What the Most Populated Cities in America Looked Like the Decade You Were Born

Source: Photo by Keystone / Getty Images

The story of the most populous cities in the United States is an evolving one that reflects economic, cultural and demographic shifts. Few nations have experienced such profound changes as the United States has in the 243 years since its founding in 1776.

America’s largest cities by population have changed over the decades, and 24/7 Tempo has reviewed data from the U.S. Census Bureau to identify what cities were the most populous the decade you were born.

At the time of the first census in 1790, there were 3,929,214 people living in the 13 states bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Cities on the Eastern Seaboard such as New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore swelled in size throughout the 19th century because of immigration from Europe. Manufacturing, transportation, and industrial centers developed around the Great Lakes region and the Midwest in the 19th century, fueling the rapid growth of Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago. The long histories of these cities help explain how many are where some of America’s oldest homes are still standing.

Post-World War II prosperity put Americans in cars, and the building of the interstate highway system in the 1950s accelerated the suburbanization of the United States. The newer cities of the West and South were defined more by the automobile than the mass transportation systems of the older, Eastern cities. 

Over the last 100 years, Chicago and Philadelphia have shed and regained population to stay among the top 5 most populous cities. Detroit, which had nearly 2 million people in the 1950 census and was among the top 10 most populous American cities in the 20th century, has lost almost half of its population and is considered one of the worst cities to live in