Ed Glaeser is always worth reading, and his review of a new book about Boston making the point that the city is less exceptional than the author seems to think is excellent:
Puleo marvels at the enormous expansion that Boston experienced after the Civil War, but all of America’s largest cities in 1860 experienced extraordinary growth in this period [i.e., 1850 to 1900]. New Orleans, which grew the least, expanded by 129 percent. Boston’s population growth rate of 320 percent seems spectacular, except when it is compared with the faster growth rates of New York, St. Louis, Buffalo, Chicago and Brooklyn. Why did all of these urban areas expand so dramatically in the nineteenth century?
One reason for this dramatic urban growth is that America’s cities were the nodes of a great transport network that tied together an entire continent. The wealth of the American hinterland was made accessible to the tables of the east coast and Europe because of huge investments in canals and rail. In Boston, as in New York and Chicago, rail lines were laid near to older waterways, and increased the city’s dominance over transportation in New England. Manufacturing, freed from large rivers like the Merrimac by improvements in engine technology, could move to cities and take advantage of this growing transportation network.
To go even bigger picture than Glaeser, the thing about this period is just that the country as a whole experienced very rapid population growth. In 1850 there were 23 million Americans (136,881 of them in Boston) and by 1900 there were 76 million, of whom 560,892 lived in Boston. We normally think of this as a period when “the west” was settled by farmers, but there was huge growth in the older cities as well. One key thing is that at that point American public policy wanted to grow. Immigrants were welcome largely without restriction, and the main barriers to denser residential construction were technological. Under the circumstances, people could and did flock to the places where their efforts were most valuable.