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Historical Metropolitan Populations of the United States

The graph and tables on this page attempt to show how the urban hierarchy of the United States has developed over time. The statistic used here is the population of the metropolitan area (contiguous urbanized area surrounding a central city), not the population of an individual city. Metropolitan area population is much more useful than city population as an indicator of the size and importance of a city, since the official boundaries of a city are usually arbitrary and often do not include vast suburban areas. For example, in 2000 San Antonio was the 10th largest city in the U.S., larger than Boston or San Francisco, but its Metro Area was only ranked about 30th. The same thing was happening even back in 1790: New York was the biggest single city, but Philadelphia plus its suburbs of Northern Liberties and Southwark made it the biggest metro area.


Graph of Metro Area Population Rank over Time

The top 20 Metro Areas in the United States, 1790-2010

Historical Metropolitan Area Populations

Notes on graph: See tables below for help on what the various metro area codes mean--most are fairly self-explanatory. For example "NY" is New York, "Chi" is Chicago, and so on. Also note that the table graphs rank, not population. A metro area can see increasing population and decreasing rank at the same time, if other metro areas are growing faster. Indeed, I think very few metro areas have lost population during any 10 year span.

Random Notes and Comments

  • The urban hierarchy of the U.S. was dominated by the Northeast and Midwest until relatively recently. Between 1840 and 1900, 18 out of the top 20 metro areas were in the northeastern quadrant of the current USA, with just New Orleans, plus either Charleston or San Francisco, as the only cities in the South or West. As late as 1960, 15 out of 20 were still outside the "sunbelt".
  • For 80 years, from 1860 to 1930 inclusive, New Orleans was the only southern city in the top 20. Before that, Charleston, SC was the dominant city of the south, falling off the list in 1850. In 1940, Houston, Dallas, and Miami began their rises, and Atlanta didn't crack the top 20 until 1970.
  • Cincinnati was the first major city of the Midwest, making the top 20 list in 1820. By 1890 there were 9 midwestern cities in the top 20.
  • San Francisco was the only western city in the top 20 for 50 years, from 1860 to 1900 inclusive. By 1910 Los Angeles cracked the the top 20, soon overtaking its northern rival. In 2010, the West had more cities on the list (6) than any other region.
  • In 1850, 5 of the top 20 cities were in New York State: New York City (1), Albany (7), Buffalo (10), Rochester (16), and Syracuse (18). The nickname "Empire State" was very apt in the heyday of the Erie Canal.
  • Four northeastern cities (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore) have been in the top 20 since the first census in 1790. Washington, DC didn't really exist in 1790, but Alexandria, VA was on the list then, and DC itself afterwards, so one could argue that the Washington metro area also has been in the top 20 since independence.
  • By 1930 Washington, DC was ranked #17, down from #5 in 1820. But the expansion of the federal government during the New Deal era and World War II propelled it up to #8 by 1970. It is the only metro area with a U-shaped curve, with a steady decline in rank followed by a steady rise.

Tables: Top 20 U.S. Metropolitan Areas by Population, 1790-2010
(with top 4 Metropolitan Areas 1680-1775)

Approximate Populations in Thousands

See the section below on Methodology and Sources for more information as to where these numbers came from.

