Age? Income? Mortgage? Toilet? Bathtub? Radio?
Thus did LIFE magazine kick off a lengthy article in its March 18, 1940, issue featuring photographs from a “test census” in Indiana’s St. Joseph and Marshall counties in the summer of 1939 — the purpose of which, LIFE wrote, was “to see whether any of the new questions proposed for the 1940 census were too difficult or too objectionable to answer.”
“On April 1,” the March 1940 article explained, “an army of some 120,000 census takers will march forth to ring doorbells and ask questions [how old residents are, how much their house is worth, how far they got in school, how much family members earn at their jobs, etc.] about every home and human in the land. Though the census has been taken every 10 years since 1790, last week it was front-page news. In the Senate, in letters-to-the-editors and letters-to-Congressmen rose a chorus of outraged squawks — led by Republican senator Charles W. Tobey of New Hampshire — against ‘bureaucratic snooping’ represented by some of the 1940 questions, particularly those about income and mortgages. Indignant clubwomen threatened to overflow the jails, and the New York Legislature petitioned Congress to withdraw the questions. Sniffed President Roosevelt: ‘Politics!'”
“It is a significant comment,” LIFE told its readers, “on the current Republican-led rebellion against census ‘snoopery’ that only about one Indiana citizen in 50 objected at all to answering any of the questions, and these were brought around by a little persuasive explanation.”