Aims and objectives. This study used census data to construct a demographic profile of early 20th century nurses in the United States.
Background. Census data are recognised as a rich source of quantitative information on long-term changes. However, difficulties in retrieving census data dissuade researchers from exploiting this source. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, a standardised and digitialised version of census data, enables greater ease in retrieving and analysing data.
Design and methods. A sample of respondents identifying as ‘professional nurses’ for the years 1900–1950 was extracted from Integrated Public Use Microdata Series categorised by the variables of race, sex and marital status. The resulting data were analysed for simple frequency statistics using SPSS software.
Results. Results revealed a tremendous increase in the number of nurses over the five decades under study. Nurses were increasingly young, female, single and white until 1930. After 1930, white and African-American women nurses began to reflect trends towards more diversity.
Conclusions. This study is the first systematic attempt to trace the demographic trajectory of professional nurses in the United States in the early 20th century. It also demonstrates the possibilities of using digital technologies to restructure the asking and answering of historical questions. The use of quantitative methods of social history has trans-national applications which can facilitate global investigations into the demographic composition of the nursing occupation.
Relevance to policy. This way of using digitalisation of census data provides a way to examine historical trans-national workforce trends. Such trends provide a firmer base upon which to construct workforce and practice strategies for a future global workforce.