1680
RankCityPop
1.Boston4.5
2.New York3.0
3.Newport, RI2.5
4.Charleston0.7
1700
RankCityPop
1.Boston6.7
2.New York5.0
3.Philadelphia5.0
4.Newport, RI2.6
1720
RankCityPop
1.Boston12
2.Philadelphia10
3.New York7
4.Newport, RI3.8
1740
RankCityPop
1.Boston16.4
2.Philadelphia13.0
3.New York11.0
4.Charleston6.8
1760
RankCityPop
1.Philadelphia23.8
2.New York18.0
3.Boston15.6
4.Charleston8.0
1775
RankCityPop
1.Philadelphia40
2.New York25
3.Boston16
4.Charleston12
1790
RankMetro AreaPop
1. Philadelphia 44.1
2. New York 33.1
3. Boston 18.3
4. Charleston 16.4
5. Salem, MA 13.6
6. Baltimore 13.5
7. Newport, RI 6.7
8. Providence 6.4
9. Gloucester, MA 5.3
10. Newburyport, MA 4.8
11. Portsmouth, NH 4.7
12. Nantucket 4.6
13. Middleborough, MA 4.5
14. New Haven 4.5
15. Richmond 3.8
16. Albany 3.5
17. Norfolk 3.0
18. Petersburg, VA 2.8
19. Alexandria, VA 2.8
20. Hartford 2.7
1800
RankMetro AreaPop
1. Philadelphia 61.6
2. New York 60.5
3. Baltimore 26.5
4. Boston 24.9
5. Charleston 18.8
6. Salem, MA 14.7
7. Washington 11.2
8. Providence 7.6
9. Norfolk 6.9
10. Newport, RI 6.7
11. Newburyport, MA 6.0
12. Richmond 5.7
13. Nantucket 5.6
14. Portsmouth, NH 5.3
15. Gloucester, MA 5.3
16. Schenectady, NY 5.3
17. Albany 5.3
18. New London, CT 5.2
19. Savannah 5.2
20. Middleborough, MA 4.5
1810
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 101
2. Philadelphia 87.3
3. Baltimore 46.6
4. Boston 38.7
5. Charleston 24.7
6. Salem, MA 23.1
7. Washington 20.4
8. New Orleans 17.2
9. Albany 10.8
10. Providence 10.1
11. Richmond 9.7
12. Norfolk 9.2
13. Newport, RI 7.9
14. Newburyport, MA 7.6
15. Portland, ME 7.2
16. Portsmouth, NH 6.9
17. Nantucket 6.8
18. Gloucester, MA 5.9
19. Schenectady, NY 5.9
20. New Haven 5.8
1820
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 131
2. Philadelphia 109
3. Baltimore 62.7
4. Boston 54.0
5. Washington 28.8
6. New Orleans 27.2
7. Charleston 24.8
8. Salem, MA 22.6
9. Albany 17.9
10. Richmond 12.1
11. Providence 11.8
12. Cincinnati 9.6
13. Portland, ME 8.6
14. Norfolk 8.5
15. Savannah 7.5
16. Portsmouth, NH 7.3
17. Newport, RI 7.3
18. Nantucket 7.3
19. Pittsburgh 7.3
20. New Haven 7.2
1830
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 215
2. Philadelphia 161
3. Boston 85.6
4. Baltimore 80.6
5. New Orleans 46.1
6. Albany 35.8
7. Washington 35.5
8. Charleston 30.3
9. Salem, MA 27.3
10. Cincinnati 24.8
11. Providence 22.4
12. Richmond 16.1
13. Pittsburgh 15.4
14. Newark 14.4
15. Portland, ME 12.6
16. Louisville 10.3
17. New Haven 10.2
18. Norfolk 9.8
19. Rochester 9.2
20. Buffalo 8.7
1840
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 374
2. Philadelphia 259
3. Boston 183
4. Baltimore 110
5. New Orleans 105
6. Albany 72.0
7. Cincinnati 54.8
8. Washington 50.2
9. Pittsburgh 43.7
10. Charleston 42.6
11. Providence 40.9
12. Louisville 34.2
13. Rochester 31.4
14. Newark 29.8
15. Buffalo 29.3
16. Portland, ME 28.6
17. St. Louis 28.4
18. New Bedford 24.1
19. New Haven 21.9
20. Detroit 21.2
1850
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 650
2. Philadelphia 405
3. Boston 308
4. Baltimore 179
5. Cincinnati 133
6. New Orleans 123
7. Albany 107
8. St. Louis 95
9. Pittsburgh 86
10. Buffalo 80
11. Washington 67
12. Providence 65
13. Louisville 61
14. Newark 57
15. Charleston 50
16. Rochester 49
