At its founding, the United States was an overwhelmingly rural nation. The inaugural census of 1790 showed that 95% of all Americans either lived in isolated rural areas, on farms, or in tiny towns with fewer than 2,500 people. However, a steady national trend towards urbanization began immediately thereafter.
The rise of American cities during the 19th century was spurred on by the Industrial Revolution, which created a high demand for labor. Cities became population magnets, drawing workers from around the country and eventually around the world. One generation after another, people left the American countryside behind and headed for the nation’s new and growing cities. The scales slowly but inexorably tipped in the opposite direction, and today's census numbers are practically reversed from those of 1790.
For most of American history though, rural populations did not falter. Rather, they continued to grow side by side with cities. While they were not able to keep pace with rapacious urban expansion, the sheer volume of rural America nonetheless rose at a substantial rate. Two factors largely explained the ongoing growth of rural populations despite the urban syphon: natural increase and immigration.
Agricultural families typically had a higher birth rate than urban families because children provided valuable labor on the farm from an early age. At the same time, rural America received its fair share of foreign immigrants. While stereotypes of 19th and early 20th century immigration often focus on Irish, Italians, and Jews making new homes in American cities, waves of Germans, Scandinavians, Slavs, British, and many others passed right through those cities and continued on to the heartland.