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1940 Census: Vivid stories emerge from otherwise dry statistics

By BARBARA MARSHALL
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

They are snapshots frozen in the sepia haze of an April 72 years ago.

The day the census taker came to her house in 1940, unmarried 27-year-old Margaret Sowell operated a teletype in West Palm Beach and lived at home.

William Fagan, 23, dispensed sodas to help support his 11-member family on Parker Road in West Palm Beach.

And Marion Carter, 19, worked as a blacksmith’s assistant and lived in the “colored settlement” across the tracks in Jupiter.

By April, most Palm Beachers had headed north, but heiress Jessie Woolworth Donahue, occupation left blank, was still in her ocean-to-lake mansion, with 16 live-in servants including a seamstress and footman. Each worked 80 hours during the last week of March.

Henry Marshall earned $480 the year before as a “hunter” of “frog legs” in the Loxahatchee Groves settlement.

On each page of handwritten notations from the 1940 U.S. Census for Palm Beach County, an antiquated world pops forth, before air-conditioning or second cars or integration, where people worked as stenographers, ice delivery men, chamber maids, shine boys and service station attendants. The number of butlers is astounding. Who needed all those taxidermists?


In the 1940s, Clematis Street was a bustling downtown, lined with shops, movie theaters and offices. (Palm Beach Post file photo)

The time-lock on 1940 wound down last month, as the National Archives opened that year’s census records to the public, the largest number of digital documents ever released by the agency. So many people across the country wanted to look at them that the system crashed on its first day.

Privacy laws allow records to be released only after 72 years. Each of the 3.8 million handwritten records contains the outlines of up to 40 lives, sketched in the answers to 34 basic Census questions.

It’s history’s Facebook.

Census “enumerators” went to every address in Palm Beach County asking, “Who lives with you?” “What is your rent or the value of your home?” “What is your occupation? “Where were you living in 1935?”

The answers reveal that then, as now, the county was full of newcomers. Most arrived from the Northeast and Midwest, but hundreds also came from Georgia.

Debi Murray, chief curator of the Historical Society of Palm Beach, said, “This is like tapping into a gold mine. Seeing where and how people were living puts faces to what are otherwise dry statistics.

“For one thing, you see how much people had been moving around during the Depression. It wasn’t just the Dust Bowl Okies who had to leave their homes to put food on the table.”

From north to south, the survey of the county’s 79,989 people began April 2 with Charles Seabrook, who made $1,680 a year as the principal keeper of the Jupiter lighthouse. Helene Dent, a lodger in the Beach House Hotel, is the last Boca Raton entry on April 27.

Nearly half the county’s population — 33,693 — lived in West Palm Beach. But try to follow Belvedere Road west and you quickly run out of addresses. In 1940, Palm Beach County’s towns and cities were still strung like thin necklaces along the coast. Belle Glade and Pahokee hugged the shore of Lake Okeechobee. In between were swamps, farms, dairies and orange groves.

The spot where I-95 crosses Okeechobee Boulevard was a federal gunnery range, according to a Census map.

“West Palm Beach hadn’t expanded west yet,” said Murray. “There was nothing beyond Clear Lake except for Westgate.”

Historians expect the 1940 census, once it is fully studied, to reveal an America on the cusp of change. While some families were still mired in the Depression, others were finding work in the country’s ramp-up to war.

Few people lived alone. Virtually everyone in the county resided with family members, often with two or three generations. Except on Palm Beach, which is full of divorced women, you can go pages without finding a “D” under marital status.

The census takers’ elegant cursive notes two severely segregated races, “W” in the eastern neighborhoods and “Neg” relegated to the “colored towns” on the west side of the railroad tracks. In West Palm Beach’s Pleasant City neighborhood, rents were as low as $8 a month.

The enumerators’ terse jottings contain tantalizing mysteries.

In the Children’s Home on 45th Street, the six Fountain children, ages 6 to 16, were among 31 foundlings. What happened to their parents?

Why were seven research engineers for a Philadelphia petroleum company renting rooms at 235 Belmonte Road in West Palm Beach? Had someone struck oil in El Cid?

Was it desperation that drove James Williams, who had a college degree, to a laborer’s job with the Works Progress Administration (WPA)? He had three children and a 1939 salary of $200.

It’s a shock when a famous or tragic name pops out.

Here is 10-year-old Herbert Pulitzer Jr., known as Peter, the future husband of Lilly and Roxanne, whose father was renting a house on Middle Road in Palm Beach for $150 a month.


Peter Pulitzer with his sister Patsy, pictured in the Jan. 17, 1933 issue of Palm Beach Life magazine

At 211 Dyer Road in West Palm Beach, we find Judge Charles Chillingworth and his wife, Marjorie, 15 years before they will die, wrapped in chains and thrown into the ocean in one of the county’s most infamous crimes.

In Delray Beach, Fontaine Fox lives on North Ocean Boulevard making a princely $5,000 a year as a syndicated newspaper cartoonist drawing the Toonerville Folks strip, which ran in hundreds of newspapers from 1913 to 1955.

Small details paint vivid pictures.

Pardon and Wilda Rickey left Berlin sometime after 1935 to move to Delray Beach.

Lake Worth was full of tradesman and craftsmen, most eking out a living on a few hundred dollars a year.
Hiram Walker, the county sheriff, made $5,000, but West Palm Beach Police Chief Robert Millwin half that. Ruth B. Hyatt made $1,530 as principal of Conniston Junior High, while a secondary school teacher in Jupiter made $975.

And there’s so much more.

If you have the time to research it, they’re all here, every single 1940 resident, their lives frozen forever in the answers to 34 simple questions.

WHAT WERE WE LIKE IN 1940?

From the Palm Beach County census:

County population: 79,989

West Palm Beach population: 33,693

Greenacres City population: 345

Lake Park was still called Kelsey City.

Riviera Beach was known as Riviera; Boynton Beach was called Boynton.

Shawano, which no longer exists, was an experimental farming settlement outside of Belle Glade.

The largest Palm Beach estates required more than a dozen live-in servants.

Cities and towns were only a mile or two wide but several miles long.

Apartments on Worth Avenue rented for $50 a month.

Wellington, Royal Palm Beach, Palm Beach Gardens, North Palm Beach, Palm Springs and Lake Clarke Shores did not yet exist.

Staff researcher Michelle Quigley contributed to this report.

Other posts about the 1940 Census: ‘C’ for Census: How the Census solved my home’s mysterious mailbox engraving and A tale of two lives from the 1940 Census

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Posted in Flashback blog May 3, 2012 at 7:52 am.

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