly. However, in large cities like New York, enumerators were accused of ‘curb-stoning’– essentially, doing their work by observing from the sidewalk instead of entering buildings. Rather than interview and count each person living in the tenement districts, many just counted the number of floors and windows on each building and entered their estimated count for the residence. This incompetence, coupled with a distrust of federal authorities, and corruption, resulted in a census that was riddled with errors and met with significant challenges. This census had to be completed again, which gave slightly different results for 97 Orchard Street.

Comparison between the first 1870 census enumeration and the recount

test - content block layout: callout


Number of residents in the first enumeration
test - content block layout: callout


Number of residents in the second enumeration


People from Germany in the first enumeration


People from Germany in the second enumeration

Enumerated in June and again in December, the 1870 census of 97 Orchard paints a common picture of tenement life in this predominantly German-speaking immigrant neighborhood called Kleindeutschland or “Little Germany.” With families whose roots lay in places like Bavaria, Baden, and Prussia, there existed an interesting degree of diversity within the building.

Page 10 from a 1870 New York City census document listing resident names and other information, such as occupation, race, sex, and age

Tellingly, immigrants from the German States are the majority of the residents, but they lived alongside other immigrants from England, Poland and Ireland. Looking closer at the enumerated German States shows a greater range of diversity. There are residents from the states of Baden, Hanover, Hamburg, Prussia, Saxony and Wurtemburg- with the highest percentage coming from Prussia.

Page 17 from a 1870 New York City census document listing resident names and other information, such as occupation, race, sex, and age

The second enumeration, recorded in December by Assistant Marshal Gaisberg, shows a subtle shift in the ethnic origin of the residents. The overall population of immigrants from the German States is slightly less at 53.6%, but the concentration of people from Prussia is higher. These German-speaking immigrants lived alongside families from Russia, England, Ireland and Austria.

What do we learn from this?  The neighborhood is more diverse than the name “Little Germany” suggests, and even the German residents are from places that were considered different nations. This census is how we begin to determine that people from 20 different nations lived in the building over its history.

1880 Census

Working Women and Single Mothers

Page 28 from The New York State 1880 Census listing the resident information such as race, sex, age and marital status

By 1880, we see changes in who lives in 97 Orchard. Importantly, there are now more children of immigrants than immigrants themselves. The percentage of children in the building who were born in the United States outnumbered the highest percentage of immigrants. The residents immigrating from now unified Germany were still recorded by their specific German State of birth, so we see the evolution of the diversity of the German tenant population.

97 Orchard Street in 1880


Percentage of residents born in Germany


Percentage of residents born in the U.S.
test - content block layout: callout


People living in 97 Orchard Street
test - content block layout: callout


Average number of people per apartment


Nations represented (including 4 German states, Russia, Austria, England, and the U.S.)

Natalie Gumpertz lived at 97 Orchard long enough to appear on the 1870 and 1880 census enumerations. Herself an immigrant from Prussia, Natalie might have established strong connections to her neighbors. While the census doesn’t tell us anything about relationships between households in a tenement building–who were friends, who got on each others’ nerves–we can learn some basic patterns that help us understand who the building’s communities were.

Black and white photo portrait of Natalie Gumpertz wearing her hair pulled back, a brooch, and a black ruffled dress

Like Natalie, many of the immigrants arriving from Prussia were of the Jewish faith.  Natalie likely not only had a kinship with her neighbors through a place of origin but through her faith as well.

97 Orchard Street households headed by women


Households headed by women


Households headed by women


Working women earning wages

By 1880, Natalie joined another community–one made up of widowed, abandoned, or single women with children. At 97 Orchard Street, there are seven households headed by widowed women. This census data shows us a lesser-known but common story: many husbands never returned home from the Civil War, and in the years following the economic crisis of 1873, many husbands abandoned their homes and families. Like Natalie, half of these widows are working for wages. Natalie is listed as a dressmaker, and one of her widowed neighbors is also employed making clothes. Overall, 37% of the women living in 97 Orchard are recorded as working for wages. These patterns help us begin to understand of the community of working women in the building, and allow us to see how places like the building’s rear yard and the nearby market would serve as important hubs of support.

1890 Census

Lost in the Fire

The museum does not have information about 97 Orchard Street’s population in 1890. Most of the 1890 Census Records were badly damaged in a fire at the Department of Commerce Building in January of 1921. Less than 1% of the records survived the fire.
However, we do know the questions that the Census Bureau asked, and the 1890 Census was the first to ask about immigration and citizenship status of Americans.

1900 Census

A Dense, Jewish Community

Neighborhood Change

The 1900 census signified a major shift in a neighborhood defined by its ethnic makeup. The 1900 census marks the transition from Kleindeutschland or Little Germany to the ‘Jewish Lower East Side.’

