Accurate estimates of global sea-level rise in the pre-satellite era provide a context for 21st century sea-level predictions, but the use of tide-gauge records is complicated by the contributions from changes in land level due to glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA). We have constructed a rigorous quality-controlled database of late Holocene sea-level indices from the U.S. Atlantic coast, exhibiting subsidence rates of <0.8 mm a−1 in Maine, increasing to rates of 1.7 mm a−1 in Delaware, and a return to rates <0.9 mm a−1 in the Carolinas. This pattern can be attributed to ongoing GIA due to the demise of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. Our data allow us to define the geometry of the associated collapsing proglacial forebulge with a level of resolution unmatched by any other currently available method. The corresponding rates of relative sea-level rise serve as background rates on which future sea-level rise must be superimposed. We further employ the geological data to remove the GIA component from tide-gauge records to estimate a mean 20th century sea-level rise rate for the U.S. Atlantic coast of 1.8 ± 0.2 mm a−1, similar to the global average. However, we find a distinct spatial trend in the rate of 20th century sea-level rise, increasing from Maine to South Carolina. This is the first evidence of this phenomenon from observational data alone. We suggest this may be related to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and/or ocean steric effects.