"It might not look like Rome now, but just wait 20 years." Base image of Cincinnati c. 1835: Bettmann/Getty Images

Before economic-development agencies existed in America, some journalists amassed reams of data and published thousands of pages to promote their home cities.

In the 21st century, cities and states fund professional economic-development agencies to promote local growth and chase tech industries. They partner with private business organizations. They claim the expertise to turn local resources into breakout industries. They mobilize orchestras of economists, planners, data analysts, technical writers, PR professionals, and graphic designers to produce brochures, maps, websites, convention displays, press releases, and tours of local highlights for visiting delegations.

But if you wanted to know about the growth and prospects of Cincinnati in the 1840s and 1850s, there was one person to ask: Charles Cist.

In the middle decades of the 19th century, Charles Cist and others like him were one-man bands who gathered, sorted, analyzed, and published substantial information-packed books all on their own. These publications combined excited accounts of the rapid growth of their new cities with page after page of statistics on trade, manufacturing, and civic institutions like churches and schools.

The title of an 1857 volume by George H. Thurston—Pittsburgh as it is, or, Facts and figures, exhibiting the past and present of Pittsburgh: its advantages, resources, manufactures, and commercesums up the typical contents. Not to be outdone, Chicago’s Elias Colbert followed in 1868 with his Historical and Statistical Sketch of the Garden City: a Chronicle of Its Social, Municipal, Commercial and Manufacturing Progress, from the Beginning until Now (urbs in horto, “the city in a garden,” is the motto of Chicago).

Such books required enormous amounts of painstaking work in reporting and transcribing data, summing columns, and double-checking numbers—all without the aid of Excel spreadsheets, Hewlett-Packard calculators, clattering Friden calculating machines, or even Hollerith card sorters (first used for the 1890 census).

The Philadelphia-born Cist had been in Cincinnati for a dozen years, running a salt-importing business to serve the meatpacking industry, making friends, and cultivating political connections, when he was appointed to take the 1840 census. Then a city of 46,000, Cincinnati was booming from steamboat trade and the new Miami and Erie Canal to Toledo, and bustling with newcomers from Ireland, Germany, and the eastern states. Cist claimed that he walked every street of the city and knocked on every door, although Northwestern University historian Henry Binford notes that variations in handwriting on several pages of the census manuscripts suggest that he had a bit of help.

The census data were invaluable when Cist sat down to pull together Cincinnati in 1841: Its Early Annals and Future Prospects. Over the next decade, he compiled city directories and published Cist’s Weekly Advertiser, a paper that chronicled economic progress and real-estate developments. By the 1850s, he complained that the city was growing almost too fast to keep up. Nevertheless, the journalistic grind generated material for his Sketches and Statistics of Cincinnati in 1851 and Sketches and Statistics of Cincinnati in 1859, books that simultaneously built the city and shaped the way that its civic and business leaders thought about it.

Niles and Co., maker of steam engines and sugar mills, from Cist’s Cincinnati in 1851. (Via the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County)

Open Cincinnati in 1851 and you find abundant detail about education, religion, and the Cincinnati Observatory, the city’s legitimate claim to scientific distinction. There is information about occupations straight from the census, showing, for example, 2,318 carpenters for a booming city, but only two florists. We learn about banking, insurance, commerce, railroads, and in very great detail, manufacturing.

Cist predicted that railroads would make the Queen City

the grand centre of the United States ... the centre of the forces and influences, which, when readjusted after the introduction of the great disturbing cause, the railroad, must settle and determine the destiny and relative position of the various cities or centres which are now struggling for supreme ascendancy on this continent.

But some things are missing from this account. Cincinnati was still a compact city, with “suburbs” just beginning to appear on its hilltops. Cist was well aware of residential segregation, poverty, and overcrowded housing, describing them in a series of newspaper articles. He paid special attention to emerging African-American neighborhoods that had the attention of local reformers. Yet he carefully omitted the same information from the books he aimed at outsiders.

Thurston’s Pittsburgh as It Is (1857) and Robert E. Roberts’s Sketches of the City of Detroit, State of Michigan, Past and Present (1855) are similar in their boosterism. Thurston was a compiler of city directories and railroad guides, both great sources for a book that unsurprisingly had lots and lots of information about coal, railroads, and iron works. He later wrote books promoting agriculture and natural gas and histories of Pittsburgh and Alleghany County, making him “the Pittsburgh historian’s friend,” as Carnegie Mellon University history professor Joel Tarr commented to me.

Two hundred miles to the northwest, Roberts was producing a jam-packed volume that leapt from history to Detroit’s 49 hotels (“renowned for comfort, neatness and excellence of their fare”), to churches (Methodists had the most), to the previous year’s exports by lake and rail, which included 17,000 bushels of turnips and 27 barrels of pickles.

A statistical table from Roberts’s Sketches of the City of Detroit, published in 1855. (Via HathiTrust)

Having established that Detroit was prosperous, growing, and extremely civilized, he turned like any good economic-development department to future opportunities. Detroit, he argued, was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the newly opened iron and copper mines of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Sault Canal between Lake Huron and Lake Superior was a “gigantic and almost imperishable work,” and rivaled the grandest achievements of imperial Rome. Readers should close the book convinced that money and enterprise could turn Detroit into the foundry of the nation.

Detroit may have been “the unrivaled City of the Lakes,” but Chicago journalist Elias Colbert countered in 1868 that his city was “pre-eminently the wonder of the nineteenth century.” To support this very Chicago-like brag, he offered page after page of data on the growth of population, marriages, real-estate values, taxes, commerce, paved streets, gas mains, sewer lines, manufactures, employment, wealth, newspapers, self-improvement societies, churches, and charities. Colbert’s sweeping evaluation, designed to attract the ambitious emigrant, entrepreneur, and investor: “[I]t is scarcely permitted to us to ponder on the achievements of to-day, ere they are swept out of the memory by the still grander conquests of tomorrow.”  

Cist, Colbert, and the others aimed their books at a national audience, the same capitalists and industrialists who read Hunt’s  Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Review (1839-1870). A cross between Bloomberg Businessweek and CityLab, this publication, edited by Freeman Hunt, brought together discussions of urban growth, shifting trade patterns, railroad building, and credit markets that drew on railroad company and board of trade reports, year-end newspaper summaries of city progress, and local experts to describe a nation in its first great surge of industrial urbanization and provide a national context for the city profile and promotion volumes.

These city profiles are clunky products to modern eyes. With their hand-set type with well-worn edges, a scattering of amateurish engravings of churches and factories, awkwardly formatted tables, and sometimes curious inclusions, they don’t stand comparison with any modern chamber of commerce website. Nor does their analysis—“We’re here, we’re growing, we’re going to be even greater”—stack up to the sophisticated self-promotion with which 200 cities tried to impress Amazon.

Nevertheless, people like Cist and Thurston were serious journalists who remind us how exciting 19th-century Americans found their rapidly growing cities.

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