We Built This City

Broadcasting live from "Little Switzerland," San Francisco. Twitter @TheRealWBTC. E-mail me here. An explanation of the title here. My other blog: The Sutro Tower Fan Club. And no, he's not a greyhound, he's a whippet named Chase (Rocket passed away in March). PLEASE DON'T message me on Tumblr, I don't check those. Yes, it's a real tattoo.

Thank you to Burrito Justice for turning me on to the fact that the newly-available 1940 Census data provides a lot of information about the people who lived in our neighborhoods almost three-quarters of a century ago. If you want to see his detailed analysis of the La Lengua data with some great pictures, go here.

I live on the Glen Park/Sunnyside border north of Monterey. I’m in the main unit of a very large house with a cottage in back, comprising 5 units. The census apparently only reached people in 3 of the units, although I know the house had been subdivided into at least 4 units by that time based on my landlord’s knowledge of the history and the way the units were numbered at the time of the census. 

The owners, who lived in my 3bd/2ba unit, valued the house at $4,000 (about $62K in 2010 dollars*), which I presume was the value of the entire house. They were a couple in their late 50s from Germany, the husband was a “painter-artist” who made $700 a year in salary ($11K in 2010 dollars*) but had only worked 20 weeks out of the previous year. They also had “other” income not enumerated, possibly from selling his paintings?

In the cottage out back lived a couple from Oakland and their 15-year-old daughter. The husband was a candymaker who pulled down $600 a year ($9K in 2010 dollars*), and paid $25/month in rent ($385 in 2010 dollars*).

Perhaps the most interesting bit of information is that another unit housed a couple in which the husband was from Manchuria and the wife was from California, they had an infant daughter. He had grown up speaking Russian. They did not pay rent. This might be due to the fact that the farm house was initially split into units to house the descendants of the original owners — maybe they were relatives (although no one has the same last name). The husband’s occupation is listed as doing “office work” for the Communist Party. For that he made $700 a year. My landlord has told me the story of the house on more than one occasion and he talks about how one of the residents was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. I would have to guess that this is the guy! Apparently he survived the experience and died somewhere in California in 1988, at the age of 82.

The value of other houses in the neighborhood range from $1,000 to $4,900. Salaries ranged from $210, earned by a 23-year-old son living with his mother (the widow described in the next paragraph) who worked as a “driver,” to $2,700, for someone who was a general foreman for “Cal. Press. Mfg.”

Only two of the women on the page I looked at had jobs. One was a widow (she is listed as “Mrs.” and this is probably a better guess than assuming she was divorced) who earned $1,374 a year doing laundry. She lived with her 23-year-old son and a 27-year-old daughter who earned $1,400 a year as a secretary.

As for education, our communist friend and his wife were the only people on the block who had gone to college, except for the driver who lived with his widowed mother and had completed a year of higher education. The majority of residents had completed the 8th grade, with some having gone to high school.

As Burrito Justice says, the census website viewer is very difficult to use, and it’s much easier to download a batch of pages and look at them in your own viewer. Also, the site continues to be overburdened, and I often had to refresh a page multiple times to get it to load. But if you’re interested in local history, it’s worth the hassle. The census site can be found at http://1940census.archives.gov.

Alright, time to put the census site back on my Chrome Nanny block list for the rest of the work day!

*Calculated using the Consumer Price Index at this site.

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