The economic censuses trace their beginnings to the 1810 Decennial Census, when questions on manufacturing were included with those for population. Coverage of economic activities was expanded for 1840 and subsequent censuses to include mining and some commercial activities. In 1902, Congress established a permanent Census Bureau and directed that a census of manufactures be taken every 5 years. The 1905 manufactures census was the first time a census was taken apart from the regular every-10-year population census.
The first census of business was taken in 1930, covering 1929. Initially it covered retail and wholesale trade, and construction industries, but it was broadened in 1933 to include some of the service trades.
The 1954 economic censuses were the first to be fully integrated providing comparable census data across economic sectors, using consistent time periods, concepts, definitions, classifications, and reporting units. These were the first censuses to be taken by mail, using lists of firms provided by the administrative records of other federal agencies. Since 1963, administrative records have also been used to provide basic statistics as well for very small firms, reducing or eliminating the need to send them census questionnaires. The Enterprise Statistics Program, which publishes combined data from the economic censuses, was made possible with the implementation of the integrated census program in 1954.
The range of industries covered in the economic censuses has continued to expand. The Census of Construction Industries began on a regular basis in 1967, and the scope of service industries was broadened in 1967, 1977, and 1987. The Census of Transportation began in 1963 as a set of surveys covering travel, transportation of commodities, and trucks. New for 1987 are publications reporting on business establishments engaged in several transportation industries, paralleling the data on establishments in other sectors. This is part of a gradual expansion in coverage of industries previously subjected to government regulation. The Survey of Minority-Owned Business Enterprises was first conducted as a special project in 1969 and was incorporated into the economic censuses in 1972 along with the Survey of Women-Owned Businesses.
Economic censuses have also been taken in Puerto Rico since 1909, in the Virgin Islands and Guam since 1958, and in the Northern Mariana Islands since 1982.