Texas History: Big farm families and growing Texas cities in 1920 US Census

Think, Texas

Michael Barnes / Austin American-Statesman
Downtown Houston in the 1920s looked pretty snazzy as Texas cities boomed.
Michael Barnes

Recently, freelance writer Jorjanna Price contacted me with a happy proposal.

“We all await the results of the 2020 census,” Price writes, “but it’s also interesting to look back 100 years ago to see what the 1920 census told us about Texas.”

In the same message, she forwarded me an article that she wrote for the September-October edition of County Magazine, which is published by the Texas Association of Counties. She graciously offered her fascinating findings to Think, Texas, asking only that I cite the association and its magazine.

Without pausing, I replied, "Yes.”

Price starts out by predicting that the 2020 census will count nearly 30 million Texans. The state, in any case, will remain in second place after California.

Austin is expected to leap past San Jose, Calif., to become one of the top 10 largest cities in the country, joining Houston, Dallas and San Antonio already in that league.

Along with raw growth, the U.S. Census will likely find Texans “growing older and more ethnically diverse,” Price writes.

The 1920 census recorded 4.6 million people, making it the fifth most populous state nationally. The growth rate between the 1910 and 1920 census was pegged at 19.6%. 

As mentioned in a recent column here, this rapid growth in a state that had been overwhelmingly rural with an economy dependent on cotton, cattle and lumber corresponded with the discovery of oil at Spindletop in Southeast Texas in 1901. Oil drove immigration, urbanization and an expanded economy.

“In those days, the state’s populace overall was young,” Price writes, “and two-thirds of Texans live on farms, according to the census. … More than 436,000 farms were in operation, averaging 262 acres in size. Typically farming families were large, and the census reported that 60 percent of the rural population was 14 years or younger.”

Texas was, however, showing signs of movement to the cities. In 1920, one-third of Texans already lived in metropolitan areas of 2,500 or more. The largest cities teetered on the threshold of a real population boom. San Antonio was largest with 161,379 people, followed by Dallas (158,976), Houston (138,276), Fort Worth (106,482) and El Paso (77,460). 

World War I encouraged women in particular to leave behind the family farm to find city jobs that were left open by men who joined the military.

“Urbanization really kicked in during the decade of 1910-1920,” says Walter Buenger, University of Texas history professor and chief historian for the Texas State Historical Association, as quoted by Price. “What you saw was the emergence of a professional class of women as they became more accepted in the public sphere. Women took jobs outside of traditional areas during World War I, particularly in cities.”

After the war, when the men returned, many of the women moved over to become teachers or switchboard operators so that they could remain in the cities.

The 1920 Census backs up a rarely recognized aspect of the Great Migration of Black people to cities. They not only headed to places like Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia but also to industrializing Texas cities such as Houston and Dallas. They made up 16% of the state’s population in 1920.

Hispanic people, however, did not show up separately in the census, which did not distinguish between whites and Latinos. Yet this was a time of growth for the Hispanic community because of those fleeing the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Together, the two groups, whites and Hispanics, made up 84% of the population.

Make a game out of it

Price’s fun story about the 1920 Census reminded me to recommend, if I have not already, an online trivia game that any history buff would love: Sporcle.

I’ve played it almost daily for years. The questions are organized in hundreds of clever ways. On a regular basis, I deliberately move beyond my strong suits — geography, history, movies, music, literature, entertainment and language — and move into my shakier categories: sports, science, religion and puzzles. I leave the category of “gaming” well enough alone.

Warning: If playing on a desktop, you must type quickly and spell accurately. Sporcle games adapted for handheld digital devices rely on pressing the right buttons rapidly. Also, always make sure that Sporcle staff experts have verified the game. Player-submitted games, which come without a checkmark by the title, can be entertaining but are not always factual, as I was reminded recently when trying to verify the evolving status of Texas cities through Sporcle. 

Related to this week’s column topic is one fact-checked game: “Can you name the most populous cities in Texas for each census from 1850 to 2010?” You must guess 166 spots on the population charts correctly in nine minutes. Yet once you guess, say, “Galveston,” the game auto-fills that city in each census year’s ranking.

Some deep Texas trivia:

• Galveston was the No. 1 Texas city in 1850, 1870 and 1880. San Antonio filled that slot in 1860, 1900, 1910 and 1920. Dallas won out in 1890. Since 1930, Houston has taken home the prize. It is important to emphasize that in this particular Sporcle game, the subject is cities and not metropolitan areas. Currently, for instance, Dallas-Fort Worth is larger than the Houston metro area by about half a million people.

 • You might be surprised that among the top 10 most populous Texas cities were, at one point or another, New Braunfels, Victoria, Huntsville, Indianola, Marshall, Sherman, Denison, Jefferson, Brownsville, Laredo, Lubbock, Amarillo, Waco, Port Arthur and Beaumont. Indianola, wiped out by multiple hurricanes, is basically a ghost town. Jefferson, once the state’s major inland port, at least is home to 2,000 people, but that is smaller than its 1870 population of 4,000.

• Since 1980, the top 10 list has included the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs of Arlington, Garland and Plano. Other Texas suburbs that compete in population rankings: Irving, Grand Prairie, Mesquite, McKinney, Frisco, Pasadena, Carrollton, Round Rock, Richardson, Sugar Land, The Woodlands, Lewisville, League City and Allen. Note that one is a suburb of Austin, four are suburbs of Houston, and DFW claims a whopping total of 12 quite populous suburbs.

• Eleven years after it became the capital of the Republic of Texas, Austin counted a grand total of 629 people. Nevertheless, the metropolis still ranked as No. 7 in 1850.

• If you are a fellow obsessive, you’ve already looked it up. Yep. All of 1850 Austin could have fit into Antone’s Nightclub, at pre-pandemic standing capacity (400 downstairs, 250 upstairs).