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How America has changed since the first census in 1790

  • How America has changed since the first Census in 1790
    1/ U.S. Census Bureau // Wikimedia Commons

    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.

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  • 1790: 17.8% of the American population is enslaved
    2/ John Rose // Wikimedia Commons

    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
    3/ Library of Congress // Wikimedia Commons

    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
    4/ Nyttend // Wikimedia Commons

    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
    5/ Max Pixel

    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
    6/ Famartin // WIkimedia Commons

    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
    7/ William Simpson // Wikimedia Commons

    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
    8/ U.S. Census Bureau // Flickr

    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
    9/ A.J. Russell // Wikimedia Commons

    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
    10/ George N. Barnard // Wikimedia Commons

    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
    11/ Cushing Memorial Library and Archives // Wikimedia Commons

    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.”

  • 1890: Census goes electric
    12/ U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

    1890: Census goes electric

    - U.S. resident population: 62,979,766
    - Number of official states: 42
    - Median age of population: 22.9
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 455,302
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 1,515,301), Chicago, IL (1,099,850), Philadelphia, PA (1,046,964)

    The 1890 census was the very first in which electronic tabulation was used. As the prior census took nearly a decade to tabulate, census officials were craving a more efficient way to aggregate the necessary data with few mistakes, unlike the work-intensive and frequently error-laden hand-counting process. A former census employee, Herman Hollerith, invented an electric machine that revolutionized the census and sold them under the newly formed Tabulating Machine Company. Eventually, the company went from Tabulating Machines to International Business Machines and became IBM.

  • 1900: New York City expands and Hawaii is added to census
    13/ Detroit Publishing Co. // Wikimedia Commons

    1900: New York City expands and Hawaii is added to census

    - U.S. resident population: 76,212,168
    - Number of official states: 45
    - Median age of population: 24.1
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 448,572
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 3,437,202), Chicago, IL (1,698,575), Philadelphia, PA (1,293,697)

    The 1900 census was the first year that New York City included all five of its present boroughs, after the existing City of New York consolidated with the Bronx, Brooklyn, parts of Queens, and Staten Island in 1898 in order to contend with Chicago, which was growing in size, business, and technology. 1898 was also the year that the United States annexed Hawaii during the Spanish-American war, and the territory's residents were included in the overall population count.

  • 1910: Summer vacations inspire move of Census Day date
    14/ Central New England railway company // Wikimedia Commons

    1910: Summer vacations inspire move of Census Day date

    - U.S. resident population: 92,228,496
    - Number of official states: 46
    - Median age of population: 25.3
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 1,041,570
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 4,766,883), Chicago, IL (2,185,283), Philadelphia, PA (1,549,008)

    Arguing that city dwellers would be off to their vacation homes on June 1, which had been Census Day since 1830, Census Day was moved in 1910 to April 15. When the U.S. entered World War I seven years later, data from the 1910 census proved vital in reporting on populations of draft-age men and the potential industrial output of each state.

  • 1920: New York State surpasses 10 million residents
    15/ Library of Congress // Wikimedia Commons

    1920: New York State surpasses 10 million residents

    - U.S. resident population: 106,021,537
    - Number of official states: 48
    - Median age of population: 26.5
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 430,001
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 5,620,048), Chicago, IL (2,701,705), Philadelphia, PA (1,823,779)

    The date for the 1920 census was switched to January thanks to the Department of Agriculture; officials hoped that information about their most recent harvests would be more fresh in farmers' minds in winter, leading to more accurate data. In this census, four new questions were added specifically to collect information on America's immigrants: one question asked about year of naturalization and three asked about mother tongue. New York was the most populous state this year at 10,385,227 people, with more than half of those people living in New York City.

  • 1930: The census and the Great Depression
    16/ U.S. Census Bureau // Flickr

    1930: The census and the Great Depression

    - U.S. resident population: 123,202,624
    - Number of official states: 48
    - Median age of population: 29
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 241,700
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 6,930,446), Chicago, IL (3,376,438), Philadelphia, PA (1,950,961)

    The 1930 census reflected growing American consumerism: it was the first to ask a question about a consumer item, through inquiring whether respondents owned a “radio set.” But this census also reflected concerns about economic turmoil, coinciding with the beginning of the Great Depression, through more detailed questions about respondents' employment or lack thereof. In fact, academics and statisticians were so intent on analyzing nationwide unemployment data, they pressured the Census Bureau into conducting a special unemployment census in January 1931.

  • 1940: First use of probability sampling
    17/ U.S. Census Bureau // Flickr

    1940: First use of probability sampling

    - U.S. resident population: 132,164,569
    - Number of official states: 48
    - Median age of population: 30.2
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 70,756
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 7,454,995), Chicago, IL (3,396,808), Philadelphia, PA (1,931,334)

    The 1940 Census was the first national census to utilize probability sampling, a statistical technique in which subjects are randomly selected in order to ensure that a small sample accurately reflects an entire population. This technique allowed the number of questions asked by the Census Bureau to be raised without putting a huge strain on the respondents or on the analysts who would process the data and allowed census results to be released much earlier. New questions this year discussed employment, unemployment, internal migration, and income.

