Bertha Palmer

Bertha Palmer

Image: Gigi Ortwein

Life is full of surprises. Who would have thought that my maternal grandmother, who arrived in New York from Italy in 1899 with $10 in her purse, had anything in common with Bertha Palmer, the exquisitely wealthy queen of Chicago high society back then, who later would own about a third of what’s now Sarasota County?

Not me. But they do share a minor connection: U.S. census archives understate their ages.

My grandmother, Catherine Sofia, pops up in the 1910 census as 35. In the census of 1920, she’s 38; in 1930, 46, and 1940, 59. Unless she’d found the fountain that eluded Ponce de León, this reflects only one thing: As a TV sitcom actress once said: “Vanity, thy name is human.”

In the 1900 census, Bertha Palmer’s age is 46, five years younger than she was. On the same form, the age of her 74-year-old husband, Potter, is “unknown.’’ Those entries might indicate that the census taker—all counts were done in person back then—got the information from someone who knew the Potters, but not well. Census field workers can use such secondhand data if someone is unreachable for a sustained period. Maybe the Potters were in Paris that week, seeking a Manet or Renoir to spiff up the old homestead. 

The census, conducted every 10 years since 1790, has been much in the news lately. Because it determines how many U.S. representatives, Electoral College votes, and how much federal aid states receive, its accuracy frequently is challenged by states or cities claiming that their residents have been undercounted.

A new twist was added this year, as President Trump sought to exclude undocumented aliens from the tally, even though they’ve been included in all previous counts. If he succeeds, Florida, with at least 650,000 residents in that category, would be among the big losers. By the time you read this, the Supreme Court might have ruled on the issue.

More interesting than the numbers is the ever-changing roster of census questions. Unlike the 2020 questionnaire, which had just nine bland queries, on subjects including home ownership, ethnicity and race, older ones often had 20 or 40 questions, some of which would make a privacy advocate ill.

To wit: Is anyone living in the home idiotic? Insane? A convict? A pauper? Does your house have an indoor toilet with running water? What’s the value of your estate? How much did you earn last year? How big is your mortgage? Does anyone in  the home have a chronic ailment?

Such inquiries raised suspicions. Some people feared that any financial information disclosed would go straight to the tax collector, although that’s barred by law. So, lies and refusals to answer, while illegal, were never uncommon, particularly because prosecutions are extremely rare. In addition, census takers have deadlines. Bottom line: The old records have lots of misinformation.

For instance, the 1910 census form for Harry Higel, a developer and politician who looms large in early 20th century Sarasota history (not least because he was murdered, and the case is still cold), lists his parents as Pennsylvanians, which seems to be the case. The 1920 questionnaire says his father was born in France.

The Census.gov website tells how to get access to the records, which are public. One catch: While anonymous data—on, say, a locality’s average educational level and median income—is released after it’s compiled, answers from individuals are confidential for 72 years. If you want to learn if your great-uncle Fred rented a house in Osprey in 1950, you’ll have to wait until April 2022 to use the archives to do so. But if you’re seeking insights into his life in 1940 or earlier, they could be a valuable tool right now.

Most of the archived information is prosaic; some is fascinating. When the 1870 census requested the value of respondents’ real estate, Bertha Palmer’s husband, Potter, the investor behind  two Chicago landmarks—the department store that became Marshall Field’s and  the Palmer House Hotel—had a sweet answer: $4 million (about $82.3 million in today’s dollars).

And the 1940 census revealed that the house at 888 S. Palm Ave. owned by William G. Selby and his wife, Marie, namesake for Selby Botanical Gardens, carried no mortgage and was worth $50,000 ($930,000 today). In contrast, in 1930, “unknown” was developer Owen Burns’ response to that same query, a rather evasive reply from a man who once controlled 75 percent of the land within the Sarasota city limits and likely knew his 310 Gulfstream Ave. abode’s worth to the penny. Surprising, too, was his answer to “Do you own a radio set?” He didn’t.

Sometimes, answers hide more than they reveal. The 1940 census asked: What was your income in 1939? Selby’s reply: $5,000+, which could have meant any sum over $5,000. Not coincidentally, that was the same answer given by his pal at 800 S. Palm Ave., Christy Payne, son of Calvin Payne, after whom Payne Park is named.

There’s little of note about Sarasota’s most famous resident, circus impresario John Ringling, in census records, but there are tidbits about Edith Ringling, widow of his brother and business partner Charles.

In the 1930 count, she estimated that her Mediterranean Revival mansion along the Sarasota bayfront was worth $600,000 ($11.2 million). The home, now part of New College, had 20 rooms—enough for her, her son, daughter-in law, and grandson, and six live-in servants. By 1940, however, she’d downsized her household. No relatives were living with her and—horrors!—she had just one resident servant, her chauffeur.

What’s the 2020 census likely to reveal? For one thing, a Sarasota County population around 445,000-450,000, versus 379,488 in 2010. Will that figure be accurate? Probably. Political issues aside, the modern census’ paucity of probing questions leaves more time for field workers and analysts to focus on its primary purpose—counting people. Today’s censuses are more boring than their predecessors; they also just might be better.

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