1940 Census: The 16th federal census is first to use statistical sampling; confirms continuing slowdown in Washington state population growth; migration from rural to urban areas tapers off; federal employment programs skew labor statistics.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 6/14/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9454

For the 16th federal census, conducted in 1940, the census bureau for the first time uses the science of statistical sampling. Certain detailed question are asked of a sampling of the population (specifically, every fifth person) and the sample responses are then used to extrapolate demographic data for the population as a whole. This technique eases the burden on both census takers (called "enumerators) and respondents and allows for the collection of far more detailed information than was possible in earlier counts, although there is an inevitable dispute about the accuracy of the method. The scope of the 1940 census also is influenced by the Great Depression, with more detailed data being gathered and analyzed regarding employment, unemployment, internal migration, and income, and for the first time there is a detailed analysis of the nation's housing situation. The results of the 16th federal census carries few surprises for Washington state. Population growth is anemic compared to earlier decades, and the dire state of the economy during most of the 1930s keeps more people down on the farm, bringing earlier rampant growth of the larger urban areas to a near halt. The female population continues to grow faster than the male population, and the number of state residents who were foreign-born decreases by nearly 45,000. A larger percentage of women are in the work force and employed, but massive "public emergency" employment by the federal government in response to the Great Depression complicates employment statistics.

1940 Census: Overview

The 1940 U.S. Census counted 1,736,191 persons residing in Washington state, an increase of 172,795 over the 1930 census count of 1,563,396. This 11.1 percent increase marks a downturn from the 15.2 percent increase shown in the 1930 census and confirms a continuing slowing trend in the rate of population growth. The 1930 census had 12 Washington counties losing population between 1920 and 1930; the 1940 count showed only 5 counties with a net loss since 1930, but the growth in many others was anemic.

In 1940, the census put Washington's total land area at 66,977 square miles, 141 square miles greater than the 66,836 given in 1930. The reasons for this increase are not clear, but it may be due to refined surveying techniques or to land reclamation efforts. There were 25.9 persons per square mile in 1940, up 2.5 above the 1930 density of 23.4. In historical terms, this was a very modest increase.

Population and Growth: Counties

There were 39 counties in Washington state in 1940, and San Juan County was the least populous at 3,157, replacing Skamania County, which had held the bottom position since 1910. King County remained the state’s largest at 504,980, an increase of 41,463 (8.95 percent) over 1930. This represented a significant drop in growth rate from the 11.1 percent seen in the previous count. Another of the state's more populous counties, Grays Harbor, saw much worse, losing more than 10 percent of its population between 1930 and 1940. The 10 largest counties in terms of population in the 1940 census were:

  • King: 504,980 (41,823 increase, or 9.02 percent, above 1930 count of 463,517)
  • Pierce: 182,081 (18,239 increase, or 11.13 percent, above 1930 count of 163,842)
  • Spokane: 164,652 (14,175 increase, or 9.42 percent, above 1930 count of 150,477)
  • Snohomish: 88,754 (9,893 increase, or 12.54 percent, above 1930 count of 78,861)
  • Yakima: 99,019 (21,617 increase, or 27.91 percent, above 1930 count of 77,402)
  • Whatcom: 60,355 (1,227 increase, or 2.07 percent, above 1930 count of 59,128)
  • Grays Harbor: 53,166 (6,816 decrease, or 11.36 percent, below 1930 count of 59,982)
  • Clark: 49,852 (9.536 increase, or 23.65 percent, above 1930 count of 40,316)
  • Lewis: 41,393 (1,359 increase, or 3.39 percent, above 1930 count of 40,034) 
  • Kitsap: 44,387 (13,611 increase, or 44.23 percent, above 1930 count of 30,776)
  • Skagit: (1,269 increase, or 5.3 percent, above 1930 count of 35,142)

Kitsap County made the top-10 list after a 20-year absence, replacing Skagit County, which fell to 12th overall. Five counties lost population between 1930 and 1940. The five with the largest population decreases were:

  • Adams: down 1,510 (19.56 percent)
  • Grays Harbor: down 6,816 (11.36 percent)
  • Garfield: down 279 (7.61 percent)
  • Lincoln: down 515 (4.34 percent)
  • Whitman: down 793 (2.83 percent)

Lincoln and Adams counties were the only two repeats, having also shown a loss of population in the 1930 census. Pend Oreille County had an uneventful decade in population terms, adding just one new resident between 1930 and 1940.

