Like the problem of language barriers, literacy (or the lack thereof) likely complicated the census taker’s job. Most of my ancestors, as far as I can tell, had a limited education. Only in the 1900s do I begin to find out that my ancestors went to school. Those that I was able to talk to only went through some elementary or middle school. Their focus was on earning a living, and especially through the Depression era, helping their parents make ends meet. School and education were not a focus in my family until recent times. I have one grandfather who attended Bowling Green State University, but it is unclear if he graduated (WWII happened and he enlisted). Other than that, it’s been my parents’ generation that really began to focus on education.
Keep this in mind when trying to locate your ancestors in the census. While YOU may know how your ancestors spelled their names, sometimes they did not. Take Andrew Slye (father of Leonard Slye, aka Roy Rogers). He is enumerated in the 1920 census as ‘Schlei.’ We can only imagine why. I don’t believe the Slyes had accents since they had been in the country for many generations. Maybe a neighbor gave the information because they weren’t home. Maybe the census taker was foreign-born. Maybe the census taker hadn’t done that well with spelling in school or never went to school. Who knows. The point is, literacy could and did affect the way millions of ancestors were enumerated.
Literacy can be complicated by the previous post, language barriers. Imagine if the census taker had a limited education AND had to try to understand a thick accent! Double trouble.