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1920 Census: The 14th federal census shows dramatic slowdown in Washington's growth rate; several counties lose population; immigrant population growth slows.

HistoryLink.org Essay 9447 : Printer-Friendly Format

The 14th Census of the United States, conducted in 1920, verifies what was already obvious -- the headlong growth that had ballooned Washington state's population by more than 120 percent between 1900 and 1910 has dramatically slowed. The statistics show clearly that the boom years of the late 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century are over, and Washington is settling in for a long period of steady but more restrained growth. The larger counties of the state see modest increases in population, while several of the smaller ones see their counts shrink. Washington is the 30th most populous state in the union in 1920, unchanged from its position in 1910, and it is the 19th largest in land mass, at 69,127 square miles. Growth is more consistent west of the Cascades -- of the 10 largest cities in the state, only Walla Walla loses population, and Spokane grows by a statistically insignificant 335 persons over the 10 years since the previous census. Racially, Washington remains overwhelmingly white, and the native-born population is more than four time as large as that of the foreign-born. Women have yet to make a significant dent in the workplace, but are slowly catching up with men in total numbers.

1920 Census: Overview

The 1920 U.S. Census counted 1,356,621 persons residing in Washington state, an increase of 214,631 over the 1910 census count. This modest 18.1 percent increase in population stood in stark contrast to the 120.4 percent increase that the 1910 census had revealed, and also was substantially smaller than the 45 percent growth rate seen in the 1900 count. The 1910 census had just one Washington county, Columbia, losing population, and that by only 86 persons. The 1920 count, in contrast, showed that 14 counties had seen their populations decrease in the previous decade.  

Another indication of slow growth was population density. Population density in Washington, which has a land surface of 66,836 square miles, was 20.3  persons per square mile in 1920, an increase of 3.2 persons over the 1910 density of 17.1. But this was paltry when compared to the density increase that occurred between 1900 and 1910, when population density increased by 9.3 persons per square mile. 

The 1920 census included four new questions that had not been asked in prior censuses: One asked the year of naturalization and three inquired about mother tongue. The 1920 census also asked the year of arrival and status of every foreign-born person and inquired about the year of naturalization for those individuals who had become U.S. citizens. Also for the first time, the 1920 the census included Guam, American Samoa, and the Panama Canal Zone.

Population and Growth:  Counties

Washington political divisions had not quite reached their final form in the years leading up to the 1920 census. There were 39 counties in Washington state in 1920, an increase of one over the 1910 count, caused by the creation of Pend Oreille Country from what had been part of Stevens County. In the 1920 count these two counties were lumped together for the limited purpose of making comparisons with the 1910 census.

Skamania County was the least populous in 1920, with 2,357 persons, a decrease of  530 from the 1910 count of 2,887. King County remained the state’s largest at 389,273, a healthy increase of 104,635 (36.8 percent) over 1910’s count of  284,638. These same two counties marked the extremes in density, as well, with Skamania having only 1.4 persons per square mile, and King County having 184.4 persons per square mile. In terms of physical size, Okanogan County was the state's largest, at 5,221 square miles, followed by Yakima County at 5,059 square miles. San Juan County was the smallest, at 178 square miles.

The 10 largest counties in terms of population in the 1920 census were:

  • King: 389,273  (104,635 increase, or 36.8 percent, above 1910 count of 284,638)
  • Pierce:144,127 (23,315 increase, or 19.3 percent, above 1910 count of 120,812)
  • Spokane: 141,289 (1,885 increase, or 1.4  percent, above 1910 count of 139,404)
  • Snohomish: 67,690  (35,259 increase, or 14.3 percent, above 1910 count of 59,209)
  • Yakima: 63,710 (22,001 increase, or 52.7 percent, above 1910 count of 41,709)
  • Whatcom: 50,600 (25,395 increase, or 2,2 percent, above 1910 count of 49,511)
  • Grays Harbor: 44,745  (9,155 increase, or 25.7 percent, above 1910 count of 35,590)
  • Lewis: 36,840 (4,713 increase, or 14.7 percent, above 1910 count of 32,127)
  • Skagit: 33,873 (4,632 increase, or 14.1 percent, above 1910 count of 29,241)
  • Kitsap: 33,162 (15,515 increase, or 87.9 percent, above 1910 count of 17,647)

