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The History of American Labor Market Institutions and Outcomes

Joshua Rosenbloom, University of Kansas

One of the most important implications of modern microeconomic theory is that perfectly competitive markets produce an efficient allocation of resources. Historically, however, most markets have not approached the level of organization of this theoretical ideal. Instead of the costless and instantaneous communication envisioned in theory, market participants must rely on a set of incomplete and often costly channels of communication to learn about conditions of supply and demand; and they may face significant transaction costs to act on the information that they have acquired through these channels.

The economic history of labor market institutions is concerned with identifying the mechanisms that have facilitated the allocation of labor effort in the economy at different times, tracing the historical processes by which they have responded to shifting circumstances, and understanding how these mechanisms affected the allocation of labor as well as the distribution of labor’s products in different epochs.

Labor market institutions include both formal organizations (such as union hiring halls, government labor exchanges, and third party intermediaries such as employment agents), and informal mechanisms of communication such as word-of-mouth about employment opportunities passed between family and friends. The impact of these institutions is broad ranging. It includes the geographic allocation of labor (migration and urbanization), decisions about education and training of workers (investment in human capital), inequality (relative wages), the allocation of time between paid work and other activities such as household production, education, and leisure, and fertility (the allocation of time between production and reproduction).

Because each worker possesses a unique bundle of skills and attributes and each job is different, labor market transactions require the communication of a relatively large amount of information. In other words, the transactions costs involved in the exchange of labor are relatively high. The result is that the barriers separating different labor markets have sometimes been quite high, and these markets are relatively poorly integrated with one another.

The frictions inherent in the labor market mean that even during macroeconomic expansions there may be both a significant number of unemployed workers and a large number of unfilled vacancies. When viewed from some distance and looked at in the long-run, however, what is most striking is how effective labor market institutions have been in adapting to the shifting patterns of supply and demand in the economy. Over the past two centuries American labor markets have accomplished a massive redistribution of labor out of agriculture into manufacturing, and then from manufacturing into services. At the same time they have accomplished a huge geographic reallocation of labor between the United States and other parts of the world as well as within the United States itself, both across states and regions and from rural locations to urban areas.

This essay is organized topically, beginning with a discussion of the evolution of institutions involved in the allocation of labor across space and then taking up the development of institutions that fostered the allocation of labor across industries and sectors. The third section considers issues related to labor market performance.

The Geographic Distribution of Labor

One of the dominant themes of American history is the process of European settlement (and the concomitant displacement of the native population). This movement of population is in essence a labor market phenomenon. From the beginning of European settlement in what became the United States, labor markets were characterized by the scarcity of labor in relation to abundant land and natural resources. Labor scarcity raised labor productivity and enabled ordinary Americans to enjoy a higher standard of living than comparable Europeans. Counterbalancing these inducements to migration, however, were the high costs of travel across the Atlantic and the significant risks posed by settlement in frontier regions. Over time, technological changes lowered the costs of communication and transportation. But exploiting these advantages required the parallel development of new labor market institutions.

Trans-Atlantic Migration in the Colonial Period

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a variety of labor market institutions developed to facilitate the movement of labor in response to the opportunities created by American factor proportions. While some immigrants migrated on their own, the majority of immigrants were either indentured servants or African slaves.

Because of the cost of passage—which exceeded half a year’s income for a typical British immigrant and a full year’s income for a typical German immigrant—only a small portion of European migrants could afford to pay for their passage to the Americas (Grubb 1985a). They did so by signing contracts, or “indentures,” committing themselves to work for a fixed number of years in the future—their labor being their only viable asset—with British merchants, who then sold these contracts to colonists after their ship reached America. Indentured servitude was introduced by the Virginia Company in 1619 and appears to have arisen from a combination of the terms of two other types of labor contract widely used in England at the time: service in husbandry and apprenticeship (Galenson 1981). In other cases, migrants borrowed money for their passage and committed to repay merchants by pledging to sell themselves as servants in America, a practice known as “redemptioner servitude (Grubb 1986). Redemptioners bore increased risk because they could not predict in advance what terms they might be able to negotiate for their labor, but presumably they did so because of other benefits, such as the opportunity to choose their own master, and to select where they would be employed.

Although data on immigration for the colonial period are scattered and incomplete a number of scholars have estimated that between half and three quarters of European immigrants arriving in the colonies came as indentured or redemptioner servants. Using data for the end of the colonial period Grubb (1985b) found that close to three-quarters of English immigrants to Pennsylvania and nearly 60 percent of German immigrants arrived as servants.

