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

Synopsis: Thernstrom (UCLA, later Harvard) and Knights (Illinois, later York) agree with Joseph Kennedy, the Superintendent of the 1852 Census, that “the roving tendency of our people” is given too little attention by historians (7,
quoting this). Rural mobility, they say, has been done by Malin 1935, Curti 1959, and Coleman 1962. But the point they make about urban population change may apply equally to rural. 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)

To illustrate their point, the authors examined Boston documents to find “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.” In fact, they say, because people were constantly leaving the city, “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) These people all went somewhere.

The 1880s were not unique in this regard. 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 there, did they 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 the rich, who owned businesses and real estate, were much more persistent than the poor. Thernstrom and Knights even speculate that transience might be higher than they can measure, because many poor workers may not have stayed long enough to be counted.

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 (and even the Knights of Labor) that could offer people some continuity in spite of their movements. Bruce Laurie mentions Thernstrom several times in
Artisans to Workers, but the extreme mobility of poor people and unskilled workers doesn’t really impact his story of the skilled tradesmen unionized by the AF of L. It might help explain the “ruralization” of the K of L, though...

If true, this high-mobility “floating proletariat” (31) challenges Robert Wiebe’s image of “a nation of loosely connected islands,” (32, quoting
Search for Order) because they would have been moving constantly between these islands. Or (gasp!) between the urban islands and the rural sea. Taking ideas and attitudes with them as they travelled from place to place. This could have huge implications for popular culture...

Mentioned by:

Howard Chudacoff (Brown) paraphrases and cites as first note in his article, “A Reconsideration of Geographical Mobility in American Urban History,” (1994) taking Thernstrom’s thesis pretty much as proven. David Ward, writing on American ethnic ghettos in the 1982
Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, also cites this article as proof that Irish immigrants were highly mobile. Edward Pessen cites the article in 1972 to explain why the poor did not become involved in antebellum urban politics.