17. Chicago 40
18. Syracuse 38
19. Detroit 38
20. Portland, ME 36
1860
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 1143
2. Philadelphia 608
3. Boston 374
4. Baltimore 221
5. Cincinnati 192
6. St. Louis 176
7. New Orleans 172
8. Chicago 123
9. Albany 116
10. Newark 103
11. Pittsburgh 93
12. Buffalo 90
13. Louisville 88
14. Washington 80
15. Providence 69
16. Detroit 59
17. San Francisco 57
18. Rochester 56
19. Cleveland 49
20. Milwaukee 48
1870
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 1687
2. Philadelphia 747
3. Boston 501
4. St. Louis 345
5. Chicago 324
6. Baltimore 283
7. Cincinnati 257
8. New Orleans 196
9. Pittsburgh 170
10. Albany 157
11. San Francisco 151
12. Buffalo 133
13. Louisville 129
14. Washington 123
15. Providence 101
16. Detroit 101
17. Cleveland 101
18. Milwaukee 75
19. Rochester 73
20. New Haven 65
1880
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 2234
2. Philadelphia 949
3. Boston 658
4. Chicago 543
5. St. Louis 386
6. Baltimore 353
7. Cincinnati 307
8. Pittsburgh 265
9. San Francisco 236
10. New Orleans 219
11. Albany 178
12. Buffalo 171
13. Cleveland 169
14. Washington 164
15. Detroit 147
16. Louisville 143
17. Providence 128
18. Milwaukee 121
19. Rochester 103
20. Minneapolis 94
1890
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 2977
2. Philadelphia 1180
3. Chicago 1141
4. Boston 818
5. St. Louis 490
6. Baltimore 453
7. Pittsburgh 396
8. Cincinnati 344
9. Minneapolis 305
10. San Francisco 302
11. Cleveland 274
12. Buffalo 272
13. Washington 253
14. New Orleans 245
15. Detroit 237
16. Milwaukee 212
17. Albany 189
18. Louisville 183
19. Kansas City 165
20. Providence 163
1900
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 4266
2. Chicago 1759
3. Philadelphia 1454
4. Boston 1009
5. St. Louis 626
6. Pittsburgh 532
7. Baltimore 532
8. Cleveland 396
9. Cincinnati 379
10. San Francisco 375
11. Minneapolis 374
12. Buffalo 373
13. Detroit 321
14. Washington 302
15. Milwaukee 296
16. New Orleans 291
17. Providence 243
18. Kansas City 242
19. Louisville 227
20. Albany 188
1910
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 6021
2. Chicago 2283
3. Philadelphia 1746
4. Boston 1213
5. St. Louis 760
6. Pittsburgh 655
7. San Francisco 604
8. Baltimore 589
9. Cleveland 580
10. Minneapolis 526
11. Detroit 503
12. Cincinnati 425
13. Buffalo 420
14. Milwaukee 389
15. Los Angeles 374
16. Kansas City 357
17. Washington 357
18. New Orleans 344
19. Albany 283
20. Providence 274
1920
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 7041
2. Chicago 2859
3. Philadelphia 2072
4. Boston 1366
5. Detroit 1071
6. St. Louis 859
7. Cleveland 834
8. Pittsburgh 775
9. San Francisco 771
10. Baltimore 753
11. Los Angeles 682
12. Minneapolis 626
13. Buffalo 539
14. Milwaukee 478
15. Cincinnati 470
16. Washington 467
17. Kansas City 455
18. New Orleans 393
19. Seattle 334
20. Indianapolis 323
1930
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 8667
2. Chicago 3718
3. Philadelphia 2264
4. Detroit 1721
5. Los Angeles 1617
6. Boston 1479
7. San Francisco 996
8. Cleveland 976
9. Pittsburgh 960
10. St. Louis 950
11. Baltimore 836
12. Minneapolis 753
13. Buffalo 620
14. Milwaukee 615
15. Cincinnati 580
16. Kansas City 561
17. Washington 527
18. New Orleans 469
19. Seattle 390