Population and Growth: Cities and Towns

Five Washington cities had populations greater than 25,000 in 1940, the same as in the 1930 census. Those five, with numerical and percentage comparisons to 1930 census counts, were:

  • Seattle 1940: 368,302             1930: 365,583 (+0.74 percent)
  • Spokane 1940: 122,001           1930: 115,514 (+5.62 percent)
  • Tacoma 1940: 109,408           1930: 106,817 (+2.43 percent)
  • Everett 1940: 30,224              1930: 30,567 (-0.11 percent)
  • Bellingham 1940: 29,314        1930: 30,823 (-4.8 percent)

Note that both Everett and Bellingham actually lost population between 1930 and 1940, but managed to stay in the top five, although Everett moved ahead of Bellingham on the list.

The next five largest cities in Washington, having populations between 10,000 and 25,000, with numerical and percentage comparisons to 1900 census counts:

  • Yakima 1940: 27,221             1930: 22,101 (+23.16 percent)
  • Aberdeen 1940: 18,846          1930: 21,723 (-13.24 percent)
  • Vancouver 1940: 18,788         1930: 15,766 (+19.17 percent) 
  • Walla Walla 1940: 18,109      1930: 15,976 (+13.35 percent)
  • Bremerton 1940: 15,134        1930: 10,170 (+48.81 percent)

Hoquiam fell from the list in 1940, to be replaced by Bremerton which, fueled by employment at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, saw its population grow by nearly 50 percent. Four other Washington cities, Olympia, Longview, Wenatchee, and Hoquiam, had populations of more than 10,000. Of these, Wenatchee and Hoquiam lost population between 1930 and 1940 (although Wenatchee's loss was only seven residents). Port Angeles, which had a population of 10,188 in 1930, saw its total drop to 9,409 in 1940.

Seattle was the 22nd largest city in the United States in 1940, down from 20th, a position it had held for two decades. Two other Washington cities made the top 100 list -- Spokane, up two positions at No. 68 and Tacoma, down three at No. 82.

A wrinkle was added to the 1940 census with the creation of a new class of urban areas called "Metropolitan Districts," a recognition of the interconnectedness of large cities and their immediate surrounding areas. A Metropolitan District was defined as including a central city of at least 50,000 population, together with all adjacent and contiguous civil divisions (e.g. other incorporated towns or cities, unincorporated towns, election precincts) having a density of at least 150 people per square mile.

There were three Municipal Districts in Washington state in 1940, and their populations were:

  • Seattle Metropolitan District: 452,639 (368,302 in central city; 84,337 outside central city)
  • Spokane Metropolitan District: 141,370 (122,001 in central city; 19,369 outside central city)
  • Tacoma Metropolitan District: 156,018 (109,408 in central city; 46,610 outside central city)

An interesting aspect of "Metropolitan Districts" was that they ignored all political boundaries. For instance, the Seattle Metropolitan District included election precincts located in Snohomish and Kitsap counties; the Tacoma Metropolitan District included precincts in King County; and part of the Portland (Oregon) Metropolitan District was located across the Columbia River in Washington state.

Population Distribution: Urban vs. Rural

For purposes of the Washington count in the 1940 census, "urban population" was defined as those persons living in incorporated places of 2,500 or more population. Anyone not living in such areas was deemed an inhabitant of a "rural" area.

Urban Population:

Counts for urban territories were broken down to reflect how many inhabitants there were in cities and towns of varying sizes. The first number in parentheses on each line below represents the number of cities or towns of the defined size.

