Prussian Counting Card for the Census, 1900. Inscribed by or for Carl Jäger, born 1829, district Güstrow (detail). Image: Wiki Commons.

Prussian Counting Card for the Census, 1900. Inscribed by or for Carl Jäger, born 1829, district Güstrow (detail). Image: Wiki Commons.


Media and Data Technologies of Self Inscription

This project explores the methods, tools, and practices of gathering personal information in nineteenth-century census taking, an endeavor we generally assume to be performed by enumerators going from door to door, noting down the required information in lists they carry along with them. But European statisticians also probed other means of census taking. Self-inscription was introduced in Belgium and Great Britain in the early 1840s, and the method itself as well as the paper forms required to implement the procedure became during the following decades much-debated issues. The project illuminates the epistemological grounds on which especially German statisticians favored the novel method. In Prussia, Germany’s biggest state, statisticians did everything to make census forms work unmediated by enumerators in their quest to achieve the highest possible accuracy in population statistics. Self-inscription was experimentally introduced in a few big cities such as Berlin and Frankfurt in 1861, then gradually expanded in the subsequent counts of 1864 and 1867, and eventually made mandatory as part of the state’s ambitious 1871 census reform.

By explaining in detail why self-inscription enjoyed such a high priority among Prussian statisticians, the project explores the intricacies of personal data epistemologies in nineteenth-century census taking. The Prussian reformers were convinced that the unmitigated encounter between the census form and the enumerated was a necessary first step in a seamless, yet strictly controlled process of data gathering and compilation, geared towards objective quantifications displayed in tables and other spatial representations.

By implementing self-inscription, together with other new methods and forms for census enumeration, Prussian census statisticians made a radical move to bolster scientific ideals of objectivity in population statistics as they were prevalent in the exact sciences of the time. My aim is to show how these ideals were expressed in statistical theory and implemented in practice. Zooming in on the theoretical and methodological considerations as well as the immense logistical efforts to create doorstep scenarios producing what officials called self-inscribed Ur-data, I lay bare the conceptual as well as the actual legwork that went into engineering such data.