Many census enumerations asked our ancestors if they could read or write, but the 1940 US Census asked how many years of schooling they had.
Let’s take a look at household of Oscar W Owelley. He is living with his sister.
We see that Oscar has completed 8 years of school, his sister, the first year of high school.
But what does that mean? How do we put it into context?
Oscar is 66, born about 1874. He is living in Boston.
Let’s pull up the census form the 1940 census in advanced mode. First, I want to know how many men lived in Boston who were about Oscar’s age.
So I set birth year to 1874 with a +- 10 and set it to exact. This will count everyone born between 1864 and 1884. I set the lived in location to Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts and set that to exact. I choose gender as Male.
When I do my search, I see the count at the top of the results. There are 46,706 mean who were born between 1864 and 1884.
Now, edit your search form and choose Elementary school, 8th grade and set it to exact.
We find that there are 15,029 men with an 8th grade education or 32%. Oscar seems pretty average.
Now if you are really ambitious, you can count the number for each grade level using this method. We find that in Boston, men between the ages of 1864-1884 mostly just had some level of elementary school education. This helps puts Oscar’s education level in context and tells you what was common for men that age.
To better understand our ancestors and the times that they lived it helps to dig a little deeper and put them in context.