  • 1950: Census pulls in Americans abroad and computers at home
    18/ U.S. Census Bureau // Wikimedia Commons

    1950: Census pulls in Americans abroad and computers at home

    - U.S. resident population: 151,325,798
    - Number of official states: 48
    - Median age of population: 29.6
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 249,187
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 7,891,957), Chicago, IL (3,620,962), Philadelphia, PA (2,071,605)

    In 1950, the Census Bureau expanded its questioning to include members of the armed forces and government employees living abroad; some civilians living abroad were also included (reported by their families or neighbors back at home), but this data was not of sufficient quality to be included in published statistics. Later that decade, the Census Bureau became the first non-military agency in America to use a computer: UNIVAC I, used to tabulate statistics for the 1954 economic census, weighed 16,000 pounds.

  • 1960: Tracking increased urbanization
    19/ Seattle Municipal Archives // Flickr

    1960: Tracking increased urbanization

    - U.S. resident population: 179,323,175
    - Number of official states: 50
    - Median age of population: 29.5
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 265,398
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 7,781,984), Chicago, IL (3,550,404), Los Angeles, CA (2,479,015)

    For the first time, all 50 states in 1960 had a population of more than 200,000, with about 80% of the nation's population living in urban areas. Census enumerators working in urban areas practiced random sampling by questioning every fourth housing unit. Meanwhile, in areas of lower population density, a mail-out census was used for the first time. This year's census included new questions on place of work and means of transportation to work.

  • 1970: California is the most populous state
    20/ U.S. Census // Flickr

    1970: California is the most populous state

    - U.S. resident population: 203,302,031
    - Number of official states: 50
    - Median age of population: 28.1
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 373,326
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 7,894,862), Chicago, IL (3,366,957), Los Angeles, CA (2,816,061)

    Thirteen questions were asked of all households that adhered to that year's housing theme. Questions included inquiries about where there was a phone in the household, whether there was a flush toilet, and costs of utilities. The population U.S. population rose by 13.4% between 1960 and 1970, bringing numbers up to 203.4 million, and marked the first census year since 1800 that New York was not the most populous state in the U.S. (California came in first)

  • 1980: Advertising campaign seeks more robust response rates
    21/ Famartin // Wikimedia Commons

    1980: Advertising campaign seeks more robust response rates

    - U.S. resident population: 226,542,199
    - Number of official states: 50
    - Median age of population: 30
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 524,295
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 7,071,639), Chicago, IL (3,005,072), Los Angeles, CA (2,966,850)

    A campaign in 1978 sought to increase public awareness and ensure more people filled out and returned their questionnaires. California became the first state to have a population of 20 million (that number today exceeds 39.5 million).

  • 1990: LA overtakes Chicago as the second-largest city
    22/ David Jones // Wikimedia Commons

    1990: LA overtakes Chicago as the second-largest city

    - U.S. resident population: 248,709,873
    - Number of official states: 50
    - Median age of population: 32.8
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 1,535,872
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 7,322,564), Los Angeles, CA (3,485,398), Chicago, IL (2,783,726)

    This census used two questionnaires, a “short form” and a “long form”: The short form asked 13 questions to 100% of the population, while the long form asked 45 questions to 20% of the population. The Census Bureau continued to increase public awareness of the census this year, specifically publicizing to Black Americans by recruiting Bill Cosby, Magic Johnson, Alfre Woodard, and Debbye Turner as spokespeople. In the resulting population counts, Los Angeles was the second-largest city in America at 3.5 million people—pushing Chicago out of this top spot for the first time since 1890.

  • 2000: Census takes to the internet
    23/ U.S. Census Bureau // Flickr

    2000: Census takes to the internet

    - U.S. resident population: 281,421,906
    - Number of official states: 50
    - Median age of population: 35.3
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 841,002
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 8,008,278), Los Angeles, CA (3,694,820), Chicago, IL (2,896,016)

    Respondents to the 2000 census were able to use the Internet to submit their answers to the short form, which was the shortest census questionnaire since 1820 at only seven questions. Seventy thousand households took this option. The internet was also the main medium for dissembling 2000 census data: Tables could be purchased on CD-ROM and DVD or viewed through an online database called the American FactFinder, which is still the name of the census database today.

  • 2010: Same-sex married couples are included
    24/ U.S. Census Bureau // Wikimedia Commons

    2010: Same-sex married couples are included

    - U.S. resident population: 308,745,538
    - Number of official states: 50
    - Median age of population: 37.2
    - Immigrants obtaining legal resident status: 1,042,625
    - Biggest cities: New York, NY (Population: 8,175,133), Los Angeles, CA (3,792,621), Chicago, IL (2,695,598)

    LGBTQ+ respondents to the 2010 census could mark their spouses as “husband or wife” for the first time, while an “unmarried partner” option was still available for same-sex and opposite-sex couples alike. The 2010 census was publicized with the most extensive outreach campaign yet, including a road tour, a national “Teach Census Week,” and advertisements in 28 languages.

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