20. Indianapolis 379
1940
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 10135
2. Chicago 4210
3. Philadelphia 2538
4. Los Angeles 2268
5. Detroit 2041
6. Boston 1746
7. San Francisco 1156
8. Pittsburgh 1134
9. St. Louis 1102
10. Cleveland 1079
11. Baltimore 992
12. Minneapolis 886
13. Washington 800
14. Buffalo 708
15. Milwaukee 705
16. Kansas City 632
17. Cincinnati 559
18. New Orleans 557
19. Houston 471
20. Seattle 451
1950
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 12604
2. Chicago 5208
3. Los Angeles 4250
4. Philadelphia 3297
5. Detroit 2884
6. Boston 2301
7. San Francisco 2131
8. St. Louis 1541
9. Cleveland 1425
10. Pittsburgh 1400
11. Washington 1287
12. Baltimore 1162
13. Minneapolis 987
14. Buffalo 895
15. Dallas 855
16. Milwaukee 829
17. Cincinnati 813
18. Houston 701
19. Kansas City 698
20. New Orleans 660
1960
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 14437
2. Los Angeles 6805
3. Chicago 6377
4. Philadelphia 3989
5. Detroit 3750
6. San Francisco 2607
7. Boston 2501
8. Pittsburgh 2105
9. Washington 1905
10. St. Louis 1864
11. Cleveland 1785
12. Dallas 1435
13. Baltimore 1419
14. Minneapolis 1377
15. Miami 1173
16. Milwaukee 1150
17. Houston 1140
18. Buffalo 1054
19. Cincinnati 994
20. Kansas City 921
1970
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 16193
2. Los Angeles 7984
3. Chicago 7164
4. Philadelphia 4419
5. Detroit 4085
6. San Francisco 3049
7. Boston 2703
8. Washington 2671
9. Pittsburgh 2124
10. St. Louis 2123
11. Dallas 2016
12. Cleveland 1960
13. Miami 1834
14. Minneapolis 1701
15. Houston 1678
16. Baltimore 1580
17. Milwaukee 1252
18. Seattle 1238
19. San Diego 1198
20. Atlanta 1172
1980
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 16500
2. Los Angeles 10841
3. Chicago 7325
4. Philadelphia 4830
5. Detroit 4214
6. San Francisco 4185
7. Boston 3064
8. Washington 2912
9. Houston 2757
10. Dallas 2713
11. Miami 2616
12. St. Louis 1849
13. Pittsburgh 1810
14. Minneapolis 1788
15. Baltimore 1755
16. Cleveland 1752
17. San Diego 1704
18. Atlanta 1613
19. Phoenix 1409
20. Seattle 1392
1990
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 16754
2. Los Angeles 13522
3. Chicago 7373
4. San Francisco 5386
5. Philadelphia 4970
6. Miami 3948
7. Detroit 3698
8. Washington 3363
9. Boston 3355
10. Dallas 3265
11. Houston 3088
12. Seattle 2354
13. San Diego 2348
14. Atlanta 2158
15. Minneapolis 2080
16. Phoenix 2006
17. St. Louis 1947
18. Baltimore 1890
19. Pittsburgh 1744
20. Tampa 1709
2000
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 18689
2. Los Angeles 14661
3. Chicago 8419
4. San Francisco 5973
5. Philadelphia 5418
6. Miami 4919
7. Dallas 4445
8. Houston 4063
9. Boston 4032
10. Washington 3934
11. Detroit 3903
12. Atlanta 3500
13. Seattle 3018
14. Phoenix 2975
15. San Diego 2674
16. Minneapolis 2389
17. Baltimore 2251
18. Denver 2231
19. St. Louis 2078
20. Tampa 2062
2010
RankMetro AreaPop
1. New York 20009
2. Los Angeles 15750
3. Chicago 9023
4. San Francisco 6828
5. Philadelphia 6003
6. Dallas 5685
7. Miami 5513
8. Houston 5382
9. Atlanta 4743
10. Washington 4697
11. Boston 4407
12. Detroit 4160
13. Phoenix 3863
14. Seattle 3446
15. San Diego 2985
16. Denver 2716
17. Minneapolis 2651
18. Baltimore 2497
19. Tampa 2442
20. St. Louis 2246
 

