From 1872 to 2019

Graph shows the 20 most populous municipalities since the first census

Section: Social Statistics | Pedro Renaux | Design: Licia Rubinstein e Márcio Minamiguchi

September 17, 2019 10h00 AM | Last Updated: October 01, 2019 01h51 PM

São Paulo emerged as the most populous municipality in 1952 - Photo: Licia Rubinstein/IBGE News Agency

When the first Census was performed, in 1872, Brazil was an Empire with less than 10 million inhabitants, and the capital still was Rio de Janeiro. In this period, São Paulo was far away from being the biggest Brazilian city and the municipalities of Minas Gerais and Bahia were the most populous.

In the meantime, Brazil has become a Republic, Brasilia was founded and the population achieved 210 million people in 2019. São Paulo assumed the position of the biggest municipality. From Brazil’s 20 most populous municipalities, only four are not capitals.

These changes have happened throughout almost 150 years, and can be visualized in the graphs made with data from 12 Population Censuses, eight of them organized by the IBGE, and from the Population Estimates.

“The idea was to study which would be the major municipalities in different moments. It was a period of fast profile changes, from rural to urban, from population distributed in small villages to concentrated one downtown.”, explains the IBGE’s demographer, Marcio Minamiguchi.

He adds that the biggest municipalities were in the interior zone of the state and held a large territorial area and a prevalence of rural population, with a small urban center where the municipal headquarter was located.

Regarding Minas Gerais, the mining activity was one of the factors that contributed to the development of an urban network in the state and connection of great part of the Brazilian territory. “We observe in the graphs the resilience of the mining cities, which continue as big cities until the first part of 20th century”, claims IBGE geographer Maria Mônica O’Neil.

Up to the 1930s, Minas Gerais had the greatest number of municipalities among the 20 biggest. Then it was surpassed by São Paulo. Belo Horizonte, founded in 1987, is in the spotlight in 1920, and even became the third biggest city in the 1960s.

The ascension of the city of São Paulo, surpassing Rio de Janeiro, was recorded by a period of strong economic growth. The municipality absorbed great migratory flows constituted of foreigners and people coming from other country’s regions, mainly from the Northeast, to meet the demands of a labor-intensive industry.

“The capital used to coffee production starts to migrate to the industrial sector of São Paulo. This transition is more spatially concentrated, having gains with the proximity. The more industries appear somewhere, the more motivation they have to gather there.”, explains IBGE geographer Marcelo Paiva da Motta.

The graphs allow to visualize, besides the development of São Paulo and the other capitals, the formation of urban agglomerations and the process of metropolization, as in the case of the municipalities of Garulhos, Nova Iguaçu and Duque de Caxias, which had a hasty development in the middle of the 20th century.

“Nowadays we see that the process of spatial adjustment remains, reinforces some patterns and establishes new ones. For example, in São Paulo it has a “deconcentrated concentration”, where the industries leave the region due to the workforce cost, although they continue in the estate.” concludes Maria Mônica.


Keywords: População, Censo, Estimativas, Brasil, 1872, 2019.