A 20th century portrait of US - by the numbers

One hundred years ago, the United States had about one-quarter the population it does now. Citizens were much less educated, and more likely to be men. Toledo, Ohio, was bigger than Los Angeles.

There were no televisions, no radios, no Pokmon cards, no ship-size SUVs. communications still meant the telegraph.

It wasn't just a simpler time. As outlined in the US Census Bureau's new 1999 Statistical Abstract, it was the other side of the moon.

"To date, the 20th century has to be the most dynamic in our history, and these statistics paint a picture of rapid and massive change," says Census Bureau director Kenneth Prewitt.

Take the US population itself. In 1900, about 76 million people resided in the country. The post-World War II baby-boomer generation is bigger than that, all by itself. Today, there are 77 million Americans between the ages of 35 and 54. The nation's total population is 270 million - almost four times larger than it was 100 years ago.

And women constitute a larger percentage of that population. In 1900, about 51 percent of US residents were male and 49 percent female. In 1998 that split has been almost exactly reversed, with women gaining the 51 percent upper hand.

The change did not occur because women are better suited than men to the stresses of Information Age. They may be - but what has really happened over the past 100 years is a change in where US residents are born.

At the turn of the 19th century, immigrants were flooding into America from Italy, Ireland, and other Old World countries.

"Most immigrants were men," notes Census Bureau statistician Lars Johanson. They were young and single, or left their families behind.

Immigration - primarily from Asia and Latin America - is still significant today, and still predominantly male. But it does not account for as much of the population.

Working women

The march of married women into the workforce is another powerful social trend that has been long at work in the United States. It is not just a phenomenon of the postwar years, as the statistical abstract makes clear.

In 1900, there were only 769,000 married women in the civilian labor force. By 1950, there were 8.6 million. Today, there are 34 million - meaning that more than 60 percent of married women work outside the home.

Women's' educational attainment has risen along with their work experience. In 1940 - the earliest year the Census Bureau measured - only 3.7 percent of women had completed four years of college. Some 12.2 percent had fewer than five years of elementary school.

By 1998, more than 22 percent of women had undergraduate college degrees, and only 1.6 percent had not finished elementary school.

Men received somewhat more schooling than women in 1900, and still do today. Their four-year college rate is 26.5 percent.

That Americans have moved westward and southward over the century is not news, but the explosive extent of that migration comes across clearly in census figures.

Consider California. In 1900, its population was comparable to that of Arkansas, or Alabama. The only California city bigger than Toledo was San Francisco, then the ninth largest metropolis. Los Angeles was 36th, just behind Omaha, Neb., and ahead of Memphis, Tenn.

San Diego and San Jose were barely more than mission outposts. Yet today, they - along with L.A. and San Francisco - are among the 15 largest cities.

In 1900, New Bedford, Mass; Utica, N.Y.; and Wilkes-Barre, Pa., were among the 75 largest cities in the nation. None makes that list today. Their places have been taken by Sun Belt cities - Mesa, Ariz.; Tampa, Fla.; and Baton Rouge, La. Transportation (and air conditioning) made the rise of the Sun Belt possible.

At the turn of the last century, powered flight had not yet been achieved: the Wright Brothers took wing at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903. Intercity movement in the heartland was by train.

Just 8,000 cars

The Model T was in the future. In fact, cars barely existed. There were only 8,000 in the country, according to the Census Bureau.

Oddly, driving was much more dangerous than it is today. There were 36 highway fatalities in 1900 - a rate of 36 for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

Today there are more than 130 million passenger vehicles in the US. But the fatality rate for every 100 million miles driven is only 1.64. It was 10 times greater than that as recently as 1945.

The number of households with phones and radios wasn't even measured in 1900. The phone question was first asked in 1920, when 35 percent of households had phone service. Radio ownership was first surveyed in 1930, when 4 in 10 households had one. The radio question isn't asked anymore - everyone has one, statistically speaking.

Family income

That America is richer today almost goes without saying. In 1900, the average individual was a family farmer - there were more than 5.7 million farms in the country.

Today there are only 2.2 million farms, though more of the nation's land is actually under agricultural production now than it was back then.

Median family income was $20,102 in 1947, the earliest year for which data were available. Measured in constant dollars, the figure is more than $44,000 today, meaning Americans have doubled their purchasing power in the last 50 years alone.

The stock market went up even more, the Depression and other crashes notwithstanding. In 1900, the Standard & Poor's 500 index stood at 6.2. By 1998, it was 1,085.

And talk about small government. In 1900 Uncle Sam took in only $567 million in tax receipts, about enough to pay for a jet fighter plane or two today.

In 1999, the US government took in $1.7 trillion in taxes.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.