Abstract Background There is evidence of a contribution of early life socioeconomic exposures to the risk of chronic diseases in adulthood. However, extant studies investigating the impact of the neighborhood social environment on health tend to characterize only the current social environment. This in part may be due to complexities involved in obtaining and geocoding historical addresses. The Life Course Socioeconomic Status, Social Context, and Cardiovascular Disease Study collected information on childhood (1930–1950) and early adulthood (1960–1980) place of residence from 12,681 black and white middle-aged and older men and women from four U.S. communities to link participants with census-based socioeconomic indicators over the life course. Results Most (99%) participants were linked to 1930–50 county level socioeconomic census data (the smallest level of aggregation universally available during this time period) corresponding to childhood place of residence. Linkage did not vary by race, gender, birth cohort, or level of educational attainment. A commercial geocoding vendor processed participants' self-reported street addresses for ages 30, 40, and 50. For 1970 and 1980 censuses, spatial coordinates were overlaid onto shape files containing census tract boundaries; for 1960 no shape files existed and comparability files were used. Several methods were tested for accuracy and to increase linkage. Successful linkage to historical census tracts varied by census (66% for 1960, 76% for 1970, 85% for 1980). This compares to linkage rates of 94% for current addresses provided by participants over the course of the ARIC examinations. Conclusion There are complexities and limitations in characterizing the past social context. However, our results suggest that it is feasible to characterize the earlier social environment with known levels of measurement error and that such an approach should be considered in future studies.