  • 100,000-plus (3): 599,711 (34.54 percent of total population, down from 37.6 percent in 1930)
  • 25,000-100,000 (3): 61,390 (4.99 percent of total population, up from 3.93 percent in 1930)
  • 10,000-25,000 (10): 118,971 (6.85 percent of total population, down from 9.13 percent in 1930)
  • 5,000-10,000 (6): 43,280 (2.49 percent of total state population, up from 1.79 percent in 1930)
  • 2,500-5,000 (20): 73,248 (4.22 percent of total state population, up from 4.13 percent in 1930)

In 1940, a total of 921,969 (53.10 percent percent of all Washington residents) lived in 41 urban areas, compared to 884,530 (56.58 percent of all Washington residents) living in 35 urban areas in the 1930 census. Thus, although there was a moderate numerical increase in the number of people living in urban areas, they represented a smaller percentage of the overall population.

Rural Population:

The total number of persons living in rural areas in Washington in 1940 was 814,222 (46.90 percent of all Washington residents). Of these, 335,450 (41.2 percent of total rural population) lived on farms, and 478,772 (58.80 of total rural population) were classified as rural non-farm. This demonstrated a reduction in farm living from the 1930 count, when 300,143 (44.21 percent) lived on farms and 378,714 (55.79 percent) were classified as rural non-farm.

The total rural population showed an increase of 135,635 (16.65 percent) above the 1930 count of 678,857, but represented almost exactly the same percentage of the overall population as that seen in the previous census (47 percent). This marked a temporary slowing of the trend, seen over the previous three censuses, of rural areas showing moderate gains in numbers but representing ever-smaller percentages of the total population. This slowing in the decline of rural-area populations was no doubt due in part to the effects of the Great Depression, which was only slowly loosening its grip on the United States.

Population Characteristics: Sex

Men substantially outnumbered women in Washington state in 1940, but in both numerical and percentage terms, the rate of growth of the female population far outstripped that of males:

  • 1940 male population: 905,757 (52.28 percent of total population)
  • 1930 male population: 826,392 (52.86 percent of total population)
  • 1930-1940 increase: 77,365 (+9.36 percent)
  • 1940 female population: 830,434 (47.83 percent of total population)
  • 1930 female population: 737,004 (47.14 percent of total population)
  • 1930-1940 increase: 93,430 (+12.68 percent)

Men held a large numerical lead in population in 1940, and although women continue to close the gap, the 1940 census showed a temporary slowing in what had been an accelerating trend of female population growth. Even so, the numerical increase in the female population between 1930 and 1940 outstripped that of men by almost 16,000, or 3.32 percent.

Population Characteristics: General Nativity

"Nativity" for purposes of the 1940 census was used to differentiate between U.S. residents born in America ("Native Born") and those who had immigrated from elsewhere ("Foreign Born"). The 1930 census was the first to show a decrease in foreign-born population in Washington state since the first Territorial census in 1860, and that trend was confirmed in the 1940 count, which saw a decrease in the number of foreign-born residents that was nearly four times that of the previous census.

  • 1940 Washington state native-born population: 1,525,812 (87.88 percent)
  • 1940 Washington state foreign-born population: 210,379 (12.12 percent)
  • 1930 Washington state native-born population: 1,308,138 (83.67 percent)
  • 1930 Washington state foreign-born population: 255,258 (16.33 percent)
  • Increase in native-born population 1930-1940: 217,674 (+16.64 percent)
  • Decrease in foreign-born population 1930-1940: 44,879 (-17.58 percent)

Population Characteristics: Race

The problem of creating workable and consistent categories defining "race" had bedeviled the U.S. census from its beginnings in 1790, and methods used in 1940 marked just the latest tinkering. In the words of the bureau itself:

"The racial categories included on census questionnaires, as well as the wording of questions, have changed over time reflecting changes in social attitudes and political considerations; however, in general, these categories have reflected social usage and not an attempt to define race biologically or genetically" (Gibson and Jung, "General Discussion").

