Statisticians, Industrialists, and the Mapping of Metropolitan Space

By the dawn of the twentieth century in the United States, urbanization had spilled over the formal limits of large cities, spawning suburban municipalities and even “satellite” cities caught in the economic orbit of their urban core. Concurrently, factories migrated away from central cities and located in outlying areas as manufacturers sought to dodge taxes and sanitary regulations despite relying on the infrastructure and labor markets of their anchor cities. My paper examines the United States Census Bureau’s first attempts to quantify and study the gravity exerted by cities on their adjacent communities and thereby define the boundaries of “greater cities,” beginning with the bureau’s introduction of industrial districts in 1909. Industrial districts imagined the greater city as a single, integrated market-space in which agency statisticians could analyze the metropolitan economy as a whole, rather than being confined to the partial view provided by collecting data on individual municipalities. However, as my paper chronicles, cities’ urban growth coalitions and business associations such as local chambers of commerce quickly took exception to the Census Bureau’s industrial district model. Urban business communities had, over the preceding fifty years, come to see census data as essential in measuring their own city’s economic power and growth against that of their rivals, yet census administrators insisted that industrial districts could not and should not be used to compare cities to one another. The bureau responded to the criticism by formally inviting these groups to participate in the bureau’s attempts to refine the industrial district and, subsequently, to develop the related unit of the metropolitan district. I contend that the failures of this collaboration ultimately cemented business communities’ reliance upon and deference to the Census Bureau’s statistical authority by the beginning of the 1930s.