Sometime on the afternoon of Thursday, April 11, 1940, a man named Albert R. Eisberg knocked on the door at 491 Lexington Avenue in Mount Kisco. Eisberg had a job to do. He was an enumerator with the U.S. Census Bureau, and it was time for the constitutionally required decennial count of Americans.
A 15-year-old boy with a year of high school behind him named Frank Mauro answered the door, then answered Eisberg’s questions. Of course, this is all speculation based on what I glean from the handwritten ledger sheet I found among the Census Bureau’s recently released 1940 census records.
The records show Babe was the one who answered the enumerator’s questions, which is why I speculated that the encounter happened in the afternoon, after school. The ledger lists the five members of the family at the time: My grandfather Frank; grandmother Florence, 16-year-old Vince; 15-year-old Babe; and 13-year-old Bib, my Uncle Bob. My grandmother was very pregnant at the time; she would give birth to a daughter named Rosemarie — my mother — about six weeks later.
The most stunning piece of information I saw in the census data was my grandfather’s income. Frank Mauro’s occupation was listed as an “agent for union,” working for the American Federation of Labor, and the ledger listed his 1939 annual income at $810. That number stopped me in my tracks.
To back up a bit, the 1940 census was the first to include a question about income, just one among the 81 questions census-takers asked at the time. The income question was apparently controversial at the time, but I’m glad it was asked, because I learned something I would not have realized.
In 1950, a man named Herman P. Miller, from the Census Bureau, wrote a study of wage distribution and earnings that drew on data from the 1940 census and other sources. It confirmed what I saw in my grandfather’s income, and what I could hardly believe: Yes, my grandfather earned in a year what the average wage-earner made in a week in 2010.
“In 1939 the average wage earner received about $800 during the entire year,” Miller wrote. In fact, 60 percent of Americans made less than $1,000 in 1939.
This is a link to a .jpg of the census ledger sheet including Babe’s family. As long as I was looking, I also pulled up and kept the ledger sheet for my father’s side of my family, which show’s that my paternal grandfather, Bill Greenbaum, was a milkman who earned $1,300 in 1939 — well above the average, apparently!