Although not strictly relevant to Washington state, which was first counted in the 1860 census while still a territory, it is interesting to note that from 1790 to 1850, the only racial categories included in the census were White and Negro, with Negro further subdivided into free and slave. (It should be noted that during those years, "Negro" was considered a respectful term.) In five of the eight censuses between 1850 and 1920, the bureau tried to parse the Negro category further, identifying Mulattoes (and, in 1890 only, Quadroons and Octoroons) as part of the Negro population. It was later determined, not surprisingly, that these distinctions were often arbitrarily applied, and never useful, and they were abandoned.

In 1860, the first year that Washington Territory was included in the count, the census for the first time included American Indians, but only those who paid taxes to the federal government. Also in 1860, the category of Chinese was added, but only those Chinese residing in California were actually counted. Japanese were identified and counted separately starting in 1870, but it was not until 1890 that an attempt (largely unsuccessful) was made to count all Indians, whether taxed or untaxed.

Starting with the 1910 census, Asians and Pacific Islanders who were neither Chinese nor Japanese were identified for the first time in census reports, which included such categories as Filipino, Hindu, and Korean.

The classification of persons of Hispanic descent proved particularly problematic. In the 1930 census only, there was a separate race category for "Mexican" that corresponded closely to the population of Mexican ancestry. "Mexican" was eliminated as a race category in 1940, and the 1930 race data were revised in later publications to include the Mexican population within the White count.

In 1940, the census decided to approach the Hispanic issue linguistically, with persons having Spanish as their mother tongue included in the White population. This decision was based on the assumption that a large majority of individuals of Spanish mother tongue were white, although a separate estimate of their numbers was made as well. Comparisons with later data indicate that the use of the linguistic category resulted in a somewhat low estimate of the Hispanic population in 1940. It was not until 1970 that the first attempt to identify and accurately count the entire Hispanic-origin population in a separate category was made.

Although the census did not formally use a residual "All others" racial category on the national level until 1950, it was used in 1940 in state counts to permit comparisons between earlier censuses that had used dissimilar racial categories, and is thus included in the following list: (Percentage figures may not total 100 percent due to rounding.)

  • 1940 White population in Washington: 1,698,147 (97.80 percent of total state population)
  • 1940 Japanese population in Washington: 14,565 (0.84 percent of total state population)
  • 1940 Indian population in Washington: 11,394 (0.66 percent of total state population)
  • 1940 Negro population in Washington: 7,424 (0.43 percent of total state population)
  • 1940 Chinese population in Washington: 2,345 (0.14 percent of total state population)
  • 1940 Filipino population in Washington: 2,222 (0.13 percent of total state population)
  • 1940 Hindu population in Washington: 23 (statistically insignificant)
  • 1940 Korean population in Washington: 12 (statistically insignificant)
  • All other (includes Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders): 59 (statistically insignificant)

In addition, the 1940 census estimated that there were 2,400 persons white persons in Washington state of Spanish mother tongue.

Population Characteristics: Age

The age distribution in Washington state in the 1940 census showed clear signs of the Great Depression which had started 11 years earlier. The total count of children born between 1931 and 1940 dropped by 19,251 (14 percent) from the 1921-1930 figure.

The age distribution of Washington's population in 1940, with comparison to 1930, was:

  • 5 years and under: 121,918   (1930 count was 114,854) 
  • 5 to 9 years:  116,762          (1930 count was 136,013)  
  • 10-14 years:  127,842          (1930 count was138,393)
  • 15-19 years:  146,725          (1930 count was 137,922) 
  • 20-24 years:  148,867          (1930 count was 130,401)
  • 25-29  years: 146,594          (1930 count was 120,651)   
  • 30-34 years:  134,757          (1930 count was 115,448)   
  • 35-44 years:  243,515          (1930 count was 240,938)
  • 45-54 years:  230,624          (1930 count was 198,503)
  • 55-64 years:  174,267          (1930 count was 126,790)
  • 65-74 years:    99,906          (1930 count was 74,515)
  • 75 years and older: 44,414   (1930 count was 26,988)

Population Characteristics: Education

The statistics showing the level of school attendance in the 1940 census were more detailed than those in previous censuses, with each age category covering a narrower range of years.

