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1890 Census Map: A Window Into our Incredibly Crowded and Diverse Immigrant Past

As a historian and researcher who frequently relies on census data for information, nothing frustrates me more than the fact that nearly all of the 1890 Federal Census records were lost. For those who don’t know the story, the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire in 1921 in the basement of the Department of Commerce building in Washington, D.C.  The source of the fire was never determined, but it resulted in the loss of priceless information on the United States population at a critical moment in our nation’s history, when immigration, especially in New York, was reaching unprecedented heights. The one upside of this tragedy was that it provided the catalyst for the creation of our National Archives.

Mulberry Street, NYC ca. 1900 by Jacob Riis. Courtesy of The Library of Congress


Basement of the Department of Commerce Building after the fire in 1921. Courtesy of The National Archives.

Fortunately for those interested in New York population data and history, there is a workaround! Well before the demise of this documentation, Frank E. Pierce and the 1894 Tenement House Committee (also known as the Gilder Committee after the Committee’s chair, Richard Watson Gilder) placed data based upon the information from the 1890 census on a map of Manhattan which they created to illustrate the need for housing reform in New York City.  While it made this argument well, it also preserved an otherwise unattainable window into the population patterns of Manhattan at the time of the 1890 census.

Interestingly, the map’s origins have nothing to do with census data.  In the winter of 1893/94, the East Side Relief Work Committee (ESRWC) hired workers to clean out and whitewash tenement house cellars, alleyways, air shafts, and living rooms.  The ESRWC had been formed earlier that year by prominent New York City philanthropists, churches, synagogues and charitable organizations seeking to provide work to those who had lost their jobs during the deep national depression which struck that year. ESRWC formulated a plan and raised funds to get men jobs cleaning the streets of New York.  By the end of November, the Committee arranged for the participating charities, unions, churches and settlement houses to distribute “work tickets,” entitling each bearer to one hour’s work per day sweeping the streets. By late December, the ESRWC had employed “about 150 men in cleaning streets.”

One element of the cleanup involved the removal of thousands of barrels of trash as well as decomposing dead animals and spoiled food. ESRWC also generated a report documenting the conditions they found, and succeeded in lobbying the New York State Legislature to authorize the Governor to appoint a Tenement House Committee to do something about them. Jacob Riis served as the unofficial advisor to the Committee, and among his recommendations to the Committee was the creation of a map documenting population density and the nationalities of Manhattan’s neighborhoods in Manhattan.

The Tenement House Committee Maps. Courtesy of The Library of Congress


1890 Nationality Map key

The maps shown above is the result, and one of the most useful records of the largely lost data from the 1890 census.  The top map illustrates population density in 1890 with the darkest shading representing the most densely populated areas. The densities on the Lower East Side, including today’s East Village, were the greatest anywhere in the city.  Perhaps most strikingly, the single densest precinct, which straddles Houston Street from 2nd to Rivington Street, between the numbers 11 and 13 on the map, and which includes parts of today’s East Village as well as areas south of Houston Street, is shown with a density of between 900 and 1000 residents per acre.

For those who can’t visualize an acre, it’s about 43,500 square feet, and there are exactly 640 of them in a square mile; a typical Manhattan block is about 5 acres.  Looking at it another way, today New York City with its record high population of 8.55 million has a population density of about 43 people per acre.  That makes the population density of this precinct in 1890 more than twenty times as great as New York City’s today.  Even when compared to today’s East Village and Lower East Side with approximately one hundred fifty people per acre, which is considerably denser than New York City as a whole, that precinct was still about six and a half times as densely populated (and that density increased considerably for the next two or more decades before finally declining due to slum clearance, urban renewal, street widenings, and construction of the subways and the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges, which both allowed overcrowded Lower East Side residents to move farther out to less crowded areas and resulted, with their construction, in the demolition of scores of buildings to accommodate their approaches, foundations, and towers).

The lower map is no less fascinating. It illustrates ethnic makeup of different areas in Manhattan. As you can see, in 1890, Germans and Irish still dominate, with “Natives” (meaning native-born Americans) close behind.  You can however see a signficiant concentration of “Negroes” still to be found in what is today the South Village, in what was then known as “Little Africa.”  By the 1920s that community would disappear, and the Germans and Irish would be overtaken by Italians and Jews (represented on the map by “Russians and Poles,” “Hungarians,” and to a lesser extent “Germans”) as the most numerous immigrant group in Manhattan.  To view these maps in more detail, go to The Library of Congress website, click HERE.

The maps were published in Harper’s Weekly along with an article by Frank Pierce in which he explained the approach to the Nationality Map. The nationality of the residents was determined by descent from the mother. He explained that this was appropriate since “at the time of the census over seventy-six per cent of the whole population had foreign-born mothers and over forty percent were foreign-born themselves.” Within each area depicted, only those nationalities were represented which made up two-thirds of the population so that within each district usually two and sometimes three nationalities were shown. The width of the bands spoke to the proportion of the population of each group within each area. Obviously this approach provided for a more dramatic depiction of the immigrant communities in areas such as the East Village, Lower East Side and South Village. Pierce explained that not all groups were represented: “The Scotch, English, Welsh, Scandinavian, and Canadians have not collected in colonies, but are scattered over the city. These being in small numbers, and perhaps less foreign than the others, were disregarded. They appear in the unclassified in the diagram at the foot of the map.”

The maps were also included in a 600 page report published by the 1894 Tenement House Committee which detailed the city’s housing issues and made recommendations regarding the condemnation of unfit housing, improved construction, fire safety, prevention of overcrowding, enforcement, inspections, etc. The Committee wrote legislation which it submitted to the New York State Legislature based on its recommendations. In May of 1895 Gilder made a public announcement that all of its legislation had been enacted.

While the 1890 maps do not provide the same complete information that the 1890 census would have, the do provide a window into the shifting ethnic kaleidoscope that was Manhattan, and especially the Village and East Village at the time, and the almost unimaginably crowded conditions that people lived under in these areas.

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