Fredericksburg, Virginia. Image by Mr.TinDC licensed under Creative Commons.

The US Census webpage is a treasure trove of interesting information about cities. Want to know where the most dense neighborhoods are, or what percentage of residents of an area are immigrants? It’s all there. One of the most fascinating pages lists the 100 largest cities in the country at the time of each decennial census, starting in 1790.

It turns out several cities in the region that we think of as relatively small or unimportant places in 2010 have illustrious histories and were, in their heyday, places of national importance.

The table below lists each city in the District, Maryland, or Virginia that appears on the top 100 list at any point prior to 1950 (about the time metro areas supplanted cities as the most telling measure of urban population), along with its peak rank and the equivalently-ranked metro area as of 2008.

Historical Members of the Top 100 Club

City Peak Rank (Yr) Current Equivalent Metro Area
Baltimore 2 (1830) Los Angeles
Washington 9 (1820) Washington (same rank now if excluding Baltimore from metro area.  Currently 4th if Baltimore is included.)
Norfolk 10 (1800) Boston
Richmond 12 (1810) Phoenix
Alexandria 17 (1810) San Diego
Georgetown 19 (1820) Tampa Bay
Petersburg 21 (1790) Denver
Frederick 49 (1820) Salt Lake City
Lynchburg 59 (1840) Albuquerque
Portsmouth 62 (1840) Allentown, PA
Hagerstown 77 (1830) Poughkeepsie, NY
Fredericksburg 79 (1840) Toledo, OH
Annapolis 90 (1830) Des Moines, IA

Of course, the country is a lot bigger today than it was in the middle of the 19th Century, so perhaps it’s not exactly accurate to say that in 1820 Frederick, MD held as strong a place in the national consciousness as Salt Lake City does today.  Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to consider how these things change over time. Who knew that Baltimore once might have challenged New York as America’s dominant economic center, or that Boston wasn’t always the only “big city” in Massachusetts?

There may not be much practical application for this, except as a reminder that all things change, but at the very least it’s a fun set of facts for anyone interested in cities.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


This was originally posted in 2010, but it was so popular we wanted to run it again!