School attendance by age:

  • Total number of persons 5-24 years of age in 1940: 540,195
  • Number of persons 5-24 years of age attending school in 1940: 324,579 (60.09 percent, down from 62.9 percent in 1930)
  • 5 years old: 2,363                  (9.9 percent of age group)
  • 6 years old: 15,212                (67.4 percent of age group)
  • 7 to 9 years old: 68,107          (96.9 percent of age group)
  • 10-13 years old: 98,838          (97.6 percent of age group)
  • 14 years old: 25,705               (96.6 percent of age group)
  • 15 years old: 27,553               (94.3 percent of age group)
  • 16-17 years old: 47,645          (83.8 percent of age group)
  • 18-19 years old: 25,747          (41.3 percent of age group)
  • 20 years old: 5,664                 (18.9 percent of age group)
  • 21-24 years old: 9,328            (7.8 percent of age group)    

The 1940 census was the first to gather educational data measuring "Years of school completed." This question was asked of all respondents age 25 years or older, which in 1940 totaled 1,074,077 in Washington state, and the percentages given below are based on that total number:

  • Completed one to four years of grade school: 50,140 (4.67 percent)
  • Completed five to six years of grade school: 73,034 (6.80 percent)
  • Completed seven to eight years of grade school: 387,470 (36.07 percent)

  • Completed one to three years of high school: 183,102 (17.05 percent)
  • Completed four years of high school: 212,056 (19.74 percent)
  • Completed one to three years of college: 86,356 (8.04 percent)
  • Completed four or more years of college: 59,454 (5.54 percent)

The median number of school years completed in the 1940 census was 9.1, meaning that one-half the population had that many or more years of school attendance, and one-half had fewer. In urban areas, the median was higher, at 10.1 years. The rural farm population showed a median of 8.4 years completed, and the rural non-farm median was 8.9 years.

Unlike earlier censuses, the 1940 census did not attempt to directly determine illiteracy among those counted, instead using years of education as the relevant statistic.

Population Characteristics: Marital Status

The following statistics regarding marital status of Washington residents were developed in the 1940 census:

  • Number of males 15 years of age and older: 719,352
  • Number of males 15 years of age and older who were single: 244,035 (33.92 percent of total)
  • Number of males 15 years of age and older who were married: 424,729 (59.04 percent)
  • Number of males 15 years of age and older who were widowed: 31,920 (4.37 percent) 
  • Number of males 15 years of age and older who were divorced: 18,658 (2.59 percent)
  • Number of females 15 years of age and older: 650,307
  • Number of females 15 years of age and older who were single: 138,440 (21.28 percent)
  • Number of females 15 years of age and older who were married: 418,969 (64.43 percent)
  • Number of females 15 years of age and older who were widowed: 74,409 (11.44 percent)
  • Number of females 15 years of age and older who were divorced: 13,701 (2.51 percent)

The percentage of persons 25 years and over who were married varied quite widely between urban and rural areas:

  • Percentage of married urban dwellers age 25 years and over: 32.3 percent
  • Percentage of married rural non-farm dwellers age 25 years and over: 33.5
  • Percentage of married rural farm dwellers age 25 years and over: 38.8

Consistent with previous censuses, the statistics show that there was more than twice the number of females widowed than males.

Population Characteristics: Employment

Reflecting changing attitudes about child labor, the 1940 census looked at the employment picture for men and women 14 years of age or older, instead of the 10 years old and older that was used in 1930. This makes any direct comparisons between the two decades problematic and none is attempted here. Any attempt at direct comparison is further complicated by the fact that the 1940 census had two categories of employed persons: those employed on other than "public emergency work" and those employed on public emergency work. This distinction was necessitated by widespread government employment during the Great Depression.

