A Globe reporter in 1900 asked the city’s top minds what the year 2000 would look like in the city. Some things they got right, others they got wrong. One prediction was that the city’s population would soar to more than 5.2 million. It never did. It’s enough to make you question how much we really know today about our own future. This is the second in a series of looks at the article.
Globe reporter Thomas F. Anderson’s assignment for his Christmas Day 1900 story was sweeping: Consult with the best experts and sketch out a vision of what Boston would look like a hundred years hence.
After a preamble introducing his themes, he kicked off his article, “Boston at the End of the 20th Century — “A Glimpse Into the Distant Future, and What It Reveals to the Local Prophets.” He relied on the best expert he could find — and what he thought were solid numbers — to estimate the future population of the city.
Things quickly went sideways. He estimated that the city’s population would be 5.2 million in 2000. That’s a massive statistical fail; it’s seven-plus times more than today’s actual population of more than 685,000.
But historians say it was understandable given the times.
Here’s what he wrote:
One of the most fascinating questions is that relating to the city’s probable increase in population and in this matter we have something more than the mere human imagination to aid us.
It so happens that the city of Boston itself has a department of municipal statistics, wherein, if you give them any tangible basis whatsoever to work upon, they can furnish you any statistical information bearing upon the future that you may desire.
To Dr. Edward M. Hartwell, secretary of this department, The Globe is indebted for a computation from which it appears that the population of Boston is likely to have increased to more than 5,000,000, by the year 2000.
This population is estimated on the rate of increase of the last 20 years, and on the same basis (the population according to the census of 1900 being 560,892), the figures for consecutive 10-year periods will probably be as follows. . .
Anderson then cites a series of population figures that appear to reflect an approximately 25 percent increase in population per decade for 100 years. The numbers culminate in the number 5,251,330.
If the population of Boston itself stands at this astounding figure 100 years from now, it is safe to assume that what will then be greater Boston in fact as well as in name will have combined population of not less than 8,000,000, making it almost as large as two Londons.
It’s not clear what Anderson thought of as greater Boston. But the population of the entire state is only estimated to be about 6.9 million now.
Anderson and Hartwell had just seen the population of the city explode by 54 percent from 1880 to 1900, according to the US Census. So it’s little wonder they saw strong growth ahead. But history would take a different path than they expected.
“The new century brought with it generous projections from urban boosters, not only in Boston, but in numerous other cities, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest,” said David Goldfield, a professor at University of North Carolina Charlotte who is an expert on the history of American cities, as well as the American South and the Civil War. “Boosters at the turn of the 20th century fastened on population growth as a symbol of progress — not only for the pride involved, but also for drawing investment.”
The cities were “in the midst of two unprecedented events in American history. The first was the arrival of millions of immigrants from Europe and Asia — 14 million in all between 1890 and 1914. This influx ratcheted up the population of the nation and, especially, of the cities in these regions,” Goldfield said in an e-mail.
“The second event, closely related to the first, was the Industrial Revolution, which accelerated in the last two decades of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century,” he said.
“The new industries required huge workforces, many of whom were immigrants,” he said.
However, he said, “As we know, economic depression, the transformation of the industrial economy, two world wars, and immigration restriction legislation brought down the population surge in the Northeast and Midwest. Extrapolation ran into reality.”
Marilynn Johnson, a Boston College professor who is an expert on urban history and on the history of immigration to Boston, said Globe reporter Anderson appeared to be “an incorrigible optimist.”
“Presumably, this rapid influx [foreseen by Anderson] was a continuation of what was already happening, as the 1890s-1913 were the peak years of US immigration. Obviously, Anderson is no restrictionist — even at a time when groups like Boston’s Immigration Restriction League were busy lobbying for that,” Johnson said in an e-mail.
“He seems to assume that immigrants will be needed to propel the rapidly expanding economy and commerce of the city,” she said. “An optimistic economic view would have been warranted in 1900, given that the depression of the 1890s was now over and a boom period building on the Spanish American War and America’s new colonial expansion had begun. The textile and shoe industries were flourishing, absorbing new workers as fast as they came in.”
“But Anderson had no way of knowing that the textile boom would sour as production began to move south in the 1920s and that the Depression would be the beginning of a long downward slide,” she said.
Rosemarie McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.