What information does a census collect? The answer depends on when and where in time the census was taken.
In the past, empires and nations often took regular censuses. From Babylon to China to India to Russia, governments needed to tax people and conscript soldiers, so they counted men. The practice of using data from a census to inform and direct policy—How much can the government spend on new roads or ships? Will the military have enough resources for war?—still exists today.
As many countries prepare for the 2020 census, PRB shares some milestones and moments from census history around the world.
3800 BCE The Babylonian Empire takes the first known census, counting livestock and quantities of butter, honey, milk, wool, and vegetables.
2 CE China’s Han Dynasty records the oldest surviving census data, showing a population of 57.7 million people living in 12.4 million households. Chengdu, the largest city, has a population of 282,000.
1086 While not a census in the strictest sense of the word, the Domesday Book surveys English landowners and their holdings, forming the basis for the tax system implemented by William the Conqueror.
1250-1270 The Mongols take a census of captured Chinese, Russian, and Asian territories to demand resources from conquered peoples in exchange for a peace treaty. The resources are used to conduct further conquests.
1400 Without a written language, the Incas use a system of knots on strings made from llama or alpaca hair to record census data and administer their empire.
1700s-1800s European colonialist nations like England, France, and Denmark avoid conducting censuses of their own countries due to opposition from the nobility, who fear losing power to the central government. The story is quite different when it comes to their colonies in the Americas, the Caribbean, and Iceland, however, where censuses are used to promote growth and keep the colonies under control and well-taxed.
1790 Enumerators on horseback begin the first U.S. census, which takes 18 months to complete. The results are used to establish the size of the House of Representatives. Enslaved people are counted as three-fifths of a person until after the Civil War (1861-1865), and Native Americans aren’t counted at all until 1860.
1853 Chile passes the first census law in South America.
1850-1860 Anti-slavery campaigners use data from two consecutive U.S. censuses to build support for abolition by showing that the number of enslaved people in the United States is rising—contrary to arguments made by pro-slavery politicians.
1864 During the U.S. Civil War, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman marches Union troops through Georgia to the sea in record time because he relied on census data to find local resources for his army rather than establish long supply lines.
1871 British officials require their standard list of jobs be used in India’s census, highlighting cultural differences as census takers struggle to classify such occupations in India as “jokers and story-tellers, hail averters, prayer mutterers.” The local population is reluctant to participate because of rumors that the goal of the count is to identify girls to be sent to England to fan Queen Victoria during a heatwave.
1890 The first electric tabulating machines are introduced in the U.S. Census, advancing the technological development of census taking.
1920 The U.S. census shows that urban areas are growing quickly, largely due to an influx of immigrants. Seeking to minimize the political impacts of the resulting reapportionment, the Republican-controlled Congress passes laws that end the United States’ open immigration from Europe for the first time and establish quotas for desirable (northern European) and undesirable (southern European) immigrants. Congress doesn’t undergo reapportionment until 1932, using the results of the 1930 Census.
1958 Responding to a need for international standards, the United Nations’ Statistical Commission issues the first set of principles and recommendations for population and housing censuses. They become a cornerstone of the first World Population and Housing Census Programme.
1983 The West German government’s attempt to link census records to municipal population registers results in a lawsuit over privacy issues that forces officials to cancel plans for the census. A modified census is eventually held four years later. Unified Germany’s first census in 1990 counts 80.2 million people.
2001 More than 390,000 census respondents in England and Wales self-identify as followers of the Jedi faith after an internet campaign that claimed—incorrectly—that the Jedi belief system would receive official government recognition as a religion if it received enough support. Says one supporter, “Do it because you love Star Wars… or just to annoy people.”
2010 China’s census records the largest population to date in the world, relying on 10 million census workers (roughly equivalent to the population of Belgium) to count 1.3 billion people, including 23 million Taiwanese.
2012 Brazil assists Senegal with its census, providing state-of-the-art information gathering and processing technologies, including the use of personal digital assistants, so that field researchers can collect and send data in real time. The resources ensure greater reliability and faster production and dissemination of results.
2019 The Democratic Republic of the Congo begins preparations for the second census in its history, the previous census taking place in 1984. Six other countries have been without a census since 1990: Afghanistan (1979), Eritrea (1984), Lebanon (1932), Somalia (1985), Uzbekistan (1989), and the area of Western Sahara (1970).
Margo J. Anderson, The American Census: A Social History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
BBC, “Jedi Is Not a Religion, Charity Commission Rules” (Dec .19, 2016), www.bbc.com/news/uk-38368526.
Elaine Domschke and Doreen S. Goyer, The Handbook of National Population Censuses: Africa and Asia (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986).
Doreen S. Goyer and Eliane Domschke, The Handbook of National Population Censuses: Latin America and the Caribbean, North America, and Oceania (New York: Greenwood Press, 1983).
Doreen S. Goyer and Gera E. Draaijer, The Handbook of National Population Censuses: Europe (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992).
Gunnar Thorvaldsen, Censuses and Census Takers: A Global History (London: Routledge, 2017).