Special Report

What America’s Biggest Cities Looked Like 100 Years Ago

As the Roaring Twenties began a century ago in America, the country was undergoing dramatic changes. Though rural communities still populated the landscape, the United States was fast becoming an urbanized nation. (Here’s more on what life was like in the Roaring Twenties.)

To find out what American cities looked like 100 years ago, 24/7 Tempo compared a list of the biggest cities in the United States by population in 1920 from Biggest US Cities with the largest American urban centers of today, based on U.S. Census data. Photographs of the cities in the 1920s were sourced from Getty Images. (It you want to see what things looked like even further back, see these 50 photos from American life in the 19th century.)

One hundred years ago, the U.S. had a population of 106 million, about one-third of its population today. America had just fought in the First World War, and – like today – was just emerging from the effects of a deadly virus, in this case the so-called Spanish Flu, which killed 675,000 people around the country. 

In 1920, the three largest cities – New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia – were the only ones in America with populations over 1 million. Today, 10 U.S. cities have populations of more than a million, with vast metropolitan areas surrounding them. Some 27 of the 38 cities on this list posted population gains over 1920. Most of them were in the South and West, reflecting the demographic shift of the nation. Over the same period, 11 cities – almost all of them in the Rust Belt and or on the East Coast – lost population.

In the images we’ve gathered of American cities 100 years ago, horses were all but gone from city streets. Lights burned brightly in New York City and Buffalo. There was no glitz yet in Las Vegas, however; legalized gambling wouldn’t transform that city until after World War II. (Here’s what America’s biggest cities have looked like in the decade you were born.)

Click here to see what American cities looked like 100 years ago

Onlookers observed a mobile transmitting device of Westinghouse Broadcasting in Pittsburgh. Vaudeville was alive and well in Columbus. Streetcars shared Chicago’s streets with automobiles. Workers in Boston waited at the dock to offload haddock from fishing schooners.

Women exercised their independence by driving cars without men accompanying them in Toledo, and suffragette Alice Paul unfurled an American flag in Washington, D.C., that numbered the states supporting women’s right to vote.

Optimism was hard to come by in minority communities in America in the 1920s. Photos captured the struggles of African-Americans living in poverty in Kansas City, and the aftermath of the deadly race riot in Tulsa, as residents picked through the rubble of what had been their homes and businesses. 

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