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Understanding the 1855 Census Database

This activity helps students navigate and make sense of the information available in the Five Points census database. In the activity, students use the database to test hypotheses about life and residents in the Five Points. For this activity, students will need access to a computer with an internet connection.  This activity can be followed up with the activity Telling the Whole Story: Irish Americans in Five Points.

Objectives

  • Students will formulate conclusions about life and residents of the Five Points based on evidence in the 1855 New York State census.  

  • Students will be able to navigate the Five Points census database and manipulate the data in order to test hypotheses.  

This activity supports the following Common Core Literacy Standards in History/Social Studies:

  • RHSS.9-10.7. Integrate quantitative or technical analysis with qualitative analysis in print or digital text.

Instructions

Step 1: Pass out or display "New York State Census Page of the Five Points, 1855" and the "Explanation of 1855 Census Categories" handout. With students, create a list of observations based on the following questions:

  • Who lived in Five Points? (Irish, German, US-born, boarders, children; most residents had been in New York City for at least a decade; families)

  • Who worked in Five Points and what did they do?  (men and women; the work that women did, such as keeping boarders, was not always recognized as an occupation; very few landowners)

  • Who were naturalized voters? Who were alien voters? (See "Explanation of 1855 Census Categories.")  

Step 2: Divide the students into groups of 2 or 3.  Pass out the "Understanding the 1855 Census Database" worksheet.  Each group should select 3 hypotheses about residents in the Five Points to test using the census database.  

Step 3: Have students go to the Five Points Census database (http://www.ashp.cuny.edu/fivepoints).  Allow students time to figure out how the census database works (performing searches, refining results) by using it to answer a few simple questions. (Tip: click a column title to sort entries by that category; you can only sort by one category at a time.)

  • How many residents were included in this census (1333)

  • How many Irish-born landowners were included in this census (9)

  • What percentage of residents over the age of 12 were literate and/or could read?  (51%)

Step 4: Now let students test their hypotheses from the worksheet. Students should record what search they performed, the results of their queries and their conclusions (was the hypothesis proved or disproved?).  

Step 5: Ask students to share their results with the whole class. Then, lead a discussion of the broader conclusions they can draw about life and residents in Five Points. Conclusions might include:

  • Five Points was a working-class neighborhood  

  • Most residents were Irish or the children of Irish immigrants, though there were many residents who had emigrated from other European countries; there were very few African Americans

  • The residents were politically active; many men were naturalized, though fewer women were naturalized

  • It was common for men to have unskilled jobs; very few landowners

    Many women worked, though the number of working women was often undercounted by census takers and other authorities who did not recognize some occupations, such as housing boarders in private homes, as jobs

Ask students what other questions they have about the database, such as why were so few women naturalized, how undercounting the number of women workers changes our perceptions of the neighborhood, and why were there so few African-American residents?

Historical Context

Antebellum New York City had several neighborhoods that struggled with poverty and crime, but the Five Points district was something new in urban America: a slum that lay in the very center of a city. Crowded tenements, street gangs and prostitutes shocked middle-class observers, but also aroused public curiosity about the predominantly Irish neighborhood that Charles Dickens called a "nest of vipers." 

Irish Americans saw Five Points differently. Poverty was a fact of life, as were alcoholism and violence. but to immigrants who had escaped the Great Famine and English rule, Five Points offered a new home and opportunities for work, political participation and upward mobility. Five Points also provided a bustling street life where residents socialized, listened to music and talked politics in the local saloon. 

Because working people seldom leave behind the kinds of records that the middle and upper-classes generate (speeches, sermons and memoirs, for example), their stories must sometimes be told through other kinds of sources. Careful use of quantitative information, such as census records, can frequently allow us to reconstruct the lives of those whose voices might not otherwise be heard.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2010.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Understanding the 1855 Census Database,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 17, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1500.

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