St. Louis and the 1880 Census

by Michael R. Allen

Today’s release of the 2010 United States Census figures brings the bad news that St. Louis now officially has 319,294 residents. St. Louis has lost nearly eight percent of its official 2000 population of 348,189 people. The bad news factor has been amplified, of course, by the last few years’ worth of estimated Census counts that suggested today would bring confirmation of city population growth. Pundits and politicians now are revving up the engine of forecast, with perfect hindsight vision.

This writer has not reviewed enough of the data to make any pronouncements about what this means, but still has an observation to offer. St. Louis now has its lowest population since 1870, when the Census showed 310,864 residents. This was a 93% increase since 1860, when the city had 190,524 residents and was the nation’s eighth largest city. (Only New York and Philadelphia then had populations of more than 500,000 people.) Despite the ravages of the Civil War, the next decade showed continued explosive growth albeit at a slower pace than the previous ten years. In 1850, St. Louis had 77,860 residents, so the 1860 Census count represented an increase of over 106.5% increase. The prior two decades registered increases of 230% and 372% respectively. But those increases were made before St. Louis could rightly be called a city.

What happened in the next decade showed a continuation of impressive and explosive development in St. Louis. The city dedicated one of the nation’s largest parks, Forest Park, as well as O’Fallon and Carondelet Parks. Established parks including Lafayette Square and St. Louis Place received their first extensive improvements, making them as beautiful as any in the United States. Great breweries, factories and grain elevators rose all over the riverfront and industrial districts. The city’s first bridge over the Mississippi was opened in 1874, connected within a year by a massive double-arched tunnel to the railyards south of downtown and the new Union Depot. In 1875 the Merchants’ Exchange completed a massive, elegant new building at Third and Chestnut streets designed by Lee & Annan and containing a magnificent trading hall. Construction began in 1872 on a massive new post office and federal building designed by Alfred B. Mullet at Eighth and Olive streets. Tall office buildings, including George I. Barnett’s St. Louis Life Insurance Building of 1874 at Sixth and Locust streets, rose around downtown. Major churches in the Gothic Revival style rose around the city. Vandeventer Place was developed. New houses large and small went up everywhere, and additions were made to the city with great rapidity. In 1876, the city of st. Louis extended its physical boundary to the present limits, and many subdivisions made outside of the 1855 boundary started developing.

St. Louis in the 1870s was alive with the magnetic aura of purpose and grandeur. When the Census of 1880 was released, the population was recorded at 350,518, an increase of only 12.8% over 1870. The city fell from fourth to sixth largest in the United States. Did that number rouse boosters to issue warnings of impending decline or loss of position? Not at all. City leaders and even national observers continued to praise the mercantile prowess and architectural beauty of St. Louis. In 1884, William Bishop wrote Harper’s New Monthly Magazine that St. Louis could envision a glorious future as the center of the Mississippi Valley. Of course the city’s highest achievements were still ahead, and by 1900 it was again the fourth largest city in the nation. Still the 1880 Census indicated that national migration was trending away from St. Louis and other cities of the northeast and Midwest. Yet the city leaders of St. Louis pushed forward, regaining position, building population, changing the city charter, and — most importantly — making the city a better place through physical improvement and economic development. Surely in 2011 these remain options for St. Louis.

9 replies on “St. Louis and the 1880 Census”

Disheartening, indeed. I hope though that these numbers don’t detract from the great progress made in the last ten years. When will neighborhood-by-neighborhood data be disseminated? I’d be interested to see where the loss (and growth) occurred.

And folks continue to FIGHT against development. I am saddended and ticked off!!! Newsflash people, folks, even middle class folks are NOT going to dump good money after bad if they don’t know the direction a neighborhood is going in! They already know the direction of the school system! Your home is your largest investment!!!

Maybe now folks will stop fighting much, now desperately needed development. The longer the fight ensues, the more buildings deterioate as they lay vacant. We have to think reasonably and not emotionally. Folks keep talking about gentrification, truly you jest. As an African American, the dirty little secret is not all the folks who left were white folks. This is the 21st century. EVERYBODY wants their kid to go to a decent school, folks want to live in an area where crime is not off the chain and their kids can play on the front, preferably in their own back yards and most important we all deserve a good quality of life. Folks who left are living in areas that are DIVERSE!!!

These figures are telling, it is no longer the simple black and white of it, its the pursuit of happiness and living in peaceful surrounding. Denial is deadly to the city of St. Louis.

Folks do not want to live in neighborhoods that are not diverse. Folks do not want to live in neighborhoods where drive bys are the rule, way of life vs the exception. Folks do not want to live in areas where instead of stacking all low to moderate income people on top of one another, you simply spread them out and concentrate them in various areas. We need a development strategy that is diverse. Last time I checked folks weren’t fighting to live in north St. Louis, where there is no strategic plan outside of some ward plans (although the best one I have seen has been April Ford Griffin 5th Ward plan, excellent, in writing and worked out) , they are fighting to get our of north St. Louis. Others reconsider coming in as they see folks fighting what is needed, tangible development where they know the tide is moving upward!

Time to throw the what came first, the chicken or the egg syndrome out the window. We have to many chickens that have already run from St. Louis and I can’t pretty much blame them! All development is needed, top down, bottom up and individual. The blind can not lead the blind, lest they all fall in a ditch!!! Time to stop emotionalizing the issue and work with hard core facts. WORD!

I’ve read you post. Great.

But what can you take as a silver lining from the census news?


A problem here is that the 1870 Census was full of errors; learn more about this and other key factors about how Reconstruction shaped St. Louis in my new book The Great of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War (Harvard University Press, 2011).

Adam, I have been meaning to get a copy of your book. Thanks for pointing out the questions about the 1870 Census. Without divulging too much from your book, can you tell us how far off the 1870 Census was for St. Louis?

James Neal Primm says on page 272 of my edition of Lion of the Valley,

“The federal census takers in St. Louis in 1870, Grant administration appointees who owed their jobs to William McKee of the Missouri Democrat [Daron’s note:  Whiskey Ring McKee], carefully withheld their returns until Chicago’s figures had been released.  … the Mound City’s population had doubled to 310,000, leaving Baltimore and Boston in its dust as it became the nation’s fourth largest city, behind New York, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn.  The Chicago papers furiously cried fraud, as indeed it was, but the Census Bureau held its ground…. What a nasty shock it was in 1880, after a decade of apparent substantial growth including vastly extended boundaries, to discover that the city had gained only 40,000 people, for a total of 350,000, while Chicago had shot ahead to a half-million….In any case, the exaggerated totals stand, without a footnote, relentlessly spawning erroneous scholarly conclusions.”

It’s interesting that this blog post was picked up by the post dispatch and that Primm’s words proved true again.  :) 
As a side note, The Great Heart of the Republic has done a fantastic service for St. Louis history from what I have heard.

Another interesting thing about the 1880 census (which I’m contending with now for a thesis project) is that there were two enumerations.  The first one, done on June 9th was rejected in August not only because of errors, but outright padding; I’ve run across duplications of whole families put three houses down.  As you point out, there was stiff competition with Chicago for not just bragging rights, but investment.  A new enumeration was run on November 13th, and comparing the two can be more than a little enlightening as well as frustrating.  In some cases, it’s just families moving in and out, in other cases, they even list deaths.  On interesting family I ran into was a widower and his 9-tear-old son.  The widower was listed as being a painter in June, with his son being housed in an “orphan asylum”; clearly the man could not take care of the child.  The November census elaborates on exactly why:  the man is dead of “consumption” (tuberculosis), while his son is no longer listed at the address.

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