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Gannett and Hewes’ Visualizations of the 1880 Census

The end of the 19th century saw a rise in the proliferation of data visualizations alongside traditional cartography and thematic mapping. A terrific example of this type of work is Scribner’s Statistical Atlas of the United States, which “shows by graphic methods [the states’] present condition and their political, social, and industrial development.” The atlas was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing house in 1883 in New York City and was authored by Fletcher Hewes and Henry Gannett.

Henry Gannett was the first Chief of the United States Geologic Survey and served as the Chief Geographer of the 1880 census. Gannett was one of the country’s most impactful geographers for many years, having his hand in everything from laying out census enumeration districts to the founding of the US Board on Geographic Names. The work itself draws directly on data produced by the 1880 census, and is dedicated to Dr. Francis Walker, the superintendent of the 1880 census.

Map of the US showing foreign-born population by county. The eastern half of the United States has the highest foreign-born populations, with the exception of California and coastal Oregon.

“Plate 25: Population (Foreign Population),” Hewes & Gannett, 1883. Geography & Map Division.

The atlas works its way through many of the enumeration tables of the census, visualizing the data in multiple ways: Hewes & Gannett’s most common approach was to create both a thematic choropleth map of the data, often at multiple scales, alongside relevant bar charts. Above, you can see the data is mapped at both the state and county level. They also included bar charts in the corner of the page which detail various break-downs of the foreign population in the United States. The chart above shows the ratio of foreign-born population to total population by state, a raw count of total foreign-born persons, and also an accounting of the foreign-born population by ethnicity. Another chart shows the increase census-over-census in the ratio of foreign to native born population.

The 1880 census itself was seen as more statistically sound than the 1870 census, with notable population rises in certain areas of the country that were understood to be not merely a result of population growth, but of more accurate counting. The official count population count rose around 30% between the 1870 and 1880 censuses. At the time of its publishing, the 1880 census was regarded as the largest and most accurate census taken of the country.

Two stacked maps of the US showing railroad lines in red. The number of railroads increase from 1870 to 1880.

“Plate 17: Progress (Area, Settlement),” Hewes & Gannett, 1883. Geography & Map Division.

The page above (“Progress”) uses two maps, one from 1870 and the other from 1880, to show the expansion of railroads in the United States and the western movement of American settlers. The 1880 map also documents the growth of railroads into areas previously marked (on the 1870 map) with the names of indigenous communities. In other spots, the 1880 map bears more names of indigenous communities than in 1870. Locations of these communities were taken from reports made by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for 1870 and 1880. The shaded sections of the map, which represent areas with a “total absence of population” (defined as fewer than 2 Americans per square mile) often overlap with these communities and represent the areas settlement was aimed at, a cartographic representation of the 19th century idea of “manifest destiny.”

A chart with 10 columns, listing the population of US cities in descending order.

“Plate 21: Progress (Rank of Cities by Population),” Hewes & Gannett, 1883. Geography & Map Division.

The 1880 census was also the first census in the United States to record a city with over one million residents: New York City, with a population of 1,206,299 residents. In the chart above, US cities are ranked by population from 1790-1880, demonstrating both the growth of cities and the changing geographical distribution of residents. Red lines connect each city to itself over time, allowing a chart reader to quickly get a sense of stability of relative city size over time. In the country’s earliest years, the largest cities remain relatively stable, with increasing fluctuation over time. The population of each city is represented a both numeric text and a horizontal bar graph within each city’s cell. As the population of the biggest cities expands, some of the largest cities in 1870 and 1880 have populations so large that their vertical bar graph turns down to accommodate its size.

Multiple bar charts related to state and local debt with a state-level map of the United States in the middle of the page

“Plate 77: Finance and Commerce (Analysis of State and Local Debt),” Hewes & Gannett, 1883. Geography & Map Division.

The final chart we’ll look at is the analysis of state and local debt chart, which plots public debt by the purposes for which it was spent, its rate, and the civil division that took on the debt. The largest debt category is the building of railroads ($185 million), floating and re-funding old debt, water-works ($146 million), and streets ($86 million). The chart captures the ongoing work of establishing much of the nation’s infrastructure. Other items on the list include war expenses, public buildings, parks, improving harbors, schools and libraries, bridges, sewers, fire departments, and cemeteries.

These are just a few of the visualizations contained in the full atlas, which can be viewed in full online across 260 images.

One Comment

  1. james armstrong
    December 25, 2022 at 8:18 am

    An excellent introduction to this innovative work.

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