Trying to make census of the century

Four trends that shaped America since 1900, by the numbers

Nation on the move

Few characteristics define Americans as much as their mobility - socioeconomic, cultural, but also geographical: literally traversing land and oceans.


A shift toward Sun Belt and suburbs has left three former top-10 cities in the dust - actually losing population. St. Louis (No. 4 in 1900 with 575,000 people) is now 47th with 352,000 people. Boston (No. 5 then) fell to No. 20 with population dropping slightly to 558,000. And Buffalo (then No. 8 with 362,000 residents) is now No. 54 with 311,000 people.

CONTINENTAL SHIFT - In the century's first decade, 8 million Europeans came to America, making up 92 percent of US immigration. From 1991 to 1997, 5.4 million Asians and Latin Americans made up 78 percent of immigrants.

BEEFING UP - Nevada now has 39 times the population it had in 1900, topping the state growth list. California, Texas, and Florida also boomed.

THE WRIGHT STUFF - Two people, Orville and Wilbur Wright, flew 120 feet on Dec. 17, 1903. Commercial airlines carried 19 million passengers in 1950 and 614 million last year.

Woman's world

Expanding opportunity for women is one of the century's farthest-reaching trends, altering politics, work, and family life.

Changes have been driven by many factors: birth control, feminism, and the rise of an urban, service-oriented economy, among others.

2.6 IS ENOUGH - In 1900, the average household size was 4.76 people. That's dropped to 2.6 today.

NO GIRLS ALLOWED - Of the 13.9 million people who voted in 1900, none were women. A constitutional amendment in 1920 granted women the vote.In 1998 they voted in greater numbers than men did (42.4 percent of eligible women versus 41.4 percent for men).


Employment rates soared from 28.5 percent of women in 1955 to 61 percent in 1998. That helps explain a food-budget shift: In 1955 Americans spent 19 percent of their food budget away from home. In 1997 it was 38 percent.

Productive prowess

Innovations from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, coupled with a "new, improved" brand of marketing, have fueled rapid economic growth. Service industries have multiplied even as farms and steel mills renew themselves.


Well, not quite. But clean-air laws have helped push emissions of sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds to two-thirds their 1970 levels, even as economic output has more than doubled.


Federal spending was

3 percent of the nation's economic output in 1929, and 20 percent this year.

NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE - In 1900, 60 percent of the population was in rural areas and America had 5.7 million farms, versus 2.2 million today. But land under the plow has expanded a bit as average farm size grew from 147 acres in 1900 to 435 acres today.

STOCKING UP - The 30-stock Dow Jones Industrial Average rocketed from 72 at the end of 1920 to about 11000 this month.

OLD SCHOOL - The work force is increasingly educated. In 1899, only 6.4 percent of 17-year-olds finished high school. The graduation rate climbed steadily to hit 76.4 percent in 1965. It has since fallen to 69 percent.

LEANER FOOD BUDGETS - Comestibles ate up 24 percent of disposable income in 1929, versus 11 percent today. The average American eats twice as much poultry as in 1970 but less red meat.

COMMUNICADO - In 1920, being "online" meant having a phone, and only 1 in 3 homes had one. Today, about 1 in 3 households has Internet access.


In 1950, median family income was $3,157 for whites, $1,614 for blacks. Now it's $46,754 for whites, $28,602 for blacks.

What war wrought

World War II stands as a great mid- century divide, separating an era of trench warfare and isolationism from the age of the A-bomb and United Nations.



In 1940, with war spreading across Europe and Asia, the US spent only 1.7 percent of economic output on defense. That rose to 38 percent in 1944. Today defense takes 3.2 percent.

A COLLEGE TRY - Thanks in part to the GI Bill for returning soldiers, college BA degrees soared to 382,000 in 1950 (up from 143,000 in 1935). Last year, graduations totaled almost 1.2 million.

GRAB A HAMMER - In 1946, for the first time ever, builders broke ground on more than 1 million new homes.


(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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