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Any photos not otherwise credited are from the personal collection of Frank Passic, Albion Historian.

Ethel Lowen Recalls Work as 1940 Census Enumerator

CENSUS CounterParts, Vol 21 No 6 May 2012
By Frank Passic, Detroit Regional Office

The Great Depression had not ended yet in Sharon, Pa., when Ethel applied for a substitute teaching job at Sharon High School in the fall of 1939. After all, she had just graduated from Bethany College that spring and was ready to put her new bachelor's degree to work.

To her dismay, the principal told her instead "to find a nice Jewish boy and get married."

Not wanting to go that route quite yet, she was able to secure a temporary position taking the local Sharon Public Schools census during the spring of 1940. During that time, Ethel spotted a help-wanted ad for an enumerator's position for the 1940 Census, and she happily applied. She was accepted and began her work in the spring of 1940 as an official census taker at the age of 22.

Ethel Lowen, of Southfield, Mich., shows a copy of a 1940 Census form she filled out as an enumerator 72 years ago.

She is Ethel Roslyn (Schafitz) Lowen, now of Southfield, Mich., and she holds the distinction of being one of the few remaining enumerators still living from the 1940 Census. The 1940 Census records, including Ethel's work 72 years ago, were released to the public April 2.

In 1940, she was Ethel Roslyn Schafitz, a recent college graduate from Sharon, Pa.

Sharon, Pa., is located in Mercer County by the Ohio border near Youngstown and is 75 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. It has a current population of 14,038 according to the 2010 Census. Back in 1940, however, the population of Ethel's hometown was 25,622. The steel industry was a major employer for many years, which provided a strong population base.

The records show that Ethel began her enumeration on Tuesday, April 2, 1940, at 637 New Castle Street in Sharon. She meticulously and neatly wrote down the information column by column, and line by line, even crossing her "t's" and dotting her "i's." The first person she enumerated, Frances McGown, female, single, age 38, was a typist at a local steel mill and made $1,200 per year. Thus began Ethel's "career" as an enumerator. When asked about her training, she recalled: "There was no training. They just gave me the book to do and said "go and do it." I loved the job."

Her most memorable visit during her six-week stint involved her neighbor across the street.

"Most people were making around $1,200 a year, but I learned that my neighbor made a whopping $5,000. He was the local Coca-Cola distributor." Ethel adds, "No one was hostile. In fact, you'd meet them outside sometimes."

Ethel sells fireworks near her father's fur store in Sharon, Pa.

"I was enthusiastic," she said. "I loved the opportunity to earn some money and save it for the fall term of graduate school at the University of Iowa, where I had been accepted as an assistant in the Psychology Department at 15 cents an hour."

She lived with her parents, Morris and Fanny Schafitz, on Water Street in Sharon. Her father operated a fur business in town called "Shafer"s Furs."

"Their motto was "Out of the Way, Less to Pay,"" she quipped.

Fanny and Morris Schafitz stand near their fur store in the late 1930s.

Being a very industrious person, Ethel had sold fireworks on consignment in front of Sharon stores in 1938 during her college years.

While Ethel's school census job had paid an hourly rate, it was a different situation for her U.S. census employment. In those days, census enumerators were not paid an hourly wage; rather, they were paid "per head" at 5 cents for each person enumerated. With space for 40 names on each sheet, that came to $2.00 per page.

"It was a sheer joy to come across a large family," she recalls. "The largest family I enumerated was seven. My pay was received in a regular letter envelope," unlike the electronic funds that are deposited directly into bank accounts today.

"I was 22 years old, and I loved to walk," she recalls.

And walk she did. Her enumeration district was the area around where she lived, and no transportation was required. Ethel carried with her the familiar large black-bound census ledger with large ruled paper sheets. The 1940 Census form was the first with some "extra" questions at the bottom for selected people. It was the beginning of what became known as the "ong form," or the American Community Survey today. Ethel's enumeration district was 43-79, and her work can now be easily accessed online. Her district boundaries were the streets of Budd on the north; Stambaugh on the east; Division, George and the City Limits on the south; and New Castle on the west.

Ethel was such a good worker that she was offered additional work for a few days to finish another enumerator's ledger. When her census work was finished, she had earned around $100. Ethel spent the rest of the summer working at a local lady's clothing store at 9 cents per hour, leaving her with around $250 in total to apply to her schooling.

Ethel went back to school and earned her master's degree in 1941 in clinical psychology. She then moved to Detroit, where she worked for the War Labor Department. She also met her husband, Dr. Leslie Lowen, in Detroit and raised a family. The couple owned a business, Lesco Products, which they operated for 30 years. It dealt with finding buyers for government surplus materials following World War II.

Today, Ethel lives in Southfield, Mich., with her daughter Marilyn and is as alert as ever, eager to share about her fascinating life. She recently celebrated her 95th birthday on April 29. Ethel has spent her last 40 winters in New Delhi, India, where her other daughter Sharon resides. It was there in New Delhi that Ethel recently noticed numerous stories appearing on the Internet about the 1940 Census as the time approached for the data to be released after the 72-year restriction.

"Hey, I worked on that," she thought to herself, "and someone should know about that."

So Ethel used the Internet while still in India to contact Census Bureau Director Bob Groves and explained to him her role in the 1940 operations.

Ethel was interviewed recently by this writer a week after she had returned from India. It was an honor to present to Ethel a copy of the first enumeration form she filled out at the start of her work on April 2, 1940. The upper right contains her handwritten signature "Ethel Roslyn Schafitz," as it does on the other 38 pages of her enumeration district.

Frank Passic, a field rep from the Detroit Regional Office, presents Ethel with a copy of a 1940 Census schedule she filled out 72 years ago.

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