Infographic of the Day: What the Census Said About Us…in 1870

As these stunning charts reveal, we were a young country and our government was just a shadow of its present form.

1870 Census

Maybe you noticed all those TV commercials for the U.S. Census? And maybe you’ve already gotten your Census survey in the mail? Yup, it’s that time again. The Census Bureau has spent $333 million marketing the census, because the picture that emerges from the 2010 Census will shape the country for a decade–deciding how congressional seats are apportioned and how federal dollars are distributed. It gets pretty complicated.

So let’s instead hit rewind, and check out what the country looked at when it was much younger. Radical Cartography recently dug up dozens of maps from the 1870 Census Atlas. They’re gorgeous–and they reveal much about what set the country on its path to greatness–and what created our modern government. You’ll have to click here to see the full-size versions, but we pulled out a few telling details.

As you can guess, the country was overwhelmingly young, comprised of children and working adults. This graph shows age distribution by state. Young are at the bottom of each graph; old at the top; left is male, right is female, and the shading tells you which is larger:

1870 Census

And one of the reasons we were so young was immigration–which just as now was key in providing the country with a growing portion of young workers. In this graph, tan shows foreign-born immigrants; gray shows African-Americans, and the pinks show native-born Americans:

1870 Census

But even those native-born Americans were likely the offspring of recent immigrants. This map shows the distribution of first-generation American citizens–the darker the color, the older the population. You can see that first-gen Americans were largely middle aged:

1870 Census

The government, meanwhile, hadn’t quite grown into a truly mature institution–the only thing it really paid for was war. Here’s a key to the graph below, which shows what the government was spending on:

1870 Census

As you can see, the greatest expenditures went to the army–and serving the massive amounts of debt accrued during the Civil War:

1870 Census

As other graphs in the series show, before the Civil War, there was almost no tax collecting in the U.S–we raised our revenue from customs duties. But the Civil War changed that in two ways: The massive debt it left us with necessitated new taxes; moreover, in the decades that came, the pensions awarded to veterans was the birth of a modern government, that provided social services in addition to war funding.

A historical note about the stunning atlas that these charts come from: As Flowing Data points out, the U.S. only created Census atlases from 1870-1920, but their heyday on beauty was in the beginning. By the 1900’s, they weren’t a labor of love, and they were in black and white. For the 2000 Census, the Bureau finally undertook an atlas once again. As you can see, it’s information rich–and also ugly as sin. The days when you had to be artist with a light hand to be a cartographer are way behind us.

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.



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