A number of scholars have examined the terms of indenture and redemptioner contracts in some detail (see, e.g., Galenson 1981; Grubb 1985a). They find that consistent with the existence of a well-functioning market, the terms of service varied in response to differences in individual productivity, employment conditions, and the balance of supply and demand in different locations.

The other major source of labor for the colonies was the forced migration of African slaves. Slavery had been introduced in the West Indies at an early date, but it was not until the late seventeenth century that significant numbers of slaves began to be imported into the mainland colonies. From 1700 to 1780 the proportion of blacks in the Chesapeake region grew from 13 percent to around 40 percent. In South Carolina and Georgia, the black share of the population climbed from 18 percent to 41 percent in the same period (McCusker and Menard, 1985, p. 222). Galenson (1984) explains the transition from indentured European to enslaved African labor as the result of shifts in supply and demand conditions in England and the trans-Atlantic slave market. Conditions in Europe improved after 1650, reducing the supply of indentured servants, while at the same time increased competition in the slave trade was lowering the price of slaves (Dunn 1984). In some sense the colonies’ early experience with indentured servants paved the way for the transition to slavery. Like slaves, indentured servants were unfree, and ownership of their labor could be freely transferred from one owner to another. Unlike slaves, however, they could look forward to eventually becoming free (Morgan 1971).

Over time a marked regional division in labor market institutions emerged in colonial America. The use of slaves was concentrated in the Chesapeake and Lower South, where the presence of staple export crops (rice, indigo and tobacco) provided economic rewards for expanding the scale of cultivation beyond the size achievable with family labor. European immigrants (primarily indentured servants) tended to concentrate in the Chesapeake and Middle Colonies, where servants could expect to find the greatest opportunities to enter agriculture once they had completed their term of service. While New England was able to support self-sufficient farmers, its climate and soil were not conducive to the expansion of commercial agriculture, with the result that it attracted relatively few slaves, indentured servants, or free immigrants. These patterns are illustrated in Table 1, which summarizes the composition and destinations of English emigrants in the years 1773 to 1776.

Table 1

English Emigration to the American Colonies, by Destination and Type, 1773-76

Total Emigration
Destination Number Percentage Percent listed as servants
New England 54 1.20 1.85
Middle Colonies 1,162 25.78 61.27
New York 303 6.72 11.55
Pennsylvania 859 19.06 78.81
Chesapeake 2,984 66.21 96.28
Maryland 2,217 49.19 98.33
Virginia 767 17.02 90.35
Lower South 307 6.81 19.54
Carolinas 106 2.35 23.58
Georgia 196 4.35 17.86
Florida 5 0.11 0.00
Total 4,507 80.90

Source: Grubb (1985b, p. 334).

International Migration in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

American independence marks a turning point in the development of labor market institutions. In 1808 Congress prohibited the importation of slaves. Meanwhile, the use of indentured servitude to finance the migration of European immigrants fell into disuse. As a result, most subsequent migration was at least nominally free migration.

The high cost of migration and the economic uncertainties of the new nation help to explain the relatively low level of immigration in the early years of the nineteenth century. But as the costs of transportation fell, the volume of immigration rose dramatically over the course of the century. Transportation costs were of course only one of the obstacles to international population movements. At least as important were problems of communication. Potential migrants might know in a general way that the United States offered greater economic opportunities than were available at home, but acting on this information required the development of labor market institutions that could effectively link job-seekers with employers.

For the most part, the labor market institutions that emerged in the nineteenth century to direct international migration were “informal” and thus difficult to document. As Rosenbloom (2002, ch. 2) describes, however, word-of-mouth played an important role in labor markets at this time. Many immigrants were following in the footsteps of friends or relatives already in the United States. Often these initial pioneers provided material assistance—helping to purchase ship and train tickets, providing housing—as well as information. The consequences of this so-called “chain migration” are readily reflected in a variety of kinds of evidence. Numerous studies of specific migration streams have documented the role of a small group of initial migrants in facilitating subsequent migration (for example, Barton 1975; Kamphoefner 1987; Gjerde 1985). At a more aggregate level, settlement patterns confirm the tendency of immigrants from different countries to concentrate in different cities (Ward 1971, p. 77; Galloway, Vedder and Shukla 1974).

Informal word-of-mouth communication was an effective labor market institution because it served both employers and job-seekers. For job-seekers the recommendations of friends and relatives were more reliable than those of third parties and often came with additional assistance. For employers the recommendations of current employees served as a kind of screening mechanism, since their employees were unlikely to encourage the immigration of unreliable workers.