Skagit and Kitsap counties made the top-10 list in 1920, whereas Whitman and Walla Walla counties were dropped. Fourteen counties lost population between 1910 and 1920. The five with the largest population decrease in percentage terms were:

  • Jefferson: down 21.4 percent
  • Skamania: down 18.4 percent
  • Stevens: down 14.6 percent
  • Walla Walla: down 13.8 percent
  • Lincoln: down 13.7 percent

The largest numerical decrease in population was experienced by Walla Walla County, with a loss of 4,392 residents.

Population and Growth: Cities and Towns

Five Washington cities had populations greater than 25,000 in 1920, an increase of two (Everett and Bellingham) over the 1910 census. Those five, with numerical and percentage comparisons to 1910 census counts, were:

  • Seattle 1920: 315,312           1910: 237,194  (+32.9 percent)
  • Spokane 1920:104,437          1910: 104,102  (statistically insignificant increase)
  • Tacoma 1920: 96,965            1910: 83,743  (+15.8 percent)
  • Everett 1920: 27,644            1910: 24,814 (+11.4 percent)
  • Bellingham 1920: 25,585        1910: 24,298 (+5.3 percent)

The next five largest cities in Washington, having populations between 10,000 and 25,000, with numerical and percentage comparisons to 1900 census counts:

  • Yakima 1920: 18,539               1910: 14,082    (31.7 percent)
  • Walla Walla 1920:  15,503        1910: 19,364   (-19.9  percent)
  • Aberdeen 1920: 15,337           1910: 13,660   (+12.3 percent)
  • Vancouver 1920: 12,637         1910:  9,300    (+35.8 percent)
  • Hoquiam 1920: 10,058            1910:  8,171     (+23.1 percent)

Seattle was the 20th largest city in the United States in 1920, the only city in Washington to make it into the top 50.

Population Distribution:  Urban vs. Rural

The 1920 census defined "urban territories" as "cities and other incorporated places of 2,500 inhabitants or more."  All persons not counted as living within urban territories were considered to be inhabitants of rural areas.  There were a total of 35 urban areas in Washington state in 1920, up from 27 in 1910.

Urban Population:

Counts for urban territories were further broken down to reflect how many inhabitants there were in cities and towns of varying sizes. The first number in parentheses below represent the number of cities or towns of the defined size.

  • More than 100,000 inhabitants (2): 419,749 (30.9  percent of total state population)
  • 25,000-100,000 (3): 150,194 (11.1 percent of total state population)
  • 10,000-25,000 (5): 72,074   (5.3 percent of total state population)
  • 5,000-10,000 (7): 47,544  (3.5 percent of total state population)
  • 2,500-5,000 (15): 59,174 (4.4 percent of total state population)

In 1920, a total of 748,705 (55.2 percent of all Washington residents) lived in 35 urban areas, an increase of 143,175 (23.6 percent) above the 1910 count of 605,530 living in 27 urban areas (53 percent of all Washington residents).

The total number of persons living in rural areas in Washington in 1920 was 607,886 (44.8 percent of all Washington residents), an increase of 71,426 (13.3 percent) above the 1910 county of 536,460 (47 percent of all Washington residents)

Population Characteristics:  Sex

Men substantially outnumbered women in Washington state in 1920, but in both numerical and percentage terms, the rate of growth of the female population far outstripped that of males:

  • 1920 male population: 734,701  (54.2 percent of total population)
  • 1910 male population: 658,663  (57.7 percent of total population)
  • 1910-1920 increase: 76,038 (+11.5 percent)
  • 1920 female population: 621,920  (45.8 percent of total population)
  • 1910 female population: 483,327 (42.3 percent of total population)
  • 1910-1920 increase: 138,593 (+28.7 percent)

Although men still held a large numerical lead in population in 1920, the percentage increase for women was 17.2 percent higher than that for men, compared with a 10 percent female advantage as shown in the 1910 census. The accelerating rate of growth of the female population demonstrated a continuing trend that was to put women in the majority by the 1970 census.

