U.S. Government Printing Office/HistoryShots

A map and data enthusiast found this colorful chart that tracks where the United States grew and shrunk between 1790 and 1890. 

If reading up on 19th century U.S. city population rankings sounds like a fun way to spend an afternoon, have we found the charts for you. 

Originally published in the Statistical Atlas of the United States in 1898, Larry Gormley of HistoryShots (a company that designs and restores data visualizations) first came across this old census visualization over at David Rumsey's online map database. Compelled by its restrained use of shapes, colors, and lines, Gormley, who scours map and book fairs in his native New England, eventually tracked down a printed copy to restore. 

"Rank of the Most Populous Cities at Each Census Chart" published in 1898. (U.S. Government Printing Office/HistoryShots)

Originating from a 30 by 20-inch, nearly 120 year-old atlas, the two-page spread was restored by Gormley over the course of a month using Photoshop, removing any trace of blemishes and most notably, the original page fold.

Its design manages to neatly display over 450 data points using only 10 colors to differentiate dozens of cities. Once the viewer adjusts their eyes to the right-to-left timeline, one can see just how much the U.S. had grown in its first full century.

Just after the Revolutionary War, New England towns like Gloucester, Marblehead, and Salem were some of the biggest in the newly formed country. Southwark and Northern Liberties, Pennsylvania, big towns on their own, were eventually incorporated by even bigger Philadelphia in the 1850s.

As you move your eyes left, you see the country expand in all directions as colonial-era towns crawl down the population rankings in favor of newer cities in the Northeast and Midwest.

From right to left, a 1830 to 1850 section of the population ranking chart

The chart also shows the emergence of frontier towns and West Coast cities. Although Los Angeles had not yet cracked the top 50, San Francisco had become the country's eighth-biggest city (just under 300,000 people) by 1890. Denver, number 50 in 1880, jumped up 24 places by the following decade. 

Of course, at the top the whole time, and to this day, is relentlessly big New York City. In 1790 it had 33,000 residents. By 1890, two years after Manhattan annexed its neighboring boroughs, its population had reached 2.5 million; about six million less people than today.

 

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo of shoppers in the central textile market of downtown Jakarta.
    Design

    How Cities Design Themselves

    Urban planner Alain Bertaud’s new book, Order Without Design, argues that cities are really shaped by market forces, not visionaries.

  2. Equity

    The ‘Sweeping’ Effect of a $15-an-Hour Job Guarantee

    A new report analyzes the complicated labor market impact of a radical proposal that’s gaining traction on the left.

  3. A photo of an encampment of homeless people outside Minneapolis,
    Equity

    Why Minneapolis Just Made Zoning History

    The ambitious Minneapolis 2040 plan will encourage more dense housing development in single-family neighborhoods.

  4. The opulent anteroom to a ladies' restroom at the Ohio Theatre, a 1928 movie palace in Columbus, Ohio.
    Design

    The Glamorous, Sexist History of the Women’s Restroom Lounge

    Separate areas with sofas, vanities, and even writing tables used to put the “rest” in women’s restrooms. Why were these spaces built, and why did they vanish?

  5.  New York City bus driver David Smith points out how to use the fare system to a passenger.
    Transportation

    There's a Bus Driver Shortage. And No Wonder.

    Why doesn't anyone want to drive the bus?