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From the Serial Set: “Peculiarities” of Life in D.C. (1880)

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The following is a guest post by Bailey DeSimone, a library technician (metadata) in the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress.

Washington, D.C. became the capital of the United States of America in 1790. On February 27, 1801, the District of Columbia Organic Act established the city as an unincorporated territory. Throughout the 219 years since, D.C.’s history has been chronicled from many different perspectives. In 1880, a census report submitted to Congress provided one such narrative.

Map and statistics of the District of Columbia. H. Misc. Doc. no. 42 pt. 19 at 27 (1880), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 2149. Photo by Geraldine Dávila González.

In 1880, the Census Office (today known as the Census Bureau) published “A Report on the Social Statistics of Cities.” In addition to detailing the “[p]opulation by sex, nativity, and race,” the report includes information related to the District’s budget and finances, giving a statistical profile of the city.

These census reports also include unique historical sketches. While what was known of the region’s history prior to the arrival of Captain John Smith and other English colonists was “extremely meager” at the time, the report states that the area was inhabited by “a large aboriginal population, the seat of whose council-fire was…at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.” (H. Misc. Doc. no. 42 pt. 19 at 27 (1880), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 2149). Today, we recognize this population as belonging to the Nacotchtank village, and that confluence being Fort Lesley J. McNair.

A more detailed look at the civil infrastructure includes accounts of parks, streets and railroads, markets, and schools – as well as the natural landscape and physical geography. Daily commuters may recognize many of these names:

Partial list of D.C. public parks. H. Misc. Doc. no. 42 pt. 19 at 40 (1880), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 2149. Photo by Geraldine Dávila González.

From this account, we can observe similarities and differences between 1880s D.C., and the city as experienced by residents today.

For example, “[t]he Eastern market, situated at the corner of Seventh and C streets southeast, is a one-story brick structure…[i]t contains 85 stalls…the average monthly rental per stall being $3 75 [sic].” (H. Misc. Doc. no. 42 pt. 19 at 47 (1880), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 2149).

Additionally, the report details the “peculiarities” of daily life in the District:

“Early in the present century Washington had little else than a temporary population, brought together by the needs of the government administration, and changing more or less with each Presidential term,” the report notes, observing the connection between population and political careers, still relevant today. “At the present time there are not less than 15,000 persons busy or resident in Washington connected in one way or another with the government, together with the representatives of foreign nations”  – a probable explanation for including a “foreign” statistic in the overall population count of the District.

“Peculiarities of Life in Washington”. H. Misc. Doc. no. 42 pt. 19 at 52 (1880), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 2149. Photo by Geraldine Dávila González.

Finally, the report assures readers that “[o]ne may live wholesomely at a small cost” in the District of Columbia, with “French coffee, with cream, rolls, and butter” costing 10 cents. (H. Misc. Doc. no. 42 pt. 19 at 52 (1880), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 2149).

The two-volume 1880 Social Statistics on Cities report on behalf of the United States Census Office is compiled of profiles of cities across the country, including Atlanta, Richmond, Brooklyn, Chicago, Boston, and Newark. The Digital Resources team is looking forward to digitizing these maps, statistics, and sketches as a means of preserving these moments in time.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing this and particulalrly the excerpt on Eastern Market. Please do digitize this material as quickly as possible, I am a former Director of Law Library Services and know that there is so much buried treasure in the law Library stacks. There are many great American stories begging for an audience. Thanks for your work to get them rediscovered.

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