This Was Then: The 1950 census

Toilets, TVs, and AI transcripts.


It’s April 1950. The boomers are just babies, and the Atomic Age has arrived. Harry Truman is president, World War II has ended, the troops have come home, and the Korean War is still two months away.

Canvassing the Island is a team of seven dedicated, door-knocking locals: Maxie Mello, Dick Gale, Shirley Perry, Estelle Suprenant, George Pacheco, William Brown, and William King. They are charged with carrying out the mandate set by Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution: to enumerate every person living on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard.

On Friday, their work was finally released to the public, exactly 72 years later. It’s fully digitized, free, and open to the public at Check it out! If you know anyone who was living on the Island (or anyone else in the United States) 72 years ago this month, they should be listed. 

The details are similar to previous federal censuses: names, family relationships, age, gender, race, marital status, birthplace, occupation, etc.; but there are also some new columns asking how many hours they worked last week, and whether they were looking for work. Certain people were singled out at random for additional questions, like how much money they made, and how much education they completed. The National Archives used machine learning — artificial intelligence software — to try to read the handwritten names, but while the release of the census is a technological marvel, expect some complications searching for specific names until humans like you and I take the time to correct the transcript. But it’s awfully fun to browse.

Our seven doorknockers ultimately counted 5,557 people on Martha’s Vineyard, more than 11 percent of whom were born outside the U.S. Dukes County became the only county in Massachusetts to shrink since the previous census was taken in 1940; and at 53 residents per square mile, the Island was the commonwealth’s least densely populated county. That said, about 240 Islanders were new wash-ashores in 1950, having moved to the Island within the previous year.

Enumerator William King found that Chilmark had the most vacant summer homes of all of the Island towns, with about 269 dwellings, but only 183 people. Chilmarkers in 1950 were carpenters, painters, contractors, truck drivers, fishermen, and other familiar tradesmen, but hidden among the rows of vacant houses on South Road, King found Countess Olga de Leslie Leigh (perhaps busy writing her 1953 book, “501 Easy Cocktail Canapes”).

Island women tended to be better educated than Island men — there were 125 women with at least four years of college, while the median number of school years completed by Vineyard men was less than 10. Fewer than a quarter of adult women worked outside the home, and the median family income was only $2,421 — significantly less than the national average at that time.

Maxamena (“Maxie”) Mello crisscrossed Edgartown, speaking with judges, yarn merchants, real estate agents, dentists, taxi drivers, upholsterers, bookstore clerks, probation officers, yacht captains, and liquor store clerks. On Pine Street, for instance, she spoke with 35-year-old war veteran Arthur Gazaille, a seasonal restaurant worker who made a total of $1,900 in 22 weeks the previous year. 

William Brown canvassed the more rural parts of Edgartown, including the rows of vacant summer homes on Chappaquiddick. He also covered Gay Head, where he found that the wintertime population had shrunk to just 88 souls — barely half of what it had been 20 years earlier, in 1930. Outside of the Coast Guard Station, the population of Gay Head was almost exclusively Wampanoag, and nearly all the Gay Head men were employed as commercial fishermen, scallopers, or lobstermen.

Enumerator Shirley Perry knocked on the most doors — some 1,500 of them in Oak Bluffs, where, like King found in Chilmark, there were more houses than people. Perry dutifully recorded street after street of vacant houses on East Chop, the Campground, Ocean Park, and other summer neighborhoods. But she also spoke with bulldozer operators, social workers, hospital employees, dry cleaners, projectionists, radio technicians, film developers, and ice makers. She found ​​Louis Martin, 15, and his cousin James De Bettencourt, 14, employed at the bowling alley, setting up pins. She noted that 51-year-old widow Ruth Combra was a representative for Avon products. On Lawrence Ave., Perry found Clifford Silvia, 23, who was employed 54 hours a week as a typewriter service man. A World War II vet with a sixth-grade education, Silvia worked 52 weeks the prior year for a total income of $1,825, supporting his wife and young daughter.

Perry clearly had a difficult run-in with Arthur BenDavid, who ran a package store and garage with his brother, Gus. BenDavid refused to state his income, and Perry wrote a long and clearly annoyed note in the margin of her form describing how BenDavid claimed “he didn’t make a cent all year” even though, in Perry’s words, he ran “two thriving + well-established businesses.”

Perry was assisted in the more rural neighborhoods of Oak Bluffs by Estelle Suprenant, who enumerated, among many others, Carolyn Cullen, 33, who ran the private airport on County Road.

In 1950, those who could afford to buy an RCA Victor “Eye-Witness” television (with its expansive 10- or 12-inch screen) for $250 plus installation (nearly 5 percent of the median home value on the island), could enjoy the snowy black-and-white antics of Sid Caesar or Milton Berle on their tubes. And according to the census figures, 135 homes on the Island reportedly were already equipped with one by April 1950. (But none in Gay Head, where electricity was still completely unavailable.) Constantine (“Connie”) Lopes of Tashmoo Avenue in Vineyard Haven listed his occupation as “radio and television service man” — perhaps the Island’s first TV repairman.

George Pacheco covered Vineyard Haven, carefully enumerating the families of cartoonist Dennis Wortman, NET&T cable splicer Milt Nichols, boat designer Erford Bert, James Morrice the florist, Philip Mosher the photographer, George Benz the writer, Jenny Andrade the stenographer for the Mansion House, Huberto (“Bert the Barber”) Colaneri, actress Edna Macafee, and Tisbury School lunchroom cook Anna Backus. Pacheco also visited the Marine Hospital, still in operation in 1950, and carefully recorded the names of its 13 admitted patients.

The median home value on the Island was $6,251 in 1950 (with less than 100 homes valued at more than $15,000). Year-round rent averaged $35 per month.

Dick Gale, a power station engineer, moonlighted as the enumerator for Lambert’s Cove and West Tisbury. He visited junk dealer Max Miller, oceanographic scientist Columbus Iselin, fire tower watcher Nelson Bryant, and general store proprietor Albion Alley. He even found hermit Harold Tripp among the scattering of vacant summer camps at Deep Bottom. 

Nearly every home on the Island in 1950 had running water, although only two-thirds had hot running water. About 13 percent of Island homes still lacked a flush toilet, and nearly a quarter lacked a bathtub or shower. 

Do you know anyone living on the Island in April 1950? Go take a look!

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018. 


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