From 'deaf and dumb' to 'octoroon': Census questions that did not meet the test of time

ByJuan Carlos Guerrero KGO logo
Friday, June 28, 2019
Census questions that didn't meet the test of time
A questionnaire from the 1880 U.S. Census asks residents about their health and whether they are considered 'deaf and dumb', 'idiotic' or 'insane'. (U.S. Census)

SAN FRANCISCO -- The debate over the citizenship question is just the latest controversy that has surrounded the questionnaire since it began in 1790. That first census only asked if respondents were white, a free person or a slave.

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Since then, the census has asked residents what we may not consider impertinent questions, such as the health section in 1880 that asked if a person was "deaf and dumb', 'insane' or 'idiotic'.

In 1890, blacks were asked to identify if they were 'quadroon', meaning they were 1/4th black, or 'octoroon' if they were 1/8th black. That was the only year that question appeared on the census.

Race was not always included in the census. Early on it was categorized as 'color'. In 1870, Chinese was the only color east Asians could select. That was not the only fail with race in the census. In 1930, Mexican was listed as a race.


The census has evolved as American has evolved. In 1940, the census was divided into a population and housing questionnaire that collected intimate details of respondents.

For example, in 1940, respondents were asked if they had running water or if they had exclusive use of a toilet. In 1950, the census asked about television sets, in 1960 it was inquiring about washing machines, and by the 2000 census, respondents were asked about their condominium fees.

Check out the video above for a more historical journey of the U.S. Census.