Local History: Why Data Isn’t Boring

Data is not boring, especially if you are interested in establishing historical truth. In the past year, Americans have been exposed to an immense amount of data about age, health, economic status, and opinions. A number we hear a lot about these days is 77,7440–the votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin that helped Donald Trump win the electoral vote even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about 2.8 million votes. With increasing levels of partisan skepticism influencing news consumers and creators alike, outlets like FiveThirtyEight and Vox can offer refreshingly empirical perspectives to those who enjoy studying history. While data and numbers alone cannot tell us everything about the past, they can be help us create a more tangible version of history. The White Plains Collection contains tons of numbers that give scale to Westchester's past.

American Population Before The Federal Census of 1790 is a straightforward work from 1932 credited to Evarts B. Greene and Virginia D. Harrington. Greene, a professor of American History at Columbia University, admitted in the introduction that the book was “mainly the work of my research assistant, Miss Virginia D. Harrington,” begging the question why Harrington and the other three female colleagues Greene thanked were not given primary authorship. Historical examples of sexism aside, the book is filled with fascinating numbers and detailed citations. However, some of the numbers might not be as accurate as they first seem.

In 1625, it was reported there were just “200 souls” in New Netherland, which referred to the Dutch-claimed territory between the Delaware and Connecticut Rivers. Obviously, this number is inaccurate. Not only does it completely disregard native inhabitants of the area, we cannot be certain how people who were not Dutch or European were counted. It is important to look at any statistic critically and ask what it truly represents. For instance, in 1688 it was reported by the English colonial government that there were “8,000 families and 12,000 fighting men” in New York. We do not know how many people were in each family, or even what is meant by “family.” Was the term used to describe anyone living under the same roof or did it apply to people who were related no matter how many different places they lived? One might be able to answer questions like this with further research or, like Harrington and Greene, one may have to rely on statistical projections.


A sample of the tables in “American Population Before The Federal Census of 1790.”



The results of the 1946 Religious Census in White Plains.


The survey used in the 1946 Religious Census in White Plains.









We also have more recent data which–unlike the often scant background information attached to data from before the 20th century–usually comes in the form of a published report accompanied by explanatory notes. In November 1946, the Laymen's Inter-Church Council of White Plains published the results of their religious census of residents. Their work was well organized and they were very transparent about how they collected data. They broke the city up into tracts and assigned divisions to canvass three types of sites. The general division went door-to-door at detached houses, the apartment division covered apartment buildings, and the special division handled places like hospitals and nursing homes. The census captured an amazing 26,041 responses, for coverage of over 50% of the city's total population. Most surveys rely on extrapolating data from much smaller sample sizes. Because they had such a thorough method and high response rate, it is fair to assume their numbers can be applied to the city at large.

There are very few places like the White Plains Public Library, where such unique detailed data for White Plains is freely available to the public. Some examples include “A Political Survey of the City of White Plains, N.Y. 1952-1953,” which was written by James Moger Jogoff and contains an extensive set of data about civic life in the city. We also have “Analysis of the Work Force of the City of White Plains,” a report from July 1977 by the city's Commission on Human Rights. It details the make-up of people employed by the city according to race, sex, department, and civil service classification. It also contains data showing how salaries and promotions were distributed. Below are scans from a highly detailed report by Cornell University from 1963.


From “The People of Westchester County, New York: Trends in Human Resources and Their Characteristics 1900-1960” by Dept of Rural Sociology, part of Cornell University.


From “The People of Westchester County, New York: Trends in Human Resources and Their Characteristics 1900-1960” by Dept of Rural Sociology, part of Cornell University.


From “The People of Westchester County, New York: Trends in Human Resources and Their Characteristics 1900-1960” by Dept of Rural Sociology, part of Cornell University.









Data isn't boring, but it also isn't the be-all and end-all of tools for discovering historical truths. Numbers and statistics need to be interrogated. Anyone who is interested can draw on the White Plains Collection to combine the quantitative information (data) we have about the past with qualitative knowledge (context) to create a truer and more vivid sense of the past.

The image in the upper left of the post is a detail of a population change map in the report “Population Change in Westchester County 1960-1965: Age, Sex, and Color” by the Westchester County Department of Planning. It was published in February 1967.

Categories: Local History.

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