Peak Years for Cities that have Declined in Rank

The following table of metro areas shows ones that have declined in rank and are not likely to ever reach their past high ranking again. If a metro area had its high ranking for more than one year, then the latest year is selected.

Metro Area High Rank Year High Rank
Boston 1740 1
Charleston 1790 4
Philadelphia 1800 1
Providence 1800 8
Norfolk 1800 9
Baltimore 1820 3
Richmond 1820 10
Portland, ME 1820 13
New Haven 1830 17
New Orleans 1840 5
Albany 1840 6
Metro Area High Rank Year High Rank
Louisville 1840 12
Rochester 1840 13
Buffalo 1850 10
Cincinnati 1860 5
St. Louis 1870 4
Minneapolis 1890 9
Pittsburgh 1910 6
Cleveland 1920 7
Detroit 1930 4
Milwaukee 1930 14
Chicago 1950 2

If you live in any of these metro areas, it might be interesting to see when your home town was at it's peak--for example, if you now live in St. Louis, you can imagine a time (1870) when your city was the 4th most-populous urban center in the country. Of course, "not likely to reach past high ranking" does not mean impossbile, but I think most would agree that no one expects to see Charleston, SC as the 4th largest metro area in the US anytime soon.

This list is sorted chronologically, and note that the first part of the list is dominated by East Coast cities, and the last part by metro areas in the Midwest. No cities in the West are on the list. Sunbelt metro areas have all been growing quickly in recent decades and at this point I don't think we can say that any have clearly peaked in their ranking.


Methodology and Sources

There is no consistent, long-standing, precise standard for metropolitan area definition in the United States. Prior to 1950, the U.S. census bureau didn't even have the concept. Since then, various kinds of metro areas (SMSAs, MSAs, CMSAs, etc.) have been defined by the federal OMB, but they are mostly based on entire counties and their definitions have fluctuated. More useful is the Urbanized Area, defined as contiguous land above a certain population density, but they, too, have only been tracked in the past few decades.

Complicating matters is determining exactly where the metro area boundaries fall and what cities should be included. For example, I list Newark as the 10th largest city in the US in 1860, but in 1870 it is (somewhat arbitraily) included as part of the New York metro area, so it falls off the chart. Salem and Boston have a simliar pattern. In general, though, I have lumped together cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul, Dallas-Fort Worth, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, San Francisco-Oakland, and others. A large rise in population over a ten-year period could be attributed to a city "capturing" the urban are of a neighboring city during that time.

Six main sources for population data were used:

I first took all the city population data from source #1 and assigned suburban places to central cities, for example, Oakland to San Francisco or Newark to New York (as appropriate by year). Then I was able to get a total population of all cities (in the national top 100) for a metro area for a given year. For 1790 to 1830, there were fewer than 100 total cities in the nation, so these totals were used exclusively for those years in the charts above.

For 1840 to 1940, I used the county data from source #3 and assigned counties to central cities (again, as appropriate by year), and to get a metro area population, I took the total of the cities listed in the top 100 and added a portion of the population in the surrounding counties. I used a figure ranging from about 25% in 1840 up to about 50% in 1940. This means that the 1900 population of the Cleveland metro area was obtained by taking the population of Cleveland and adding to it a percentage of the population of Cuyahoga county.

For 1950-2010 I generally used urbanized area populations (source #2) as much as possible, doing some combinations of urbanized areas that the census bureau did not do (for example, San Jose added to the San Francisco-Oakland urbanized area). I checked this agains source #4, the metro area populations, for a sanity check.

Once I had all this, I went through and "smoothed out" the numbers a bit to avoid jarring ups and downs in rank for certain cities. I also compared my rankings against source #6 noted above, and made sure my numbers were within 2 ranking spots of theirs, and, if not, adjusting accordingly.

The Colonial Era top 4 lists were mainly from source #5 above, but cross-checked for sanity with other writings about early American cities. There are some population numbers that are widely quoted for New York, Boston, and Philadelphia that are clearly at odds with most sources, and they have been ignored. No attempt was made to add any suburban populations for the 1680-1775 period, so, for example, the 2000 people in Brooklyn in 1720 are not included in the New York population. At that time, the concept of a metropolitan area was simply not applicable, so simple city populations were used.

The end results are, at best, educated wild guesses. This is not a serious academic reseach project and my methodology would not hold up to peer-review scrutiny. This means that no number above should be considered 100% accurate, and most city rankings are within plus or minus 2 slots, at best. There are simply too many judgement calls that went into the methodology--which cities were part of which metro areas, what percentage of a county's population was urban, what counties are part of which metro areas, and so on. But I think it does give a reasonably accurate big-picture view of the changing fortunes in America's urban landscape.






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