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Getting into the Norwegian census

By Michael Drake, Open University

The first national census took place in Norway in 1769. Not until 1801, however, was the first nominative census produced. Unfortunately this major breakthrough (few nominative censuses at a national level were produced as early as this) was not repeated until 1865. From then on such censuses became the norm. They also became widespread throughout Europe. Because the civil servants in charge of the national censuses got together on occasion, as well as corresponding with each other, a code of best practice was devised for what questions should appear on the household schedules. Not surprisingly few countries managed to live up to the code in its entirety but, as Table 1 shows, by the period 1860–80, many sought answers to the same questions i.e. surname and first name; sex; age; relationship to head of household; civil status; occupation; religious affiliation; place of birth.

That the same questions were asked obvious helps us undertake comparative studies, with all the advantages they bring. There is, however, another feature of the nominative census schedules which works towards the same end, namely that many of the replies cover a relatively small register. This means that only limited linguistic skill is required in order to read and analyze the returns. For example sex is either male or female: civil status is either single, married, widowed, separated or divorced; relationship to head of household/family is, in the overwhelming majority of cases his/her wife/husband, son, daughter, servant, lodger, father, mother, grandson or granddaughter. Place of birth in most cases again requires but a gazetteer and/or an atlas. Age is reported numerically in years or months and poses no problem so far as reading is concerned: its accuracy is another matter. Religion is also confined to a limited number of alternatives, as is ethnic origin and the ability to read or write. There is, however, one rubric common to all the nominative censuses that does pose linguistic problems, namely occupation.

The core problem encountered when ‘reading' the census schedules is the sheer variety of the occupations one encounters. This is compounded - especially in the countryside - by the fact that the same occupation could be - and was - described in several different ways. In the smaller Norwegian towns, like Tromsø, this particular problem does not appear to be so acute. Whether this was due to a genuine difference between urban and rural occupational nomenclature, or was due to the way the enumeration was carried out, is not clear. The fact that the same occupation could be spelled in different ways e.g. skibscaptein, skibskaptein or skomagersvend, skomagersvenn also produces a slight problem. To overcome the above problems a dictionary has been prepared to cover every single variant of occupational description. The scale of the problem is immediately apparent when it is realized that in the relatively small town of Tromsø in 1865 (population 4,073) some 461 occupational variants appeared on the schedules. On close inspection, however, a very high proportion of these are variants of the same occupation.


The Tromsø census of 1865

The printed version of the census prepared by the Norwegian Historical Data Centre at the University of Tromsø contains the following information heads (see Table 2).

  • illustration - Comming soon!

    1 Mtr No 30 - Løbe No 144 - Storgaden

    Both urban and rural property in Norway appeared in a national register (the Matrikkel) with each entity being assigned a number. No infrequently property was divided e.g. another residence was built on the plot, entailing the use of a suffix i.e. a, b, c, etc. In the towns the local tax collector was assigned the task of distributing the census schedules to each householder and of collecting them once they had been completed. The heads of households were themselves supposed to complete the schedules, though in Tromsø the job was often undertaken by others. We know this because whoever completed the schedule had to append his signature to it. A street name (Gatenavn) and number was supposed to be entered on each schedule. In Tromsø only the street names were given. In order to make sure that all the schedules were completed they were each given a ‘running' number (løpenummer) when they were distributed. It was then a relatively easy matter to check that all the schedules that went out were also gathered in. In fact in Tromsø there is some doubt as to whether this was the case.

    2 Names and relation to head of household

    Fixed surnames were more common in the towns than in the countryside. All appearing in these two households had them with the possible exception of Samuel Olsen. However it was still not uncommon for males to create a surname by adding ‘sen' (‘son of') or, for females, ‘dotre' (‘daughter of') to their father's Christian name. Thus Ole Mortensen would be the son of, for example, Morten Hanssen. In this case the former's sons would, in turn, be called e.g. Jon or Jens etc. Olsen, his daughters e.g. Maria or Petra Olsen. Note too that a woman kept her maiden name after marriage, a distinct advantage for those now engaged in genealogical research or other nominal record linkage work.

    The head of the household was usually male, hence husfader (house-father) but could be female, in which case husmoder (house-mother) would appear. Sometimes neither husfader nor husmoder was entered. The list continued with (hans) kone (his wife), søn (son), datter (daughter). Other terms to be found occasionally in this column were:

    Antaget barn = Adopted child
    Bedstemoder (fader) = Grandmother (father)
    Brodersøn = Brother's son
    Datter datter = Granddaughter
    Deres børn = Their children
    Deres søn (datter, barn, broder) = Their son (daughter, child, brother)
    De to forriges søn (datter) = The above two's son (daughter)
    Disses moder = The above persons' mother
    Enke (enkemand) = Widow (widower)
    Fader (modern, søster, broder) = Father (mother, sister, brother)
    Familie fader = Family head
    Farmoder = Grandmother on male side
    Fattiglæm = Pauper
    Foranståendes barn (kone) = The above's child (wife)
    Forældre = Parent
    Fostersøn (datter) = Foster son (daughter)
    Frillesøn (datter) = Son/daughter/born outside marriage
    Hans hastru = His wife
    Hennes søn (datter, mor, far) = Her son (daughter, mother, father)
    Hennes søn med 1ste mand = Her son by first husband
    Husbestyrerinde = Housekeeper
    Huseier = Houseowner
    Husfaderens moder (søster) = Household head's mother (sister)
    Husholderske = Housekeeper
    Husjomfru = Housekeeper
    Konens (mannens) moder) = Wife's (husband's) mother
    Logerende (logerer) = Lodger
    Logi i huset = Lodges in house
    Midlertidig logererende = Temporary lodger
    Pleieson (datter, barn) = Foster son (daughter, child)
    Stedson (datter, barn) = Stepson (daughter, child)
    Svigermoder (søn) = Mother (son)-in-law
    Svoger = Brother-in-law
    Søster (broder) til konen = Wife's sister (brother)
    Uægte barn = Child born out of wedlock

    3 Dyr: svin 2

    The 1865 population census also required householders to provide information as to the number and kind of animals they kept and the quantity and type of crops they sowed. Mostly this data was supplied by farmers but as some townspeople also kept animals and planted potatoes, for instance, they were not the only people to do so. Where space permits the full name of the animal or crop appears in the RHD edition of the census, but sometimes only the first two letters are given (see the list below with the abbreviated form in bold). Note that the variety of animals and crops was limited.

    HEste = Horse
    KU = Cow
    FÅr = Sheep
    GJeder = Goat
    SVin = Pig
    REnsdyr = Reindeer
    HVete = Wheat
    RUg = Rye
    BYg = Barley
    BLandkorn = Mixture of two grains, usually barley and oats
    HAvre = Oats
    ERter = Peas
    POteter = Potatoes

    The unit of measurement was the tønne (pl. tønner) the equivalent of 4 bushels. thus po 1/2 means 2 bushels of potatoes planted.

    4 Occupations

    For a translation into English of the terms used under this rubric see below.

    5 Civil status

    G(ifte) = Married
    U(gifte) = Unmarried
    E(nke) E(nkemand) = Widow, widower
    F(raskilt) = Divorced

    6 Age

    In years at next birthday.

    7 Sex

    M(ann) = Male
    K(vinne) = Female
    U(kjent) = Unknown

    8 Birthplace

    Usually the parish (præstegjeld) is given or, if born abroad, the country. A blank space indicates the person was born in the place of the census. Additional information appears occasionally on the extreme right of the census schedule. This concerned ethnicity; health; linguistic ability; number of years immigrants had resided in Norway; languages spoken; membership of non-State Church congregations etc.

    Antaget barn = Adopted child
    Begge de Gamle koger og steller deres mad = Both the old people prepare their own food
    Begge forældre fastboende Lapper i Kautokeino = Both parents sedentary Lapps in Kautokeino
    Blandet herkomst = Mixed race
    Blind = Blind
    Brødresamf = Brothers society(?)
    Den frie Ortodoxe menighed = The free Orthodox congregation
    Dicenter (Desinter, Desenter, Dissenter) = Dissenter
    Fattiglæm = Pauper
    Flyttet 1846 = Migrated 1836
    Forstaar ikke Norsk = Doesn't understand Norwegian
    Forældene forstaar nogenlunde norsk børnene tale godt Norsk = Parents understand some Norwegian, children speak it well
    Forældre og børn taler godt Norsk = Parents and children speak good Norwegian
    Forældrene Quener taler Norsk = Parents are Kven speaks Norwegian
    Fri apostoliske menighet = Free church
    Frimenigheden = Free church
    Født 12de Novbr 1865 = Born 12th Nov. 1865
    Gaar paa skole her i Byen, hvorfor han er antaget at maatte medregnes = Goes to school in town and therefore assumed to be resident here
    Har været til søes i 41/2 aar = Has been to sea for 41/2 years
    Har været i Narge 34 aar = Resident in Norway for 34 years
    Taler Norsk ligesaa Børnene = Speaks Norwegian as do children
    Huseieren Gulsmed Edelsten, har eit Værksted her, hvor denne har Nattleie = Houseowner Goldsmith Edelsten, has a workshop
    here, where the person enumerated sleeps
    Idiot fra fødselen = Insane from birth
    Indenskjærs skipper = Inshore skipper
    Indflyttet 1818 = Immigrated in 1818
    Katolsk = Catholic
    Krøbling = Cripple
    Logerende i samme værelse = Lodges in same room
    Lutterske = Lutheran
    Manden bortreist for 14 aar siden = Husband left 14 years ago
    Manden i slaveriet = Husband in prison
    Manden taler ikkun lidt Norsk = Husband speaks only a little Norwegian
    Manden Peder Børstad er reist til Amerika = Husband Peder Børstad has gone to America
    Manden Smed i Lofoden = Husband a blacksmith in Lofoten
    Nu ude paa l Båd = At sea
    Oppgave om udsæd formondtlig kunne gives af Gaarden Eer, Havnefogd Ludvigs = Information on crops planted can officially be supplied only by the house owner, Harbour Master Ludvigsen
    Oppholder sig i Norge i 27aar = Lived in Norway for 27 years
    Qvæn har været i Norge 29 aar. Konen og børnene tale Norsk = Kven has been in Norway for 29 years. Wife and children speak Norwegian
    Qvænske Forældr Kvæner = Parents Kven. Kven
    Samtlige taler Norsk med Herkomst af ... = All speak Norwegian with ...
    Sindsvag fra Novemb. 1865 = Insane from November 1865
    Sindssvag til forskellige tider i de sidste 10 aar = Insane at different times over the past 10 years
    Skilt fra kona i 17 aar = Divorced from wife for 17 years
    Skilt far sin mand = Divorced from husband
    Statskirken = State church member
    Søn af en Kvæn taler Norsk = Son of Kven, speaks Norwegian
    Taler godt Norsk = Speaks good Norwegian
    Taler Norsk ankommet 1836 = Speaks Norwegian, arrived in country in 1836
    Tvillinger = Twins
    Øverste Etage = Upper floor
    (9) aar i Norge forstaar nogenlunde Norsk = 9 years in Norway understands some Norwegian
    20 aar i Norge, deraf 9 in Byen = 20 years in Norway, of which 9 in town


  • Registreringssentral for historiske data
    Universitetet i Tromsø, N-9037 Tromsø
    Oppdatert: 10. november 2004