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Census Taker's Satchel

Census taker's  satchel, ca. 1900A Kansas census taker used this satchel while canvassing the north-central part of the state a century ago.

On the first day of June in the year 1900, John Bissell arrived at the Butler home and pulled from his satchel a paper form with 28 questions. His knock on the door could have been answered by any of the home's residents--husband, wife, or eight children. Bissell wanted to know each of their names, genders, when they were born and where, and whether they could speak English, among other things. As the official U.S. Census Enumerator for District No. 123, Kirwin Township, Phillips County, Bissell was responsible for the accurate accounting of information on over 235 families. Along with 52,870 enumerators across the country, he was conducting one of the largest social surveys in the world.

Census History

Counting citizens of the United States "in such manner as they shall by law direct" was initially Congress' responsibility. The Constitution has mandated a regular federal census since its ratification in 1788. Article 1, Section 2 states this census must occur every ten years, helping determine the number of legislative representatives and taxes for each state.

Page from 1900 census containing John Bissell's name as enumeratorWhen Bissell began recording residents in Phillips County, the state of Kansas was on the tail end of an economic bust that had caused thousands of residents to leave. It was hoped that the twelfth census of the United States would prove the Kansas economy was on the rebound and that the state had gained residents since the previous census (which it had, by about 43,000).

The organizational work for the 1900 federal census in Kansas actually began in 1899, with the appointment of seven congressional district supervisors. Enumerators then were appointed and assigned districts small enough to be tallied in a month's time. Bissel, born in Pennsylvania, had come to Kansas by way of Indiana in 1871. Well into his 70s, the man raised cattle and sheep and grew evergreen trees, but seemed to possess no particular experience in administering surveys. Most likely his census appointment was gained through political connections forged while serving as a state legislator.

Bissell's census badge, 1900On average, census workers at the turn of the 20th century were expected to enumerate 200 to 300 people daily. Wearing a census badge signifying his official role, Bissel visited about 235 families (969 residents) over the course of 23 days. He first completed his hometown of Kirwin in about nine days. It took almost twice as long to finish the rural portion of the township. For his efforts, Bissell was paid about $69.00, or $3.00 per day.

Today, Kirwin Township's 307 residents participate in the 2010 Census in quite a different manner. The Census Bureau eliminated door-to-door census takers in the 1960s, and now mails questionnaires across the nation. Only if a household does not respond to the mailing will an enumerator appear on the doorstep.

This satchel and badge, used by John Bissell during his census activities, were donated to the Kansas Museum of History by Bissell's granddaughter in 1979. A nearly identical bag is pictured in the 1902 Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog. Described as a "club sack," it cost $1.20, which amounted to over one-third of Bissell's daily wages as a census taker.

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Entry: Census Taker's Satchel

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: August 2010

Date Modified: July 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.