Skip to main content

Main Area


How America has changed since the first census in 1790

  • How America has changed since the first Census in 1790

    Conducting a census and counting the American population every 10 years has been a practice since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1790. Besides being a growing source of economic, demographic, and social information about the nation's people and being used to determine how many Congressional seats and electoral votes each state receives, the questions asked by each version of the census and the answers received show how the country has changed amid colonization, war, immigration, civil rights movements, and a growing economy. The census also guides federal funding for many public programs, including those in the realm of healthcare, highway planning, and education.

    The first few decades of the census excluded numerous groups of people, and put the emphasis on counting free white men for the purposes of comparing how many of them would potentially be able to work or fight in the military, if necessary. In the nearly 230 years since then, however, the census has grown to collect data on every group and individual living in the United States, and can also provide a wealth of data on topics such as education levels, types of households and family relationships, and even commuting times to work.

    With preparations for the 2020 census underway, the question on the minds of many U.S. politicians and Supreme Court judges is whether to add a controversial one to next year's edition. The Trump administration has proposed asking each household how many of its members are U.S. citizens. In a time where politicians are heavily divided on the topic of illegal immigration, many who oppose adding the question worry that it would lead to fewer responses overall from people who fear deportation or legal action if they reveal that they are not citizens, and this will lead to inaccurate population counts. Still, those who support adding the question defend their choice because the government will have a better knowledge of who can vote and would be able to enforce the Voting Rights Act and legitimate elections better as a result.

    In preparation of the upcoming judgment on the citizenship question, and the census being distributed, Stacker looked back at historical data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and compared how both the people have changed and how the questionnaire itself has changed since the first census was released. As questions keep evolving throughout the decades and response collection improves with new technology, the initial goal of the decennial census will always be to account for every person living in America as efficiently as possible.

    You may also like: Defining historical moments from the year you were born

  • 1790: 17.8% of the American population is enslaved

    - U.S. resident population: 3,929,214
    - Number of official states: 13
    - Median age of population: Not available for this year
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: Not available for this year
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 33,131), Philadelphia, PA (28,522), Boston, MA (18,320)

    The first U.S. census included data on 16 recognized states (although Vermont wasn't included until 1791 after becoming recognized as a state) and features the highest proportion of enslaved people to free of any census. By law, every household in the United States was to be visited, their information recorded, and the data posted in a public place.

  • 1800: New territories to the Northwest

    - U.S. resident population: 5,308,483
    - Number of official states: 16
    - Median age of population: Not available for this year
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: Not available for this year
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 60,515), Philadelphia, PA (41,220), Baltimore, MD (26,514)

    The second-ever census was authorized to include new territories and states northwest of the Mississippi Territory and Ohio River. That year, 5.3 million people were recorded as living in the U.S.—893,602 of whom were enslaved.

  • 1810: Ohio is included on the census

    - U.S. resident population: 7,239,881
    - Number of official states: 17
    - Median age of population: Not available for this year
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: Not available for this year
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 96,373), Philadelphia, PA (53,722), Baltimore, MD (46,555)

    The census of 1810 was the first to include the new state of Ohio. The authorization act for this year's census required assistant marshals to make home visits in order to confirm headcounts.

  • 1820: The U.S. has six new states

    - U.S. resident population: 9,638,453
    - Number of official states: 23
    - Median age of population: 16.7
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 8,385
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 123,706), Philadelphia, PA (63,802), Baltimore, MD (62,738)

    The 1820 census featured six newly recognized states: Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, and Mississippi. The new states also indicated a rapidly swelling population that was fast-approaching 10 million.

  • 1830: U.S. center of population is in present-day West Virginia

    - U.S. resident population: 12,860,702
    - Number of official states: 24
    - Median age of population: 17.2
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 23,322
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 202,589), Baltimore, MD (80,620), Philadelphia, PA (80,462)

    The center of population for an area is a geographic point representing the exact center balance of a population. In 1830, that center was roughly 170 miles west of Washington D.C., in what is now West Virginia's Grant County. Today, the center of population in the United States is around Plato, Mo., according to 2010 census data.

  • 1840: 'Mental illness' controversy

    - U.S. resident population: 17,063,353
    - Number of official states: 26
    - Median age of population: 17.8
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 84,066
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 312,710), Baltimore, MD (102,313), New Orleans, LA (102,193)

    The 1840 census was the first that sought to tally the number of “insane” or “idiotic” Americans. The results of the questionable survey showed steep numbers of black people in free states suffering from mental illness—while mental illness rates were markedly lower in slaveholding states. The flawed results were illuminated in an 1844 report in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences and their errors exposed; however, no revisions were made to the census information.

  • 1850: Census board established

    - U.S. resident population: 23,191,876
    - Number of official states: 30
    - Median age of population: 13.9
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 369,980
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 515,547), Baltimore, MD (169,054), Boston, MA (136,881)

    The attorney general, secretary of state, and postmaster general comprised the first-ever census board, created in 1849 and utilized in the 1850 census. The board was tasked with printing census forms and preparing them for various topics. The population recorded on the 1850 census revealed a massive, 35.9% jump from the 1840 census, to 23,191,876 people.

  • 1860: Census data used for Union Army maps

    - U.S. resident population: 31,443,321
    - Number of official states: 33
    - Median age of population: 19.4
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 153,640
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 813,669), Philadelphia, PA (565,529), Brooklyn, NY (266,661)

    With the Civil War looming, cartographers used information from the 1860 census—such as slave populations rail routes, and agricultural products by county—to draw up maps for Union field commanders. Casualties in the war (620,000) represent 2% of the entire population. With numbers adjusted for today's population, that would be like losing 6.2 million people in a war.

  • 1870: The census in a post-Civil War America

    - U.S. resident population: 38,558,371
    - Number of official states: 37
    - Median age of population: 20.2
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 387,203
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 942,292), Philadelphia, PA (674,022), Brooklyn, NY (396,099)

    Just five years after the end of the Civil War and the national emancipation of slaves, the 1870 Census was updated and the slave questionnaire was removed. Instead, the results provided an in-depth look at the African-American population. Additionally, this was the first census that included nativity questions and recorded the origins of foreign-born residents, as well as the cities with the largest migrant populations.

  • 1880: Women become enumerators

    - U.S. resident population: 50,189,209
    - Number of official states: 38
    - Median age of population: 22
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 457,257
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 1,206,299), Philadelphia, PA (847,170), Brooklyn, NY (566,663)

    1880 marks the first census in which women were able to serve as enumerators (those gathering data on behalf of the U.S. Census Bureau). Five categories on that year's census were “Agriculture,” “Manufacturing,” “Mortality,” “Population,” and “Social Statistics.”