America’s largest cities in 1790

Working on a big history project, both my own and in some discussions with a good friend who’s immersed in writing a book that’s all his, has had me reflecting on the growth of America. Just where was the economic and political power centered? The findings can be rather surprising.

  1. New York City (33,131 population). That’s all? It’s about the size of Dover, New Hampshire, or Bangor, Maine. Places we’d call small cities or towns.
  2. Philadelphia (28,522). As you’ll see, that’s a bit misleading, but still small by today’s standards.
  3. Boston (18,320). Well, it was also surrounded by some thriving towns, especially along the Charles River and around the harbor.
  4. Charleston, S.C. (16,359). So this was the belle of the South and diversely sophisticated, too?
  5. Baltimore (13,503). Less than half the size of Philadelphia.
  6. Northern Liberties Township, Pa. (9,913). Of course, had these suburbs been included with Philadelphia, the influence of the City of Brotherly Love would be more apparent.
  7. Salem, Mass. (7,921). Here’s where the New England picture changes and winds up taking up half of the Top Ten list.
  8. Newport, R.I. (6,716). Harbors were key factors for cities.
  9. Providence, R.I. (6,380). As I was saying?
  10. Marblehead, Mass. (5,661). One of three Bay State cities named for a single governor, as the saying goes. Peabody and Athol rounded out the honor.

Fact: Only two cities have ever held the distinction of most populous in the United States. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, it was Philadelphia. But by the time of the first Census, 1790, New York had taken the top spot, a rank it’s held ever since.

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