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reCOUNT: Facing our Census 

On display April 1st - December 30th 2022

reCOUNT: Facing our Census was on display at The History Center in Tompkins County from April 1st-December 30th 2022. reCOUNT offered a new way to engage with the census. Instead of an overwhelming set of numbers and data aligned in tables and charts, the exhibit built human connections to the people behind the statistics. The interplay of historical narratives from historian Eve Snyder, and exhibit design by Cindy Kjellander-Cantu, asked us to reflect critically and interactively on "WHO counts" and who does the counting. Audiences explored the growth of Finnish, Hungarian, Syrian, and Chinese communities in Ithaca, and discovered some of the local enumerators who did the counting and shaped our communities.

reCOUNT Exhibit Press

reCOUNT Events & Programs in 2022

Exhibit Hall Displays

Exhibit Hall Displays

reCOUNT asked us to consider who the census counts, and what stories it doesn't capture.

A small rectangular image of a historical photo labelled "Stewart Company" next to a description of the history of the Stewart Company.

A small rectangular image of a label from an exhibit that reads "Our 50th Anniversay 1931-1981 ASIATIC GARDEN Chinese & American ... Ithaca. NY"

A small rectangular image of a handwritten list of names

A small rectangular image of a visitor standing in front of the census exhibit.

Cultural Fabric of Tompkins County: Where did families come from?

People often use the federal census to trace their family’s origins. What can the census tell us about the origins of the families who create the cultural fabric of Tompkins County? Early censuses provide limited clues. Beginning in 1850 the census recorded each person’s place of birth (state, territory, or country), and later the place of birth of their parents as well.

 From the census, we can learn about the origins of the specific individuals and families who settled here and made this county their home. Moreover, we might also read between the lines: how did factors like immigration policies, economic opportunities, and family influence who settled here?

A Gainful Occupation: How did Employment Change?

What does the federal census tell us about employment in Tompkins County? Initially, employment inquiries were limited to a few major occupational categories. Beginning in 1850, with the collection of data at the individual rather than household level, the census recorded specific occupations.  In the early 20th century, a few new inquiries about employment were added, such as industry, to further categorize each person’s employment.

Still, the answers to these questions paint employment in Tompkins County with a broad brushstroke. They give us a place to start to learn about employment of individuals in the county and how it changed over time. They also provoke curiosity: What kind of farm did the farmer have? Which religion was the clergyman? What were Yankee notions?

A rectangular image of two women sitting. The one to the left holds a dustpan and the one on the right holds a broom and dustpan.

Around the Block: Who would you meet taking the census?

Historically, census enumerators were sent out every decade to canvass the city blocks and rural areas of their communities. As they did so, they met the people who lived in their towns and cities and observed the buildings and landscape. On one of those blocks is the building which is now home to The History Center in Tompkins County. Here you will meet the people who lived on this block and learn how the streetscape changed over the decades.

A small rectangular image of the census exhibit.

Color or Race? How was race defined?

Questions of “color” or race on the census were initially limited to “White” and “Black.” Additional categories were added beginning with the 1850 census. Each new category was added as it became important to the federal government to have a count of specific populations. 

  • 1850 census – “Mulatto”
  • 1860 census – “Indian” 
  • 1870 census – “Chinese”
  • 1890 census – “Japanese,” “Quadroon,” and “Octoroon”
  • 1910 census – Other (a write-in category)
  • 1920 census – “Filipino,” “Hindu,” and “Korean”
  • 1930 census – “Negro” and “Mexican”

A rectangular image of the Age, Sex, and Color categories on a census. The color categories specifies "White, black or mulatto"

Counting Educational Opportunities: What can we learn from the census?

A small rectangular image of the alphabet. Each letter is accompanied by a word beginning with that letter and an image of the word. It reads "A album B bat C cat D ducks E eggs F fan G grate H hat  In Jail K keg L letters M mug N nuts O ostrich P pigs Q quart R ring S slippers T tub Umbrella V volumes W wharf [rest unreadable]"

Historically the U.S. population census gathered information about school attendance, literacy—whether the person could read and write—and educational attainment. The specific questions asked on the census changed over the decades. While school attendance was a constant, the literacy question shifted over time before being replaced in 1940 with that of “highest grade of school completed.”

While we can learn about the school attendance and literacy of the people of Tompkins County from the census, the census merely provides a start, tempting us with more questions than answers. Where did people attend school? What were they taught? What else impacted educational opportunities?

Through the Lens of the Census Taker: Who’s counting and how?

Who the census takers were and how they took the census is an often overlooked but important piece of census history. Their interpretations of the census instructions and of people’s responses to their inquiries informed the tabulated census data and the handwritten entries on the manuscript census sheets.

A rectangular image of a woman's face captioned (above) "Re-elected by WCTU" and (below) "MRS. MARY B. WOOD"

Digital Collections

In addition to the displays at our museum on the Ithaca Commons, we're excited to share the following collections from our Archives which are publicly accessible on New York Heritage Digital Collections

An image that reads "National Archives 1950 Census Explore & Collaborate" 

Our exhibit reCOUNT: Facing our Census opened to the public on the same day as the release of the 1950 U.S. Census, April 1st 2022. The first time these records have been available for public review. 

This population census is the 17th decennial census of the United States. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has digitized and will provide free online access to the 1950 Census population schedules for U.S. states and territories, enumeration district maps, and enumeration district descriptions.  

Use to Explore Ithaca Neighborhoods

HistoryForge is an innovative digital history project combining maps, archival records, and census data that allows any community to explore its local history through the individuals who lived there and the buildings and neighborhoods they lived in.  

Our pilot project began in 2016 and focuses on exploring the history of Ithaca, New York in the late 19th and early 20th century using interactive search functions which allow users to find information on historic maps about people and places.

Ithaca HistoryForge includes over 70,000 digitized census records of Ithacan's from 1910-1940, and is in the process of adding tens of thousands of building records to the database. 

By searching the database using the "Race" filter on different census years you can see where Black neighborhoods existed in the City of Ithaca. 

An image of a HistoryForge map that displays several red dots.

Each red dot references a self-identified Black individual or family living in the building in the 1930 census. The area shown is the Southside Neighborhood. You can see the names, ages, professions and more of each individual by exploring their census records

Follow Along at #TompkinsHistory on


Follow @TompkinsHistory on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and SoundCloud as we highlight stories of #TompkinsHistory over the centuries.

Post your own stories and use the hashtags #OurTompkins and #TompkinsHistory to join the conversation.


An image displaying the logo for the New York State Council on the Arts.A small image of the HistoryForge logo. reCOUNT is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature. The development of HistoryForge was supported  through funding provided by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

An image of the logo for What's HOT magazine: Ithaca & Cortland.

Thank you to What's HOT Magazine: Ithaca & Cortland for their media sponsorship of reCOUNT: Facing our Census

Physical Address

Located inside the Tompkins Center for History & Culture

110 North Tioga Street

(On the Ithaca Commons) 

Ithaca NY, 14850 USA

Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫˀ Territory


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