Here is another way to consider this data:

  • In 1920, there were 118.1 males for each 100 females.
  • In 1910, there were 136.3 males for each 100 females.

The narrowing gap between the number of men and that of women was even more apparent in the state’s two major cities. In 1920, Seattle had 113.5 men for each 100 women, down from 136.2 in 1910. In Spokane, the sexes were almost equal in number, with only 100.4 men for each 100 women, down from 122.7 in 1910.

Population Characteristics:  General Nativity

"Nativity" for purposes of the 1920 census was used to differentiate between U.S. residents born in America ("Native Born") and those who had immigrated from elsewhere ("Foreign Born"). Counts from this era reflect that a large number of immigrants were still coming to America and to Washington state, but they also showed a slowing of the trend, with the percentage of foreign-born residents somewhat lower in 1920 than it was in 1910.

  • 1920 Washington state native-born population: 1,091,329 (80.45 percent)
  • 1920 Washington state foreign-born population: 265,202   (19.55  percent)
  • 1910 Washington state native-born population: 885,749  (77.56 percent
  • 1910 Washington state foreign-born population: 256,241 (22.44 percent)
  • Increase in native-born population 1900-1910: 205,580  (+23.3 percent)
  • Increase in foreign-born population 1900-1910: 50,661  (+19.8 percent)

Population Characteristics:  Race

The 1920 census used the following racial classifications: White, Negro, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and All Others. The terms "White" and "Negro" were used to distinguish between European Americans and those of African descent. The "All Other" category consisted of what the Census Bureau characterized as "Hindus, Filipinos, and Koreans." The below percentage figures may not total 100 percent due to rounding.

  • 1920 White population in Washington: 1,319,777 (97.28 percent of total state population)
  • 1920 Japanese population in Washington: 17,387  (1.28 percent of total state population)
  • 1920 Indian population in Washington: 9,061 (0.66 percent of total state population)
  • 1920 Negro population in Washington: 6,883  (0.51 percent of total state population)
  • 1920 Chinese population in Washington: 2,363 (0.17 percent of total state population)
  • 1920 All Other population in Washington: 1,150 (0.085 percent of total state population)

Population Characteristics:  Age

Washington was a relatively youthful state in 1920, with the largest age grouping (245,811, or 18.1 percent of the total population) comprised of those between 5 and 14 years of age. The totals for various age groups were:

  • 5 years and under:         126,434
  • 5 to 9 years:                 128,258  
  • 10-14 years:                 117,553   
  • 15-19 years:                 106,485  
  • 20-24 years:                 111,014
  • 25-29  years:                120,421   
  • 30-34 years:                 119,446   
  • 35-39 years:                 117,587 
  • 40-44 years:                   95,805
  • 45-49 years:                   81,764
  • 50-54 years:                   69,451
  • 55-59 years:                   55,053
  • 60-64 years:                   42,352
  • 65-69 years:                   27,298
  • 70-74 years:                   16,647
  • 75-79 years:                     9,756
  • 80-84 years:                     4,393
  • 85-89 years:                     1,606
  • 90-94 years:                        407
  • 95-99 years:                         80
  • 100 years and older:              24
  • Age unknown:                   4,787

Population Characteristics:  Education

The educational statistics in the 1920 census are not as detailed as would become common in later counts, but do give a general idea of the educational status of the state's residents, and show that school attendance was increasing over previous censuses.

  • Number of persons 7 to 13 years of age: 171,819
  • Number of persons 7 to 13 years of age attending school: 162,750  (94.7 percent)
  • Number of persons age 14 and 15: 43,386
  • Number of persons age 14 and 15 attending school: 38,442  (88.6 percent)
  • Number of persons age 16 and 17: 42,391 
  • Number of persons age 16 and 17 attending school: 23,105 (54.5 percent)
  • Number of persons age 18-20 years: 63,814
  • Number of persons age 18-20 years attending school: 13,715 (21.5 percent)

In addition, the 1920 census counted 19,568 children under age 7 attending school, and 7,471 persons over age 21 attending school. In percentage terms, children 11 years old had the highest school attendance, at 97 percent.

