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Census 2020: History of the Census

Information on the 2020 Census and the Importance of Every Person Living in America to Respond

Quick Facts on the First Census

  • The United States is required by Title 13 of the US Code to gather statistical data on the number of persons living in the United States and its Territories every 10 years.
  • Failure of any resident in the United States or its Territories to complete the Census may result in fines and/or penalties.
  • George Washington signed the 1790 Census Act, which assigned United States Marshals to collect data on persons living in the original 13 states, districts of Kentucky, Maine, and Vermont; and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee). 
  • The US Marshals were given these instructions on how to gather the data for the first census. 
  • The first census was conducted in 1790. 
  • Animal skins and parchment paper were used to collect data in the first Census.
  • The data collected included a numeric count of :
    • each head of household,  
    • every household's free White males aged 16 and older,
    • free White males under 16,
    • free White females,
    • all other free persons,
    • slaves

The data results of the 1790 Census showed:

  • United States was home to 3,929,214 people.
  • The largest urban places were New York City, NY (33,131); Philadelphia, PA (28,522); Boston, MA (18,320); and Baltimore, MD (13,503).

Early Census Takers


From 1790 to 1840, US marshals only listed the name of the head of each household followed by a numeric listing of the home's other residents
by age and sex. Beginning in 1850, marshals (like the one depicted in Francis William Edmonds' 1854 painting, "Taking the Census") listed the name of every person living within the home along with their demographic information. - Courtesy of the US Census

SC State Library Information


Many South Carolina State Library programs, resources and services are supported in whole or in part by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services.

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