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1940: What's Going On


Released April 2, 2012 by the National Archives, the Sixteenth United States Federal Census is an exciting and important document. It describes the lives of Americans caught between two cataclysmic events in the country's history. When the 1940 census was taken, the nation was still in the throes of the Great Depression, with 14.6 percent of the population out of work, but not yet caught up in the Second World War, a soon to be global conflagration that was, ironically, to put an end to years of economic hardship. Using The New York Public Library's NYPL Labs/Milstein Division search tool Direct Me NYC: 1940, you can explore the pages of the 1940 census, and, in doing so, the lives of individual men, women, and children — possibly your parents, grandparents, great grandparents, or even yourself — people who lived in New York City during historic times. In celebration of the release of the 1940 census, and of Direct Me NYC: 1940, we present to you a brief time line of events from 1940. With a New York City twist.

Administration Building - Changing year to 1940, Digital ID 1652291, New York Public Library

January 30

The first social security checks go out, and total $75,844. U.S. unemployment remains high, with 14.6 percent of the population without work.

February 28
The first basketball game is televised on this day, a match between Fordham and Pittsburgh, followed by New York University versus Georgetown.

February 29
At the Twelfth Academy Awards, for films made in 1939, held at the Coconut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Best Film goes to Gone with the Wind. Best Actor is Robert Donat, for Goodbye Mr. Chips, Best Actress is another Briton, Vivien Leigh; Best Director goes to Victor Flemming; and Best Supporting Actress is Hattie McDaniel — all for Gone With the Wind.
April 1 1940
Enumeration of the Sixteenth United States Federal Census begins. The survey reveals that New York is the largest state, with a population of 13,479,142. New York City’s population is 7,454,995, an increase of 524,549 on the 1930 census. 
June 1
This day marks the beginning of the end for the Els, New York City’s elevated railroads. Brooklyn’s Third Avenue and Fifth Avenue El trains stop running at midnight, after 50 years of service, followed by the downtown Fulton Street El, the Ninth Avenue El (June 11), the Second Avenue El, north of 57th Street, and the Sixth Avenue El has disappeared by December.
Amusements - American Jubilee - Performers - Christie, Irene - In 1940 sign, Digital ID 1652664, New York Public Library
June 28
The Alien Registration Act (Smith Act) is passed by Congress. The bill requires that aliens be finger-printed, and also makes it unlawful to advocate overthrowing the government, or to belong to a group that advocates this kind of insurrection.
June 29
The 36 mile Belt Parkway, a municipal highway, built at the cost of $30 million, opens. Construction began in 1934, and employed 5,000 men. The road includes four traffic lanes, 47 road bridges, a 2,740 foot viaduct over Coney Island, six pedestrian overpasses, five railroad bridges, and six over-water crossings.
July 4
A bomb explodes at the British Pavilion at the Word’s Fair, killing two members of the bomb disposal squad.
October 27
The New York World’s Fair, 1939-1940 closes. Situated in Flushing Meadow, the Fair opened April 30, 1939, and featured exhibits from 60 countries, 33 states and territories, the League of Nations, the WPA, and the City of New York. It was attended by 44.9 million visitors, with the final day attracting the largest crowd — 550,962 people.
Prints and Posters, Digital ID 2014777, New York Public Library
October 29
Date of the first peacetime military draft in US history, driven by the war in Europe, and by the fact that the armies of Greece, Portugal, and Peru were bigger. The U.S. Army was then fifteenth largest in the world. New Yorkers aged 18 to 35 years old received draft notices.
November 5
President Franklin D. Roosevelt beats Republican candidate Wendell Wilkie, to become the first person to hold office for three terms.
November 15
The Queens-Midtown Tunnel opens, linking Long Island City, Queens, with East 36th Street in Manhattan. Designed by Ole Singstad, and financed by the Public Works Administration, and Reconstruction Finance Corp., the tunnel is 6,300 feet long, and took four years to build. The 500,000th car passed through the tunnel on Christmas Day, 1940.


New York Year by Year: A Chronology of the Great Metropolis by Jeffrey A. Kroessler

The New York Chronology: The Ultimate Compendium of Events, People, and Anecdotes from the Dutch to the Present by James Trager


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