The 1920 census classified as illiterate "any person 10 years of age or older who was unable to write in any language, not necessarily English, regardless of ability to read." The number of persons over the age of 10 who were characterized as illiterate in the 1920 census was:

  • Persons between age 10 and 20 who were illiterate: 18,526 (1.7  percent of age group)
  • Males between age 10 and 20 who were illiterate: 10,479 (1.7 percent of males in age group)
  • Females between age 10 and 20 who were illiterate: 8,047 (1.6 percent of females in age group)
  • Persons 21 years old and older who were illiterate: 17,777 (2.1 percent of age group)
  • Males 21 years old and older who were illiterate: 10,039 (2.1 percent of males in age group)
  • Females 21 years old and older who were illiterate: 7,738 (2.1 percent of females in age group)

Population Characteristics:  Marital Status

The following statistics regarding marital status of Washington residents were revealed in the 1920 census:

  • Number of males 15 years of age and older: 546,019
  • Number of males 15 years of age and older who were single: 212,021 (38.8 percent)
  • Number of males 15 years of age and older who were married: 298,950 (54.8 percent)  
  • Number of males 15 years of age and older who were widowed: 23,915 (4.4 percent)  
  • Number of males 15 years of age and older who were divorced:  8,602 (1.5 percent)
  • Number of females 15 years of age and older: 438,357
  • Number of females 15 years of age and older who were single: 100,343 (22.9 percent)
  • Number of females 15 years of age and older who were married: 287,871 (65.7 percent)
  • Number of females 15 years of age and older who were widowed: 41,889  (9.6 percent)
  • Number of females 15 years of age and older who were divorced: 7,816 (1.8 percent).

The fact that in 1920 only 1.8 percent of women and 1.5 percent of men 15 years of age and older were divorced stands in stark contrast to more recent statistics.

The statistics show that more than twice the percentage of females was widowed than males.

Population Characteristics:  Employment

The 1920 census looked at the employment picture for men and women 10 years of age or older, using the total number of Washington residents in that age range (1,101,929) as the basis for statistical comparisons:

  • Total male population age 10 years or older: 605,288
  • Total female population age 10 years or older: 496,641
  • Total men and women gainfully employed: 578,667  (52.5 of age group)
  • Total men gainfully employed: 485,767  (80.3 percent)
  • Total women gainfully employed: 92,900  (18.7 percent) 

Sources:
Abstract of the Fourteenth Census of the United States 1920, United States Census Bureau website accessed June 5, 2010 (http://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/001718111_TOC.pdf); Fourteenth Census of the United States: State Compendium, Washington, United States Census Bureau website accessed June 6, 2010 (http://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/06229686v44-49ch3.pdf); 1920 Census: Instructions to Enumerators, Integrated Public Use Microdata Series website accessed June 6, 2010 (http://usa.ipums.org/usa/voliii/inst1920.shtml); “1920 Census,”  Ancestry.com website accessed June 5, 2010
(http://learn.ancestry.com/LearnMore/Article.aspx?id=1283); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "1910 Census: The 13th federal census shows Washington's population growing at many times the national average; every county but one increases population; trend toward urban living is apparent" (by John Caldbick), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed June 5, 2010.
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Woman census taker, 1920
Courtesy U.S. Census Bureau


Report cover, 1920 U.S. Census, Washington state
Courtesy United States Census Bureau


Catalog cover, 1920 census microfilm archive
Courtesy National Archives


Olive Way looking west from Westlake Avenue, Seattle, 1920s
Postcard


Riverside Avenue, Spokane, 1920s
Postcard


Federal Building, Yakima, ca. 1920
Postcard


Walla Walla Courthouse, Walla Walla, ca. 1920
Postcard


Night, downtown Everett, 1920s
Postcard


Seattle-Tacoma interurban, 1920s
Courtesy Harold Hill


Downtown Centralia, ca. 1920
Postcard


Carnegie Library, Pasco, ca. 1920
Postcard


 
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