"The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct." U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 2.
And so the Constitution set out the rule that we'd have a census. Of course, the reason this provision is in Article I, Section 2 is because that is the part of the document that considers the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives. The census has evolved over time into much more than that, as you can easily discover for yourself if you play around on the Census Bureau's website: http://www.census.gov/.
In doing a bit of research pertinent to another article I'll post soon, I pulled up the census report from 1950. I was looking for a ranking of states according to their population in an initial effort to discover just what percentage of Americans lived in states with segregated public schools in the last census before the Supreme Court said in Brown v. Board of Education that such educational policies were unconstitutional. And that's when I got a bit of a surprise.
Table 11 on page 1-14 of the 1950 report ranks the states in 1950 and in the previous censuses going back to 1900. Here, from number one through number ten, are the largest states in 1910 by population:
1. New York
Now look at the top ten states by population in the 2000 census, ninety years later:
3. New York
10. North Carolina
Interesting. All the top five states in 1910 are still in the top ten. Furthermore, seven of the states that were on the list generated a few years after Wilbur and Orville Wright flew were still in the top ten almost a century later when thanks to the Wright Brothers you can travel from New York to California in a couple of hours. Moreover, the three states that fell from the 1910 list haven't descended far: Massachusetts now ranks 13th, Indiana 15th, and Missouri 18th.
It's also worth noting that two of the three current top ten states that didn't make the 1910 list were nevertheless not far from those heights back then: California was the 12th largest state and North Carolina checked in at number 16. For all the talk about how the population shifted in this country in the twentieth century, there hasn't been as much variance in where the states rank as you might have expected. In other words, Illinois is still big, Montana is still not.
With exceptions, of course. The one state that's just way out in left field on these charts is Florida. It ranked 33rd just before World War I and was STILL only number 20 in 1950. In 2000, the Sunshine State was larger than all but three other states with a population of nearly sixteen million people. In 1910 it had the absurdly low total of 752, 619 humans. (Maybe there were more alligators.) To put that in perspective: let's say that there was a county in Florida today that had the same population as the entire state had in 1910. We'll call this fictional unit "Gore County." Well, Gore would rank eighth in population among today's Florida counties, with about a third the number of individuals of Miami-Dade.
I have to admit as somone living in Georgia that I never would have guessed we were in the top ten a hundred years ago. It didn't last; in 1930 Georgia was down to 14, but that's still a big state, and gradually we climbed back. The point is, you hear a lot about how much Georgia in general and the Atlanta metro in particular have grown the past few decades, and it's true, we have--but on the other hand, unlike Florida, Georgia wasn't a tiny state in Woodrow Wilson's America.
So what state is the opposite of Florida? What state was once among the big boys and is now kind of puny?
You know how when the presidential election process began this year, as in the past, the pundits--depending on their view--either praised or sneered that the first state to weigh in is a small one, Iowa?
Well in 1900 Iowa--yes, Iowa--was the tenth largest state in the land. And it's dropped like a stone ever since, down to number 22 by 1950 and falling to number 30 by 2000. (The other small state that starts us on the presidential race, New Hampshire, has been small all along--in 2000 they ranked 41, exactly where they were in 1920.)
Do you know why Iowa and New Hampshire are small? There's no punchline; it's a serious question. And let me answer it. Iowa could be the tenth largest state in 1900 and it can't be today for a reason that matters now but didn't then: there's no big city. A state could be big without having a huge town back in the days when this was a more rural country; it doesn't work like that today. Take a look at every one of the twenty states from Iowa on down and see how few big cities are in those states. Even the few you might argue are good sized towns--Las Vegas, Honolulu, Providence--aren't exactly New York, Los Angeles, or Atlanta.