Indignation in response to the 1890 census

by jasoncrawford1 min read8th Sep 20201 comment


HistoryProgress StudiesSocial & Cultural DynamicsWorld Modeling

In reading about the development of technology, I keep an eye out for changes in society as well. I commented recently that we don’t seem to celebrate major achievements as much anymore. But it’s not just technology that Americans used to view differently. It’s growth of all kinds.

The book Computer: A History of the Information Machine tells the story of the 1890 census. It was the first census to be computed, not by hand, but with tabulating machines, developed by Herman Hollerith. On August 16, 1890, the grand total was announced: the population of the United States was 62,622,250.

“But”, it says, “this was not what the allegedly fastest-growing growing nation in the world wanted to hear.” It quotes a contemporary account in a periodical, The Electrical Engineer, from 1891 (emphasis added):

The statement by Mr. Porter [the census director] that the population of this great republic was only 62,622,250 sent into spasms of indignation a great many people who had made up their minds that the dignity of the republic could only be supported on a total of 75,000,000. Hence there was a howl, not of “deep-mouthed welcome,” but of frantic disappointment.

The book continues:

The press loved the story. In an article headlined “Useless Machines” the Boston Herald roasted Porter and Hollerith; “Slip Shod Work Has Spoiled the Census,” exclaimed the New York Herald; and the other papers soon took up the story.

“Spasms of indignation” because population growth was too low for “the dignity of the republic”. Americans were proud of being the fastest-growing country. Today, in contrast, people fear overpopulation, and the general slowing of world population growth is generally considered to be good news.

Something changed in American attitudes in the last 100+ years, not just toward technology or the economy as such, but more fundamentally toward growth itself.

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Quoting the original Electrical Engineer 1891 publication from 1891, pp 521-530

The only wonder to the writer is, that many of the clerks who toiled at the irritating slips of tally paper in the census of 1880 did not go blind and crazy.

I volunteered for the 2020 Census as an enumerator briefly this year, but had to resign for various reasons- chief among them, that it was going to drive me insane. We used iPhones and kept our social distancing and used masks- etc, all the typical protective measures. What people were always concerned about was privacy. Especially where I live, a rather upper class suburban area near a beach that is much wealthier than I am truly justified in living (please help me leave, I can't stand these people), I was never worried about counting any of the worse parts of town, or the crowded cheap apartment complexes.

It's those gosh darn entitled gated community folks who would not cooperate and were incredibly rude about it. Ironically, they are the ones who always scream about these rights and those rights, don't want to wear masks (my town was featured on the news in the first protests!), and they don't want to do what's written in the very first article of the constitution. It bothered me. I went insane. I'm not even highly political, I have my opinions, but the absurdity of it just got to me and I was getting anxious knocking on any door at all, so I resigned.

The pay was pretty good, too.

The commission also estimated that on a basis of 65,000,000 population, the saving with the Hollerith apparatus would reach nearly $600,000.

It seems as though the true authorities had a very accurate idea of the population, despite the limitations of the previous paper tabulation. The popular opinion is not that of a desire for growth, I think. While there may be some American pride of reconstruction (remember: 1890 was not long after the Civil War, so proving our worthiness in retaining the Republic's integrity was crucial to our identity. A solid 750,000 at least had died needlessly who were young men, not counting the obvious collateral of many destroyed lives in relation), it seems to be the typical reactionary response to novel objectivity in technology, not a lack of growth. In this case, there was no one to pin any blame on.

It is needless to say that in all this burly-burly of discussion over the Census and its figures, the electrical counting system came in for its share of abuse. Just why it would not work was never made clearly apparent, for all that appeared in print derogatory to the mechanism merely went to prove its wonderful simplicity and inability to go wrong. In one or two instances, the attempts to show faultiness were so puerile as to suggest that their author was either malicious or was being imposed upon. Later on, the absurdity of some of these criticisms will be shown, but it will suffice to say that they only made the present writer more anxious and keen ‘to detect a flaw in the system and apparatus, if flaw there were. After a scrutiny as close and careful as it could be made, it seems only possible to say one thing, namely, that the apparatus works as unerringly as the mills of the Gods, but beats them hollow as to speed.
The happy truth is that as Mr. Hollerith, himself no mean mathematician, has shown, while the race is not multiplying so fast as before, its individuals are living longer. This is a state of affairs that all of us over 25 years of age, whether Republicans or Democrats, can view with equanimity. They who are loved on high no longer die between two Censuses.

There is some wisdom to be found here. I wonder if they cherry-picked this original article? It is actually a very fascinating read, and google has it digitized and scanned in its entirety.

edit: I wonder if this is analogous to mail-in voting.