  • Total of persons 14 years and older in 1940: 1,396,267
  • Males 14 years and older in 1940: 732,846 (52.49 percent)
  • Females 14 years old and older in 1940: 663,421 (47.51 percent)

  • Persons 14 years and older actually in labor force: 716,501 (51.32 percent of age group)
  • Males 14 years and older actually in labor force: 568,119 (77.52 percent of all males in age group)
  • Females 14 years and older actually in labor force: 148,382 (22.37 percent of all females in age group)

  • Total males and females gainfully employed 1940: 645,618 (90.11 percent of total in work force) 
  • Total males and females employed in other than public emergency work: 607,672 (84.81 percent of total in work force)
  • Total males and females employed in public emergency work: 37,946 (5.30 percent of total in work force)

  • Total males 14 years and older gainfully employed 1940: 510,864 (89.92 percent of males in work force)]
  • Total males employed in other than public emergency work: 478,325 (84.19 percent of males in work force)
  • Total males employed in public emergency work: 32,539 (5.73 percent of males in work force)

  • Total females 14 years and older gainfully employed 1940 : 134,754 (90.82 percent of females in work force)
  • Total females employed in other than public emergency work: 129,347 (87.17 percent of females in work force)
  • Total females employed in public emergency work: 5,407 (3.64 percent of females in work force)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Department of Commerce, Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930 Population, Vol. 6: Families (Washington D.C.: GPO, 1933) 71-95, available at (http://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/41129380v6_TOC.pdf); "Table 13 -- Nativity of the Population, for Regions, Divisions, and States: 1850 to 1990," United States Census Bureau website accessed June 10, 2010 (http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0029/tab13.html) U.S. Bureau of the Census, Department of Commerce, Sixteenth Census of The United States: 1940 Population, Vol. 1: Number of Inhabitants (Washington D.C.:  GPO, 1942), 1115 et seq., available at  (http://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/33973538v1ch09.pdf); "Table 62. Washington -- Race and Hispanic Origin: 1850-1990,"  U.S. Bureau of the Census website accessed June 12, 2010 (http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0056/tab62.xls);  Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung, "Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals By Race, 1790 to 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, for The United States, Regions, Divisions, and States," (Working Paper Series No. 56), U.S. Bureau of the Census website accessed June 12, 2010 (http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0056/twps0056.html); Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung, "Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals By Race, 1790 to 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, for The United States, Regions, Divisions, and States: General Discussion," U.S. Bureau of the Census website accessed June 12, 2010 (http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0056/twps0056.html#gd); "1940 Overview," U.S. Bureau of the Census website accessed June 12, 2010 (http://www.census.gov/history/www/through_the_decades/overview/1940.html); "Table 17.  Population of the 100 Largest Urban Places: 1940," U.S. Bureau of the Census website accessed June 12, 2010 (http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0027/tab17.txt); "Table E-6. White Population of Spanish Mother Tongue, for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States: 1940," U.S. Bureau of the Census website accessed June 13, 2010 (http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0056/tabE-06.xls); "Decennial Population Counts for the State, Counties, and Cities: 1890 to 2000," State of Washington Office of Financial Management website accessed June 12, 2010 (http://www.ofm.wa.gov/pop/decseries/); U.S. Bureau of the Census, Department of Commerce, Sixteenth Census of The United States: 1940 Population, Vol. 4 Pt. 4: Characteristics by Age: Marital Status, Relationship, Education, and Citizenship (Washington D.C.:  GPO, 1943) 751 et seq., available at (http://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/33973538v4p4_TOC.pdf); "Table A-10.  Race for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States: 1940," U.S. Bureau of the Census website accessed June 12,2010 (http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0056/tabA-10.xls).
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same topic.

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