Wednesday, January 18, 2017

While We're on the Subject of Prostitutes

We've received hundreds of letters and calls from people asking, "When is Sempringham going to update its data on persons listed as prostitutes in the U.S. Census to take into consideration the recently released 1940 Census?"

J. Edgar Hoover was not listed as a prostitute in the 1940 Census.

Well, we undertook a study of this very issue last year, but quickly discovered that we couldn't trust the raw data we were getting from  There are 440 people in the 1940 census whose occupation includes the word "prostitute," using the Ancestry search engine, but a closer look makes it clear that something has gone awry.

Because searching the 1940 U.S. Census is free to non-subscribers, you can reproduce our results.

Type "prostitute" into the "occupation" field, and no other search terms, and you will receive the list of 440 workers in the "sex industry", as it's called today. But click through to the actual records, and you will be surprised.

Ruth Flickinger, a 73-year-old living in Pittsburgh, is described as a "prostitute nurse" in the index, but a look at the original records reassures us that she was a "practical nurse". Her grandchildren are relieved, no doubt, but perhaps a tad annoyed.

Jay Ingram, listed as a "prostitute inspector" in Los Angeles, is actually a "parachute inspector" at the airport.

Joseph John Jr., of Aurora, Indiana, is not a "prostitute mail carrier", he is a "substitute mail carrier".

John Kaszuba's wife in Chicago will be relieved to hear he is not a "prostitute laborer" but a "painting helper".

And that's just going through the first six people listed in Ancestry's indexed records.

What happened? We have three hypotheses:
  • The optical character reading software Ancestry uses is version 1.0.
  • The census entries were indexed by someone making $2 a day, for whom English was not a first language.
  • The records were indexed by a 400-pound person sitting on a bed somewhere.
But who knows?

Whatever the answer, you can see that this important research we have undertaken is not as easy as it seems. We have to stop laughing long enough to get the data written down. This may take some time.


Uncle Ted said...

Best. Post. Ever.

Bob Miller said...

Thanks for the comment. I had some notes for this sitting on my desk for about 8 months, and finally decided I should pound it out or throw away the notes.