Here's an intesting link to the Census Dept website. The document explains the content of each census and the instructions given to the enumerators. This can be helpful in understanding responses that may not correspond to our family stories. Most of the instructions are boring but there are a few odd phrases, especially in the early years when nobody, including the government, had to worry about being politically correct.
The instructions for the 1790, 1800, and 1810 census years are just 1 paragraph each. What this means is that the enumerators were free to fill in the information in whatever format worked best for them. The instructions for 1820, 1830 & 1840 were longer but seem to talk in circles as to how to report a persons occupation. By 1850, the instructions start getting more specific.
For the 1870 census, clear instructions are given to the enumerators to be careful about using the word "mulatto" to describe the person's color. The instructions say that "mulatto" includes 1/4, 1/8, and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood and that important scientific results depend upon having the correct classification. One can only imagine what the reference to "scientific results" means.
The 1870 instructions also note that the enumerator should take care not to offend anyone when asking if any member of the household is "deaf and dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic". Apparently deafness alone isn't reported, the person must also be unable to speak. Idiocy is to be determined by the common consent of the neighborhood. I guess that means someone might be reported as an idiot if his neighbors didn't like him.
The 1870 instructions also say to "use the word huckster in all cases where it applies" when recording the person's occupation. I wonder why this classification was so important.
The 1890 census is a schedule most of us will never see for our ancestors since most of this census was destroyed by fire and water damage in the 1920s. The 1890 census used what were referred to as family schedules. Each family had its own schedule regardless of size. It is interesting that the instructions refer to recording each person's "Christian name". For soldiers, sailors, and marines who fought in the Civil War, it was required that the side they fought on be recorded (US or Confederate). The instructions for the "color" entry are specific: black=3/4 or more black blood, mulatto=3/8 to 5/8 black blood, quadroon=1/4 black blood, and octoroon=1/8 or any trace of black blood. I wonder if this was important because of those "scientific results" from the 1870s & 1880s.
The 1890 census instructions were also specific as to how to report if a person was born in Canada or Newfoundland. The word "English" or "French" had to be noted because "this is a most important requirement, and must be closely observed in each case and the distinction carefully made".
The 1900 census instructions were clear to indicate that the question "mother of how many children" only applied to women. For 1910, it is noted that this questions only applied to women who "are now married, or who are widowed, or divorced". What about women with children born out of wedlock? No instructions for that.
One thing I was looking for in the occupation sections of the instructions was how to deal with illegal or questionable occupations. There's no mention as to how to handle prostitutes, gamblers, etc. Interesting that our government was more worried about Canadians and properly classifying residents of African descent even after slavery was abolished.