We see this shift represented in the ethnic makeup of 97 Orchard Street residents. German immigrants like the Gumpertz family, who called its tenements home during the mid-19th century, had by its end moved to other mainly German neighborhoods like Yorkville in upper Manhattan. The newest residents of the area were arriving in New York from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires and were predominantly Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews.

Scan of the 1900 census of Manhattan with rows of resident names and other information written in script

The change appears on our building’s census record: the majority of immigrants living at 97 Orchard and on the Lower East Side were Jews from Eastern Europe.

97 Orchard Street in 1900

test - content block layout: callout


People living in 97 Orchard Street


Nations represented (Russia, Austria, U.S.)


Percentage of people working in the garment industry

Between 1880 and 1924, two and a half million Jews entered the United States, many of them settling on the Lower East Side for some period of time. This made the Lower East Side the largest Jewish city in the world.  This population transition from a mainly German neighborhood to a Jewish one happened slowly, but is seen clearly when we compare census records. Neighborhood change like this is sometimes called ‘ethnic succession,’ and happens for many reasons—including changes in migration patterns, community development, and availability and price of housing.

How has your area changed over time? 

The Crowds

By the turn of the 20th century, the Lower East Side was also rapidly becoming more crowded, some even recognizing it as the densest neighborhood in the world!

1898 photo of Orchard Street full of people crowding in the road between rows of apartment buildings and businesses

In 1900, the numerator Herman Weschler counted 110 people living in 22 apartments—this is the highest residential density recorded in the building’s history. Previously, the building was not nearly this crowded, and by looking at census records over time, we can see these changes in how many people lived at 97 Orchard Street.

The Family Economy

The 1900 census also tells us how vital the garment industry was to the residents of 97 Orchard– nearly 60% or six out of ten wage-earning residents of the building worked in the garment industry by 1900.

By 1900, enumerators were collecting more information, helping to answer important questions about the residents of 97 Orchard Street.

What were their family structures like? What kind of occupations did married women have? What were the differences between the parents and the children? What are the differences between older and younger children in the family?

What roles did each play in the family economy?

Many details in the census underline the importance of children’s wages to the family economy.

Once families united in New York, teenage children often went out to work. Their added income proved essential to the household. The 1900 census data records 20 families living in 97 Orchard. Two of those households have no children, and of the remaining households, nearly 75% of the families have children working for wages. Three families living in 97 Orchard at the time of the 1900 census illustrate the ways in which teenage children contributed to the family economy: The Reigers, Goldbergs, and Lustgarten.

Black and white photo of 7 members of the Lustgarten family with the women and girls in skirts and the men and boys in aprons

In 1900, Israel and Goldie Lustgarten lived and operated a kosher butcher shop at 97 Orchard Street. The census gives us a snapshot of the family business run by immigrant parents and the different work options available to their US-born children. Their daughter Rebecca, listed as “At Home,” perhaps worked in the family business.

Eldest children Joseph and Fanny had married and moved out of 97 Orchard Street, but the younger siblings lived with the Lustgartens: 20-year old Bertha worked as a dressmaker, 19-year old Rosa was a “trained nurse,” and 18-year old William studied law. The family’s basement apartment was also home to a boarder, 21-year-old Russian-born dressmaker Pauline Rudolph. It is likely that even their wage-earning jobs or their studies didn’t prevent them from being called in to help in the shop on a regular basis.

1910 Census

Unemployment, Immigration Status, and Working Teens

1910 US census with long, handwritten lists of names and demographics that include some of the Rogarshevsky family

This Census shows us major changes in how many federal government officials thought about immigration. An overall increase in immigrants entering the country was met by increased discussion about restricting immigration.

In 1910, when the US Census Bureau visited 97 Orchard Street, enumerator Meyer Rosenberg counted 10 fewer residents than in 1900. While the Lower East Side and its tenements remained densely populated, the 1901 Tenement House Act and the change of apartments to commercial spaces throughout the neighborhood reduced the available residential space in buildings like 97 Orchard, where the number of apartments decreased from 22 to 18.

97 Orchard in 1910

test - content block layout: callout


People living in 97 Orchard Street


'Nationalities' represented (Russia, Yiddish, New York)


First census to ask about citzenship

In 1910, the Census Bureau went to great lengths to identify immigrants and the children of immigrants from Eastern European countries like Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Romania, as Jewish. Jewish elected officials and powerful Jewish Americans protested, believing that identifying religion in the Census might result in increased anti-Semitism throughout the nation. Despite these objections, government officials who wanted to restrict immigration of particular “national” racial and ethnic groups worked to find another way to get the same answers.

Instead of asking about religion, the Census asked Americans about their Nationality or ’Mother Tongue,’ and the nationality of their parents. Thus, the Rogarshveskys answered that they hailed from Russia and their mother tongue was Yiddish. The majority of their neighbors answered similarly.

