The 10 Most Populous U.S. Cities, Every Decade Since 1790
View the high resolution version of today’s infographic by clicking here
There are only two cities that have had the distinction of being named the most populous city in the United States.
The first city to hold the title was Philadelphia, as the City of Brotherly Love was estimated to be the biggest city in the country at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
However, by the time of the first U.S. Census in 1790, New York City had surpassed Philadelphia by a few thousand residents – and the Big Apple has stayed the largest in the country ever since.
From Then to Now
Today’s infographic comes to us from Liberty Cruise, and it ranks the 10 most populous cities in the United States for every decade since 1790.
To start, let’s take a look at what the list looked just after the first U.S. Census in 1790:
|#1||New York City, NY||33,131|
|#6||Northern Liberties Township, PA||9,913|
It’s pretty surreal to think that some of the biggest cities in the late 18th century hosted no more than 6,000 residents.
It also may be a surprise to many that Rhode Island – a state that ranks 50th in size and 44th in population today – held two of the largest towns in the nation at the time: Newport and Providence.
The Modern List
Jump forward over 200 years, and New York City has not lost its top spot.
It helped that NYC was able to absorb Brooklyn – one of the country’s other largest cities – into its boundaries in 1898. Other major cities saw similar merges happen over the years, with Philadelphia absorbing Northern Liberties Township, for example.
Here is a list of the most populous U.S. cities in 2017 (est.):
|Rank||City||Population (Est. 2017)||Population (2010 Census)||Change|
|#1||New York City, NY||8,622,698||8,175,133||+5.47%|
|#2||Los Angeles, CA||3,999,759||3,792,621||+5.46%|
|#7||San Antonio, TX||1,511,946||1,327,407||+13.90%|
|#8||San Diego, CA||1,419,516||1,307,402||+8.58%|
|#10||San Jose, CA||1,035,317||945,942||+9.45%|
In contrast to the NYC of today, the 1790 population looks more like a Long Island suburb.
This rapid urbanization is mainly thanks to Industrial Revolution, which triggered a massive migration to cities, allowing New York to grow 26,000% in total population.
Here’s how the population distribution of New York City’s five boroughs has changed over time:
Interested in learning more about the country’s largest cities?
Mapped: The State of Small Business Recovery in America
Compared to January 2020, 34% of small businesses are currently closed. This map looks at the small business recovery rate in 50 metro areas.
Mapped: The State of Small Business Recovery in America
In the business news cycle, headlines are often dominated by large corporations, macroeconomic news, or government action.
While mom and pop might not always be in focus, collectively small businesses are a powerful and influential piece of the economy. In fact, 99.9% of all businesses in the U.S. qualify as small businesses, collectively employing almost half (47.3%) of the nation’s private workforce.
Unfortunately, they’ve also been one of the hardest-hit sectors of the economy amid the pandemic. From the CARES Act to the new budget proposal, billions of dollars have been allocated towards helping small businesses to get back on their feet.
Small Business Recovery in 50 Metro Areas
During the pandemic, many small businesses have either swiftly pivoted to survive, or struggled to stay afloat. This map pulls data from Opportunity Insights to examine the small business recovery rate in 50 metro areas across America.
So, has the situation improved since the last time we examined this data? The short answer is no—on a national scale, 34% of small businesses are closed compared to January 2020.
San Francisco is one of the most affected metro areas, with a 48% closure rate of small businesses. New York City has spiralled the most since the end of September 2020.
|U.S. Metro Area||% Change in # of|
Small Businesses Open
(As of Sep 25, 2020)
|% Change in # of|
Small Businesses Open
(As of Apr 23, 2021)
|7-month change (p.p.)|
|New York City||-21%||-42%||-21|
|Salt Lake City||-18%||-23%||-5|
Data as of Apr 23, 2021 and indexed to Jan 4-31, 2020.
On the flip side, Honolulu has seen the most improvement. As travel and tourism numbers into Hawaii have steadily risen up with lifted nationwide restrictions, there has been a 16 p.p. increase in open businesses compared to September 2020.
Road to a K-Shaped Recovery
As of April 25, 2021, nearly 42% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. However, even with this rapid vaccine rollout, various segments of the economy aren’t recovering at the same pace.
Take for instance the stark difference between professional services and the leisure and hospitality sector. Though small business revenues in both segments have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, the latter has much more catching up to do:
This uneven phenomena is known as a K-shaped recovery, where some industries see more improvement compared to others that stagnate in the aftermath of a recession.
The Entrepreneurial Spirit Endures
Despite these continued hardships, it appears that many Americans have not been deterred from starting their own businesses.
Many small businesses require an Employer Identification Number (EIN) which makes EIN applications a good proxy for business formation activity. Despite an initial dip in the early months of the pandemic, there has been a dramatic spike in EIN business applications.
Even in the face of a global pandemic, the perseverance of such metrics prove that the innovative American spirit is unwavering, and spells better days to come for small business recovery.
These Powerful Maps Show the Extremes of U.S. Population Density
The U.S. population is spread across a huge amount of land, but its distribution is far from equal. These maps are a unique look at population density
America’s 328 million people are spread across a huge amount of territory, but the population density of various regions is far from equal.
It’s no secret that cities like New York have a vastly different population density than, say, a rural county in North Dakota. Even so, this interactive map by Ben Blatt of Slate helps visualize the stark contrast between urban and rural densities in a way that might intrigue you.
How many counties does it take to equal the population of these large urban areas? Let’s find out.
New York City’s Rural Equivalent
New York City (proper) Population: 8.42 million
New York City Population density: 27,547 persons / mi²
New York City became the largest city in the U.S. back in 1781 and has long been the country’s most densely packed urban center. Today, 1 in every 38 people living in the United States resides in The Big Apple.
For the northwestern counties above to match the population of New York City, it takes a land area around the size of Mongolia. The region shown above is 645,934 mi², and runs through portions of 12 different states.
In order to match the population of the entire New York metropolitan area, which holds 18 million people and includes adjacent cities and towns in New York state, New Jersey, and Connecticut, the above equivalent area would have to be even more massive.
Los Angeles County’s Rural Equivalent
LA County Population: 10.04 million
LA County Population density: 2,100 persons / mi²
Los Angeles County is home to the 88 incorporated cities that make up the urban area of Los Angeles.
Even excluding nearby population centers such as Anaheim, San Bernadino, and Riverside (which are located in adjacent counties) it is still the most populous county in the United States, with over 10 million inhabitants.
To match this enormous scale in Middle America, it would take 298 counties covering an area of 471,941 mi².
Chicago’s Rural Equivalent
Chicago Metropolitan Area Population: 9.53 million
Chicago Metropolitan Area Population density: 1,318 persons / mi²
Next up is America’s third largest city, Chicago. For this visualization, we’re using the Chicago metropolitan area, which covers the full extent of the city’s population.
To match the scale of the population of the Windy City, we would need to add up every county in New Mexico, along with large portions of Colorado, Arizona, and Texas.
Turning the Tables?
Conversely, what if we transported the people in the country’s least densely populated counties into the middle of an urban center?
|1||Kalawao County, Hawaii||86|
|2||Loving County, Texas||169|
|3||King County, Texas||272|
|4||Kenedy County, Texas||404|
|5||Arthur County, Nebraska||463|
As it turns out, the total population of the five least populated counties is just 1,394—roughly the same amount of people that live on the average Manhattan block.
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