Rankings of the Most Populous US Cities

This chart is based on data gathered by the United States Census from 1790 to 1890. Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, directed the first census in 1790 and it included the original 13 states plus the districts of Kentucky, Maine, and Vermont as well as the Southwest Territory of Tennessee. It can be found in the atlas: Statistical Atlas of the United States, Based Upon The Results of the Eleventh Census by Henry Gannett, diagram 23, plate 7. Published Washington, Government printing office, 1898.

A few interesting items about the design of the chart and its content:

  • The chart is title “Populous Cities” however before 1860 many urban places were designated as towns, boroughs and districts. In the 1790 census Boston (population 18,320), the third largest place, is listed as a town while Richmond (3,761) is listed as a city. For the 1860 census and beyond all mapped places were classified as cities.
  • One reason why this chart is intriguing is that unlike most western country timelines, this chart flows from right to left.
  • By the clever use of colors (only 10) and patterns, the designer was able to map more than 450 data points using a single standard polygon shape.
  • The designer used a cut-off population of 5,000; only places with more than 5,000 people are mapped.
  • New York, population 33,131, was the largest city in 1790. The 1880 census lists New York as the first city to include more than 1 million people.
  • In 1790, the 10th largest places had a population of 5,661 (Marblehead, MA and Southwark, PA). In 1890 the 10th largest city was Cleveland, population 261,353.
  • New Orleans is included in the chart of most populous cities of 1790 even though Louisiana did not achieve statehood until 1812 and is not included in the government census reports of 1790 and 1800.
  • The town of Bridgewater is included in 1800 however there is no record of Bridgewater in the formal census reports of top cities. Since neither the chart nor the descriptive text provides additional information of the location of Bridgewater the source of this data remains a mystery. (The population of towns named Bridgewater in CT, VT, MA and NY were too low to have made the list.)
  • The first city west of the Mississippi mapped is San Francisco in 1850. (California became a state in 1850.) Interestingly, the historical reports for the 1850 census do not include San Francisco because the results were destroyed by fire.


Original Supporting Text from the Atlas

The text accompanying the chart is as follows: 

“Diagram 23, plate 7, exhibits the race for pre-eminence among the 50 largest cities of the country. In 1790 there were but 53 cities of sufficient prominence to be included in this list. Certain of these are today among our largest cities. Certain others had their greatest relative prominence in earlier years and have long since disappeared from among our great cities, while still others have become absorbed by neighboring cities. 

For a century New York has been our leading city. For 90 years Philadelphia was second in rank, and dropped below Chicago only in the last census. Boston was originally third, and after a somewhat varied career, it winds up at the end of the century as the sixth. Charleston, S. C., which started as the fourth, dropped rapidly in rank, and in 1890 was no longer among the 50 largest cities, disappearing from the list in 1880. Baltimore started fifth, and rose to be second in the list in 1830, 1940, and 1850. Since then its rank has diminished, ending the century seventh in order. The above are among our oldest cities. Chief among the younger ones is Chicago, This appeared in the list only 40 years ago, in 1850. It rose rapidly, and in 1890 was the city in the Union. St. Louis appeared a decade earlier, and in 1870 it was the fourth city of the country. Perhaps the most startling ease of growth illustrated in this diagram is that of Denver, which appeared as a city of importance in 1880, being then at the foot of the list. In 1890 it leaped above 24 competitors, reaching a rank about midway of the list.”

Larry Gormley