Population: By 1815, the United States had grown into a country of 8,419,000 people, including about 1.5 million slaves. (Official estimates are available for the entire population in 1815, but slave counts were conducted during the censuses of 1810 and 1820. In the 1810 census, there were 1,191,362 slaves; by the 1820 census, there were 1,538,022 slaves). While a population of less than 10 million seems small compared to today’s count of over 320 million people, the population in 1815 had more than doubled since the country’s first census, taken in 1790, when there were 3,929,214 people. The population would continue to increase by more than 30 percent each decade for much of the 19th century.
Almost all of this growth was due to high birth rates, as immigration was low in 1815, slowed by European wars that raged from 1790 to 1815. Only about 8,000 per year entered during this period. The 1820 census counted 8,385 immigrants, including one from China and one from Africa.
Food: Because these innovations in transportation were still in their infancy in 1815, however, most Americans ate what they grew or hunted locally. Corn and beans were common, along with pork. In the north, cows provided milk, butter, and beef, while in the south, where cattle were less common, venison and other game provided meat. Preserving food in 1815, before the era of refrigeration, required smoking, drying, or salting meat. Vegetables were kept in a root cellar or pickled.
For those who had to purchase their food, one record notes the following retail prices in 1818 in Washington, D.C.: beef cost 6 to 8 cents a pound, potatoes cost 56 cents a bushel, milk was 32 cents a gallon, tea 75 cents to $2.25 a pound. Shoes ran $2.50 a pair. Clothing expenses for a family of six cost $148 a year, though the record does not indicate the quality of the clothes.
Life Expectancy: The boom in native population in the early 19th century was even more remarkable considering the low life expectancies of the time. By one estimate, a white man who had reached his 20th birthday could expect to live just another 19 years. A white woman at 20 would live, on average, only a total of 38.8 years. If measuring from birth, which counted infant mortality, life expectancy would have been even lower. A white family in the early 19th century would typically have seven or eight children, but one would die by age one and another before age 21. And, of course, for slaves, childhood deaths were higher and life expectancy was even lower. About one in three African American children died, and only half lived to adulthood.
Disease was rampant during this time. During the War of 1812, which concluded in 1815, more soldiers died from disease than from fighting. The main causes of death for adults during this period were malaria and tuberculosis, while children most commonly died from measles, mumps, and whooping cough, all preventable today.
Housing: More than four out of every five Americans during the early 19th century still lived on farms. Many farmers during this time also made goods by hand that they’d use, barter, or sell, such as barrels, furniture, or horseshoes. Cities remained relatively small and were clustered around East Coast seaports: New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, and Charleston, South Carolina. In the 1810 census, New York, the largest, was home to 96,373 people. By 1820, the population would reach 123,706.
Employment: Industrialization would soon accelerate urbanization. In England, the Industrial Revolution had begun in the mid-18th century, and despite attempts made to restrict the export of technology, in 1789, a 21-year-old Englishman memorized the plan for a textile mill and then opened a cotton-spinning plant in Rhode Island. By 1810, more than 100 such mills, employing women and children at less than a dollar a week, were operating throughout New England. By the 1830s, textile production would become the country’s largest industry.