Urban Migration was the Tip of the Iceberg

“Men in Motion: Some Data and Speculations about Urban Population Mobility in Nineteenth- Century America”
Stephan Thernstrom and Peter R. Knights, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1970)

Thernstrom (UCLA, later Harvard) and Knights (Illinois, later York) agree with
Joseph C. G. Kennedy, one of the leading statisticians of the nineteenth century and the Superintendent of the Census, that “the roving tendency of our people” is given too little attention by historians (7, quoting "Report of the Superintendent of the Census," 1852). Rural mobility, they say, has been studied by Malin (1935), Curti 1959, and Coleman 1962. But the point they make about urban population change may apply equally to rural populations, and to movement between city and countryside. Recorded “net population changes from census to census,” they say, “though often dramatic, pale into insignificance by comparison with the actual gross volume of in and out movement.” (10) “Even in the most stable small or medium size community which has yet been examined approximately half of the population was transient within a relatively brief span of years.” (11)

So even in places where dramatic growth is noticed, the real story may be more about movement patterns that aren't captured by the net numbers reported every ten years. To illustrate their point, the authors examined Boston documents to dig beneath the apparent fact that “the proportion of the city’s 1890 residents who had moved into Boston in the preceding decade [when the city’s population rose from 363,000 to 448,000] was...fully one third.” At first glance, the increase in population might be attributed to births and immigration exceeding deaths. In fact, they say, because people were constantly leaving the city throughout the decade, “Nearly 800,000 people moved into Boston between 1880 and 1890 to produce the net migration increase of 65,179.” (17) The turnover of the Boston population means that just about 700,000 people left the city in ten years. (18) The interesting point, for me, is that these 700.000 people all went somewhere.


The 1880s were not unique in this regard, the authors continue. Between 1830 and 1890, when population increased from 61,000 to 448,000, “the number of migrants entering Boston...was an amazing 3,325,000, eight and a half times the net population increase.” (22) Again, that means nearly three million people left Boston and went someplace else. Where did they go, and when they got to that next place, did they settle down and stop moving about? There’s apparently no reason to suppose they did.

“Returning to the same dwelling after the passage of only 365 days, the city directory canvasser had less than a fifty-fifty chance of finding its former inhabitants living there,” the authors say. Of course people who owned businesses and real estate, were much more persistent than the poor. So the rich, in a sense weighed down by their possessions, tended to become less mobile. Thernstrom and Knights even speculate that the transience they've uncovered might be even higher than they can measure, because many poor workers may not have stayed long enough to be counted. Poor people also tend to have more reasons to deliberately evade census canvassers.

A political consequence of short tenancy was disenfranchisement. This may have led, the authors speculate, to a widespread feeling of alienation from the political process and a corresponding inability to organize effective dissident organizations. It may also have contributed to the growth of regional voluntary organizations (possibly even the Knights of Labor) that could offer people some continuity in spite of their movements. Bruce Laurie mentions Thernstrom several times in
Artisans into Workers, but the extreme mobility of poor people and unskilled workers probably doesn’t impact his story of the skilled tradesmen unionized by the A.F. of L. as much as it would a story of unskilled factory workers or migrant farm hands. It might help explain the “ruralization” of the Knights of Labor Laurie notes, though.

If accurate (which it certainly seems to be), the existence of a high-mobility “floating proletariat” (31) challenges Robert Wiebe’s image of “a nation of loosely connected islands,” (32, quoting Search for Order) because these invisible migrants would have been moving constantly between these islands. Or, more interesting to me, between the urban islands and the rural sea. Taking ideas and attitudes with them as they travelled from place to place. This hidden migration could have huge implications for popular culture. It could also support the idea that's been forming in my head recently, that the separation of city and country is much greater now than it was in the past, and that we tend to project the current alienation of these regions from each other back onto an era when it was less true.

Although this article made an impact, the people who've picked up this thread seem to have been mostly interested in urban populations. Howard Chudacoff paraphrased and cited it as the first note in his article, “A Reconsideration of Geographical Mobility in American Urban History,” (1994) taking Thernstrom and Knight’s thesis pretty much as proven. David Ward, writing on American ethnic ghettos in the 1982
Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, also cited this article as evidence that Irish immigrants were highly mobile. Edward Pessen cited the article in 1972 to explain why the poor did not become involved in antebellum urban politics. That's all very interesting, but I think the implications for rural history and for the interactions of city and countryside in the nineteenth century might be even more important.