Recently I had occasion to perform a lookup from the 1940 U.S. Census within the town of Hopedale, Worcester County, Massachusetts. I was checking for the possible presence of an Elizabeth Whitney who was 13 years old at that time. I found the individual who had been enumerated (and subsequently transcribed) as D. Elizabeth Whitney. Had there not been a suggestion from some previous user that there was an alternative spelling as I. Elizabeth Whitney, I might have been satisfied with what I had initially found. Frankly when I considered the alternative letter I with the transcribed letter D, I really was unsure of which was correct. To bolster my sense of assurance that the user knew more than the transcriber, I viewed several other capital Is and capital Ds which the original enumerator had written on the original census page and other pages close by. Having taken this step my mind was opened to a whole new realization. While I was probing the details involving the formation of a single letter, the more overreaching problem was one of an erroneous format that had been used by the original enumerator. It seems that with very few exceptions this enumerator had listed everyone’s name using the format: Surname, Middle Initial, First Name. The correct format should have been: Surname, First Name, Middle Initial.
Based upon the enumerator’s format, today’s census reader gains the impression that the person being listed was known by their middle name, reserving the use of their first name to a single initial, as some people actually do; such was the case with my own mother, but that was not the case with a majority of the population (unless they resided in Hopedale in 1940!).
Continuing my search for other capital Ds and Is, I finally concluded that the previous user who had furnished the alternative letter was correct and from additional research on other sites, I learned that the letter I was the first initial of the name, Inez.
When performing census lookups, users do have the option of submitting alternative spellings, if they disagree with the transcribed results. As users, however, we are unable to alter a faulty formatting scheme that may have been used by the original enumerator when listing large numbers of people or the details of their lives. All we can really do in this situation is view the original image in its original context and satisfy ourselves that it makes sense.
Submitted by: Robert J. Bartlett
August 31, 2013