Black and white photo of the Rogarshevsky family standing in front of the steps of 97 Orchard Street

Among the families who had moved into the building by 1910 were the Rogarshveskys. According to the Census, Abraham Rogarshevsky, his wife Fannie and their six children moved to 97 Orchard Street, arriving in New York from Russia in 1901. Abraham was employed as a presser in a clothing shop.

Work in New York’s garment industry was often seasonal, and Abraham reported being unemployed for 13 weeks during the previous year. Either way, his income alone would not have been enough to support the family.

Like most Jewish immigrants, the children—especially the oldest—entered the workforce to make the family economy work. By 1910, Ida (17) worked as a joiner in a paper box factory, Bessie (16) was a sewing machine operator, and the oldest son, Morris (15), worked as a shipping clerk.

The Citizenship Question

In the 1910 Census, the federal government also asked about citizenship and immigration status. Few residents of 97 Orchard Street in 1910 had become naturalized citizens but several, including Abraham Rogarshevsky, had begun the process. Abraham is listed in the Citizenship column as “Pa,” meaning “With Papers,” which indicated that he had taken the first step and submitted his petition to naturalize.

Additional questions on this census aimed to understand how issues like infant and child mortality affected the population. In 1900 and 1910, each adult woman was asked how many children had been born to them and how many were still living. Some mothers at 97 Orchard Street had all of their children still alive, but the majority had experienced one or more losses in their family.

Sepia-toned headshot of Fannie Rogarshevsky with her hair pulled back and a neutral expression

For Abraham’s wife, Fannie (pictured here), only 6 of the 8 children she had given birth to remained alive by the second decade of the century. We won’t know about the sadness and loss of those children, but that’s the work of historians—take what we can see in documents and “read between the lines” to ask questions about what isn’t there.

1930 Census

Rent, Radios, and a Declining Population

In 1930, the people of 97 Orchard Street were interviewed by a Census enumerator for the last time. Within five years, new housing laws in New York would prove too expensive to comply with for many tenement landlords. Moses Helpern, who owned 97 Orchard Street during this period of the building’s history, decided to close the building to residents in 1935.

1930 census of Manhattan with multiple rows of names and demographics written in script

When enumerator Anne Bramson (the first female enumerator for the building) visited the tenement in April 1930, she found only 7 of the building’s 18 available apartments inhabited, slightly less than half.

97 Orchard Street in 1930

test - content block layout: callout


People living in 97 Orchard Street


Apartments rented


National origins represented


Households headed by women

How could that be? 

Much of the reason can be traced to the impact of restrictive immigration law. Enacted 11 years earlier, the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act instituted the nation’s first comprehensive restriction law targeting Europeans. In addition to setting numerical limits on immigration, it enacted ‘national origins’ quotas based on that favored some immigrants over others based on pseudo-scientific theories about race as it was understood by white ‘nativists’ who wanted to restrict immigration. The law restricted Southern and Eastern European immigrants and favored Northern and Western European immigrants.

Among the long-term consequences of the 1924 quota law was the depopulation of the Lower East Side. Immigrant families found work, improved their finances and moved away to other areas of New York City such as Brooklyn and the Bronx, and with immigration all but frozen, many apartments remained vacant. With less than half of its apartments occupied in 1935, 97 Orchard landlord Helpern decided that it would be in his best interest to close the property as a residence rather than pay to make it compliant with the 1929 Multiple Dwellings Act. With the exception of Fannie Rosenthal (formerly Rogarshevsky; the family had changed its surname during the 1920s), whose husband Abraham had died from tuberculosis in 1918 and was then employed as the building’s ‘janitress’, all of the tenants were evicted.

Nevertheless, the 1930 enumeration of 97 Orchard Street has interesting stories to tell us. For the first time, Americans were asked if they had a radio in their home (and therefore able to receive mass news and entertainment broadcast across the country). Only one family in 97 Orchard, the Rosenthals, owned a radio. Residents were also asked how much money per month they paid in rent. Here, the rent averaged to $15 per month.

97 Orchard Street in 1930


Highest rent paid


Lowest rent paid


Household with a radio (Fannie Rosenthal)

The 1930 Census at 97 Orchard Street also finds the first recorded all-male household in the building, where English-born elevator operators Jim Muzzi and John Sultha shared the $20 in rent they paid per month. Within five years, however, they had moved on.

The Future

The Future Work of Historians

How we fill out the census has a critical impact on where we live – from how much money our schools get, to how many senators we have representing our district. More than just data, the census is an invaluable resource for the government and historians alike.

For the Tenement Museum, while the census can’t tell us about the emotional lives of the people we study, it is often our starting place for learning about the families in our buildings and the character of the neighborhood.

Interested in more on the census? Watch a past Tenement Talk on the 2020 Census, featuring experts discussing the challenges and strategies in counting hard-to-reach communities and immigrants.

For Further Exploration: