Taking the Census

Artist: Francis William Edmonds (American, Hudson, New York 1806–1863 Bronxville, New York)

Date: 1854

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 28 x 38 in. (71.1 x 96.5 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Gift of Diane, Daniel, and Mathew Wolf, in honor of John K. Howat and Lewis I. Sharp, 2006

Accession Number: 2006.457


The United States Census of 1850 was the first such survey in this country to require that heads of households provide information on their dependents. The process of interrogation caused a good deal of confusion and inspired numerous jokes. Francis William Edmonds's amusing portrayal features a father making a painstaking effort (counting on his fingers) to give the white-bearded census taker his family statistics, while his giggling children hide from sight. A reviewer who saw the picture at the national Academy of Design exhibition in 1854 described the main character as a "farmer, rough and awkward, reckoning in brown study the number of the boys and girls, evidently more at home in the use of the ox-gad, which lies on the floor, than in figuring." The small portrait print of George Washington just above the father's head evokes not only the genesis of the country's democratic political system but also the by then legendary admonition never to tell a lie. With its carefully delineated interior based on prototypes from Dutch genre scenes, the composition reveals Edmonds at his finest, taking a common moment from the daily life of middle-class Americans and turning it into a moralizing and socially critical tableau.