Mapping the Development of the Urban Framework of the United States, 1790-1830

I am currently working on an online historical atlas of the development of the urban framework of the United States. The maps and commentaries that will constitute this atlas will be posted gradually over the next few weeks or months, interspersed with regular GeoCurrents posts. The first of these installments, showing the situation in 1840 and outlining the “Philadelphia problem,” appeared on October 13, 2023. Today’s post examines the development of the network of cities in the United States from 1790 to 1830. The population figures in today’s post, like that of October 13, are derived from a Wikipedia article called “List of Most Populous Cities in the United States by Decade.” In subsequent posts, covering the period after 1840, a more comprehensive data source will be used.

The United States had few cities of any size in 1790. New York City tops the conventional list, with 33,131 inhabitants, and Philadelphia comes in second, with 28,522. But Philadelphia at the time was limited to what is now called Center City. If one includes what were then the separate cities of Southwark and Northern Liberties District, which were annexed in 1854, Philadelphia ranks first, with a population of 44,096, and is mapped accordingly.  As can be seen on the map posted below, the country’s main cities – or towns, in one prefers – of the time were all ports, located on the coast or along estuaries. Except for Charleston, South Carolina, all of them were in the greater northeast. The prominence of New England on this map, with more than half of the cities depicted, will not persist into the 1800s as the urban center of gravity shifts south into the Mid-Atlantic states.

The largest cities on the 1790 list significantly expanded from 1790 to 1800, with New York growing from 33,131 to 60,514, Baltimore from 13,503 to 26,514, and Boston from 18,320 to 24,937. Philadelphia, in the larger sense, still vies with New York for top position. Norfolk, Virginia appears on this map, but the year 1800 marks its only inclusion in the top-ten list.

The rapid expansion of the country’s largest cities is a persistent feature of these maps. By 1810, the population of New York City approached 100,000. By this time, New York was clearly the country’s largest city, a position that it will retain and amplify in the following decades. The 1810 map includes the first truly inland city, Albany, New York. Located on the Hudson River, Albany’s appearance reflects the growing importance of trade with the interior. More important is the inclusion of New Orleans on the southern Mississippi, which became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

In 1820, Albany drops of the map, replaced by Washington DC, which had 13,247 inhabitants in that year. But as the nation’s capital experienced relatively slow growth after this period, it falls off the top-ten list in 1830 and does not reappear until 1950. In the early nineteenth century, Washington was derisively called “the city of magnificent distances” due to its small number of residents living in an urban framework designed for a larger population. In 1842, Charles Dickens claimed that “Its streets begin in nothing and lead nowhere.” The fact that capital of the United States was such a small city reflects the limited extent of the federal government before the Civil War. As its constituent states were arguably more important than the country itself, the common locution at the time was “The United States are…,” rather than “the United States is… .”

The major changes on the map of 1830 reflect the opening of the Erie Canal (the dotted blue line on the map) in 1825. The Erie Canal facilitated the emergence of an extensive water-based transportation network, linking the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, and, by extension, to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Not surprisingly, Albany reappears on the 1930 map. More important, Cincinnati emerges as the first significant Midwestern city. Cincinnati will remain in the top-ten list until 1910. Today, with a population of 309,51, it ranks in the 64th position, surpassed by a few suburbs of little historical significance. In the early and mid-1800s, however, Cincinnati was a major and rapidly growing city, due in part to its role in butchering and processing hogs for the national market. This industry was so important that the city was deemed “Porkopolis.” As is explained in a 2016 Cincinnati Magazine article:

“Porkopolis” is one of the names by which Cincinnati is known, and its origin is explained in the following manner: About 1825 George W. Jones, president of the United States branch-bank, and known as “Bank Jones,” was very enthusiastic about the fact that 25,000 to 30,000 hogs were being killed in this city every year; and in his letters to the bank’s Liverpool correspondent he never failed to mention the fact, and express his hope of Cincinnati’s future greatness as a provision-market. The correspondent, after receiving a number of these letters, had a unique pair of model hogs made of papier mache, and sent them to George W. Jones as the worthy representative of ‘Porkopolis.’”

… Frances “Fanny” Trollope is infamous for publishing a scathing indictment of Cincinnati in her 1832 book “Domestic Manners of the Americans”. A great deal of her bile is directed at our pigs:

“If I determined upon a walk up Main-street, the chances were five hundred to one against my reaching the shady side without brushing by a snout fresh dipping from the kennel; when we had screwed our courage to the enterprise of mounting a certain noble-looking sugar-loaf hill, that promised pure air and a fine view, we found the brook we had to cross, at its foot, red with the stream from a pig slaughterhouse while our noses, instead of meeting ‘the thyme that loves the green hill’s breast,’ were greeted by odours that I will not describe, and which I heartily hope my readers cannot imagine.”

It is not coincidental that the Procter & Gamble Company is headquartered in Cincinnati. As explained in Encyclopedia Britannica:

The company was formed in 1837 when William Procter, a British candlemaker, and James Gamble, an Irish soapmaker, merged their businesses in Cincinnati. The chief ingredient for both products was animal fat, which was readily available in the hog-butchering centre of Cincinnati. The company supplied soap and candles to the Union Army during the American Civil War and sold even more of these products to the public when the war was over.

Although candles are now usually made of wax, historically they were mostly made from animal fat. In earlier times, only prosperous people could afford wax candles.

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