I was disturbed when I found my Soares family listing on the 1940 U.S. census. The surname was misspelled “Soars,” and my grandfather’s birthplace was listed incorrectly as the Azores.

His draft registration for World War I may have botched the city where he was born, Rio de Janeiro, calling it “Rio Linero.” But at least they got the country (Brazil) right.

This is another census year. I shudder to think what mistakes are out there waiting to happen.

Not that this misinformation was a threat to national security or affected congressional district lines. My concern is as an amateur genealogist. The census rolls can be a treasure trove of information.

The 1940 census, not so much. It lists my grandparents and their four children, who were 14 and under in 1940, as living on Sherman Road in Somerset, Massachusetts. My grandfather’s occupation is listed as a salesman for an unnamed “biscuit company,” meaning Nabisco.

The same census for my mother’s family, living seven miles away in Tiverton, Rhode Island, is more illuminating, and mystifying. There are nine people listed: my grandparents; my mother, two of her sisters and three of her brothers; and somebody named Ernestine whom I never heard of before.

Though Ernestine has the same family name (Mello) she is listed as a lodger.

Now, there’s a quaint term that frequently turns up on census forms. In 1920, my great-grandfather, Manuel Cabral Souza, and his wife, Jacinthe, hosted four female boarders in their home, presumably family members.

Anyway, who was Ernestine? It is possible that she went by a nickname. My mother and her sisters, first generation Portuguese-Americans, anglicized their names. Mom, whose given name was Georgiana, went by “Janette” for years.

Then she decided her real name was lovely and went back to it. Of course, everyone called her “Georgie.”

Though Ernestine might have gone by “Ellie” or “Betty,” my mother never once mentioned anybody living in that house other than her immediate family.

Ernestine was 23 and had been born in Rhode Island. However, in 1935, she had lived in Bristol County, Massachusetts, just over the border from Tiverton. She was a spinner in a cotton mill. Ernestine would have operated one or two spinning machines, and each would have had numerous spindles. I read somewhere that spinners sometimes worked barefoot, as the floor would be soaked with oil from the cotton.

And to think I complained about working at KFC as a teenager.

This may have been the Bourne Mill in Tiverton, where my grandfather, Antone, worked for years. He is listed in the 1940 census as a “picker.” This seems odd to me, as that’s a low-level job (the first step in processing cotton). My mother and one of her cousins told me Antone had risen to the level of foreman before 1940. In fact, my grandparents and several of their younger children moved to Connecticut during the Depression. The Tiverton mill owner had invited my grandfather to work in his Connecticut mill, and they lived in a guest house on the mill owner’s property. Maybe, by 1940, vavô supervised pickers, so he was mistakenly listed as one in the census?

Not only was Antone a humble man, he never really learned to speak English, so I will not blame the census taker for that possible mistake.

My mother and her sister Jesse (we knew her as Bessie) were seamstresses. Mom was listed as a “sewer” in what looks like a “suit shop.” I’d like to think it says, “sweat shop,” because that’s what she called it. She hated every minute of working there. Jesse was a “trimmer” in a “garment shop,” which might have made garment bags.
I feel like I’m creating a dictionary of lost occupations. Does anyone use garment bags anymore?

Mom’s oldest brother, Alfred, was a “cementer” in 1940, working in construction. The next year, the U.S. would enter World War II. Uncle Alfred would be drafted at age 40 and sent to Europe after D-Day. He would show exceptional valor under fire in France and received the Bronze Star.

None of that is in the census, of course. I have his medal, which I treasure, and the write-up about him that appeared in the local newspaper.

His three brothers would also serve. I’m not sure how my grandparents survived having four sons at war, but all their boys came back.

The 1940 census is the most recent one that’s available. As a librarian, I must mention that census records can be accessed through the Digital Maine Library, which is a collection of databases provided free to Maine residents.

Users can access “Ancestry” at any public library (on a library computer or personal device) and there is also a school library version; “My Heritage” can be searched at home. People who have had their DNA tested through ancestry.com can search the records there for free as well.

In 1940, the census shows my parents were living in towns north and south of the city of Fall River, Massachusetts. Fourteen years later they would meet at a dance in the ballroom of Lincoln Park, an amusement venue west of that city.

I would make my first appearance in a census six years after that, in 1960. Or so I assume. But hopefully, not as Ernestine Soars.


Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected]

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