1940 Census: Ronald Reagan's $135 Rent, Insights Into Other Famous and Ordinary Americans

National Archives expected a high demand but traffic shut down server

April 2, 2012 -- In 1940, Ronald Reagan and his wife paid $135 in rent, he worked 30 hours the last week in March, and the couple lived next door to two men on one side and a champion bridge player lived two doors away.

That bridge player later married a woman from another building, an actress who appeared in Laurel and Hardy pictures.

Whether World War II-era celebrity history, or family history is of interest, the newly unveiled 1940 census archive promises to be a fun historical adventure-- when the site is not crashed.

The site, a treasure trove of information – with 3.8 million pages of detailed family and individual data from the 1940 census, was released today for the first time. There's just one problem: That long-buried treasure is now proving difficult -- if not impossible -- to open.

Interest has been so high, the National Archives' website has essentially crashed.

"We are having a server problem," said Susan Cooper, director of public and media communications at the National Archives. "Because there is such a huge volume, they're having a hard time keeping up."

Cooper told ABC News that the website had 22.5 million hits in the first three hours of operation, far more than anticipated. By mid-afternoon, that jumped to 37 million hits.

"We knew we would have high traffic volume, and we thought we were prepared for it," she said, 'but I think we've been very surprised by actually how popular it is."

The general outlines of the 1940 U.S. Census have been publically released before, but actual data from each household is kept private for 72 years.

The release offers a snapshot of the lives of millions of Americans, from the famous to the everyman.

The 1940 census data, for example, indicates that Reagan worked fewer hours the last week in March than did his then wife, the actress Jane Wyman. She worked 45 hours that week, compared to his 30. It also reveals how much some of Hollywood's biggest stars were paying their live-in help.

When the National Archives released the detailed data from the 1920 and 1930 census reports, it was on microfilm. Accessing it meant making a trip to the library and fishing through the films. This is the first time the data has been released online. "Now, theoretically, you can now stay at home and search from your own computer," said Cooper, "so it makes it much more accessible; and therefore more popular."

Cooper says they're working to add more capacity, to allow the millions looking for family pay-dirt to get onto the site.

Even if you do manage to click through the search feature, if you're looking for a particular person, in a way, you have to have already found them. The special archives website, created for the release of the 1940's census, requests specific address or zip code information in order to narrow down your search to the specific enumeration district where your person of interest lived.

Enumeration districts were the several city blocks assigned to the enumerators – the government workers dispatched to go knocking on door after door to conduct the surveys for that year's census. As of yet, the system does not allow users to search solely by an individual's name. The National Archives is working with volunteers to try to index the data base by name, but that will likely take another six to nine months.

The archivists, who prepared millions of pages documenting the America of the 1940 for online release, pulled information on some particularly notable figures included in this census -- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and then-actor, future President Ronald Reagan.

Roosevelt's occupation was listed as President of the U.S.A. According to the census sheet, he lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with his wife, personal secretary, cousin, governess and four servants. At the time of the 1940 Census, Ronald Reagan was pursuing his burgeoning acting career and was just married to his first wife, Jane Wyman, a co-star from the movie "Brother Rat." The year he married Wyman, Reagan was living in an apartment in the hills of Hollywood.

In the spring of 1939, the couple moved to a different apartment in Los Angeles proper, according to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

The detailed census data indicates that Reagan and his wife lived alone at 1326B Londonderry View Drive in Los Angeles. They both reported incomes of greater than $5,000 a year.

One of the men living two-doors down from Reagan was Sydney Rusinow, a famous bridge player who married actress Viola Richard. There is a technique named after him called the "Rusinow lead". He died in a house fire, according to that bio of Viola's linked above.

The data also reveals fascinating glimpse into other Hollywood figures. Actress Myrna Loy lived with her first of four husbands, producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. Loy, best known for her role as Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies, was one of the few actresses to successfully make the transition from silent pictures to the "talkies." She and her husband also lived with two servants, who were each paid $960 a year. Loy and her husband reported yearly earnings of more than $5,000 each and lived in a $200,000 home.

Famed costume designer Edith Head also lived with two servants, but they were paid appreciably less than Loy's household help. One earned $400 dollars, the other $720. Head also brought in more than $5000 a year.

And actor Victor Mature was living as a lodger in a home in Pasadena, possibly as his first, brief marriage was being annulled. Mature reported earnings of over $4,000 dollars that year.

Just as today, those Hollywood stars earned far more than the average American. In 1940, the median wage for men was $956 dollars, and for women $592. In the 2010 Census, the median salary was just over $33,000 for men and $24,000 for women.

The 1940 Census was conducted during an era of massive social change, just as the U.S. was emerging from the Great Depression, and on the verge of entering World War II. The population stood at 132 million, compared to 309 million in the 2010 Census. At that time, more than 70 years ago, the occupations listed on the census form included laborer, rivet heater, frame spinner and salesman.

It was a much more rural and agrarian society. Five million Americans counted themselves as farmers, compared to just 613,000 who listed farming as their occupation in 2010. And education levels were substantially lower. In 1940, only percent of the population had college degrees; that number was 28 percent in 2010.

Those are just some of the broad strokes of the 1940 U.S. Census findings, all of which had been published before. But what's now available on the new website are the hand-written ledgers painstakingly filled out by an army of over 100,000 census takers who fanned out across the country to record that moment in America.

The information is also being added to the largest for-profit genealogy site, www.Ancestry.com. The site, says it has seen a 175% increase in traffic today. Ancestry.com hopes to have all 3.8 million images from the 1940 census online before the end of the year, and it is also including other data from the 1940's – such as births and marriage records, to help searchers locate family members. Access to the census information on the site will be free through the end of 2013.

Meantime, the National Archives says it's website continues to ramp up to try to handle the overflow traffic.