The census of 1990 has been in the news lately -- if only fo bleats of triumph (from California and the Sun Belt) and groans of anguish (from big cities and Midwestern states). These are natural reactions to the gain or loss of population, from which comes more or less political power and more or less of a share in federal funds.
It was different 100 years ago. In the 1890s, your size didn't determine your share in the then-feeble federal income. Harbor and river cities, frontier states and crooked railroad promoters got the lion's share of what there was in federal funding, in the form of public works, free land and military largess.
But pride is eternal. Each major center then, as now, vied to be first.
Maryland and Baltimore could be encouraged by the results, published through 1891 and the subject of endless newspaper summaries.
"62 million of us!" trumpeted one Baltimore headline. The figure reflected a national growth rate of about 25 percent more Americans in one decade. In Maryland, the population had finally passed the one million mark. The state had almost as large a population as huge California or all of the eight states of the Mountain West. And the census showed that neighboring Virginia had only roughly half the population of the Free State. Meanwhile, Baltimore city's population of 434,000 was larger than Florida's.
The 1890 count of Baltimore's population by wards had been completed at the census office -- to a chorus of petulant complaints from the locals. The Sun complained that the feds' head count was chintzy when compared to results from an annual police house check. "The enumeration of the police gives the city 20,988 more inhabitants than that of the census bureau," the paper announced. It was a hefty difference -- one that could swing elections. Cynics might say that the local search found more people because of the thousands of "ghost voters" traditional to city elections in that day, if not in this.
Duly published was the racial makeup of each subdivision. Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties were among the leaders in black population, but well behind the total of 67,000 black residents in Baltimore, about 15 percent of the city's population. Of the state's black population of more than a quarter of a million, only 36,000 youngsters were provided with a school to attend.
Other fascinations of the census included a tidal survey. Maryland had a lush, 2,340 square miles of water, trailing such wetties as Minnesota, the land of the lakes (4,600 square miles), and Florida, land of the Everglades, (4,440 square miles), but happily ahead of Virginia (2,325 square miles).
The census taker measured Maryland at 9,860 square miles in area. Contrast that with the 1980 figure of 9,981 square miles. (Apparently, losses to shore erosion were made up by simply finding more land in 1980.)
Final census figures for 1990 will come out next year, with the usual demurs from unhappy city leaders, now disturbed by preliminary totals that report Baltimore city at 720,000 souls, about as many as at the end of World War I.
(Note: Elizabeth Jasper Weaver of Timonium has added a location to our list of the 10 most historic Baltimore locations. It is Mulberry and Cathedral streets, where the Benjamin Latrobe-designed Basilica of the Assumption was erected in the early years of the Republic. "It's the first cathedral in the United States and was commemorated with a stamp along with several other Latrobe architectural feats," she writes, adding that the cathedral was the scene of the wedding of Baltimore's Betsy Patterson to Jerome Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon I of France.)