While chain migration can explain a quantitatively large part of the redistribution of labor in the nineteenth century it is still necessary to explain how these chains came into existence in the first place. Chain migration always coexisted with another set of more formal labor market institutions that grew up largely to serve employers who could not rely on their existing labor force to recruit new hires (such as railroad construction companies). Labor agents, often themselves immigrants, acted as intermediaries between these employers and job-seekers, providing labor market information and frequently acting as translators for immigrants who could not speak English. Steamship companies operating between Europe and the United States also employed agents to help recruit potential migrants (Rosenbloom 2002, ch. 3).

By the 1840s networks of labor agents along with boarding houses serving immigrants and other similar support networks were well established in New York, Boston, and other major immigrant destinations. The services of these agents were well documented in published guides and most Europeans considering immigration must have known that they could turn to these commercial intermediaries if they lacked friends and family to guide them. After some time working in America these immigrants, if they were successful, would find steadier employment and begin to direct subsequent migration, thus establishing a new link in the stream of chain migration.

The economic impacts of immigration are theoretically ambiguous. Increased labor supply, by itself, would tend to lower wages—benefiting employers and hurting workers. But because immigrants are also consumers, the resulting increase in demand for goods and services will increase the demand for labor, partially offsetting the depressing effect of immigration on wages. As long as the labor to capital ratio rises, however, immigration will necessarily lower wages. But if, as was true in the late nineteenth century, foreign lending follows foreign labor, then there may be no negative impact on wages (Carter and Sutch 1999). Whatever the theoretical considerations, however, immigration became an increasingly controversial political issue during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While employers and some immigrant groups supported continued immigration, there was a growing nativist sentiment among other segments of the population. Anti-immigrant sentiments appear to have arisen out of a mix of perceived economic effects and concern about the implications of the ethnic, religious and cultural differences between immigrants and the native born.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Subsequent legislative efforts to impose further restrictions on immigration passed Congress but foundered on presidential vetoes. The balance of political forces shifted, however, in the wake of World War I. In 1917 a literacy requirement was imposed for the first time, and in 1921 an Emergency Quota Act was passed (Goldin 1994).

With the passage of the Emergency Quota Act in 1921 and subsequent legislation culminating in the National Origins Act, the volume of immigration dropped sharply. Since this time international migration into the United States has been controlled to varying degrees by legal restrictions. Variations in the rules have produced variations in the volume of legal immigration. Meanwhile the persistence of large wage gaps between the United States and Mexico and other developing countries has encouraged a substantial volume of illegal immigration. It remains the case, however, that most of this migration—both legal and illegal—continues to be directed by chains of friends and relatives.

Recent trends in outsourcing and off-shoring have begun to create a new channel by which lower-wage workers outside the United States can respond to the country’s high wages without physically relocating. Workers in India, China, and elsewhere possessing technical skills can now provide services such as data entry or technical support by phone and over the internet. While the novelty of this phenomenon has attracted considerable attention, the actual volume of jobs moved off-shore remains limited, and there are important obstacles to overcome before more jobs can be carried out remotely (Edwards 2004).

Internal Migration in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

At the same time that American economic development created international imbalances between labor supply and demand it also created internal disequilibrium. Fertile land and abundant natural resources drew population toward less densely settled regions in the West. Over the course of the century, advances in transportation technologies lowered the cost of shipping goods from interior regions, vastly expanding the area available for settlement. Meanwhile transportation advances and technological innovations encouraged the growth of manufacturing and fueled increased urbanization. The movement of population and economic activity from the Eastern Seaboard into the interior of the continent and from rural to urban areas in response to these incentives is an important element of U.S. economic history in the nineteenth century.

In the pre-Civil War era, the labor market response to frontier expansion differed substantially between North and South, with profound effects on patterns of settlement and regional development. Much of the cost of migration is a result of the need to gather information about opportunities in potential destinations. In the South, plantation owners could spread these costs over a relatively large number of potential migrants—i.e., their slaves. Plantations were also relatively self-sufficient, requiring little urban or commercial infrastructure to make them economically viable. Moreover, the existence of well-established markets for slaves allowed western planters to expand their labor force by purchasing additional labor from eastern plantations.

In the North, on the other hand, migration took place through the relocation of small, family farms. Fixed costs of gathering information and the risks of migration loomed larger in these farmers’ calculations than they did for slaveholders, and they were more dependent on the presence of urban merchants to supply them with inputs and market their products. Consequently the task of mobilizing labor fell to promoters who bought up large tracts of land at low prices and then subdivided them into individual lots. To increase the value of these lands promoters offered loans, actively encourage the development of urban services such as blacksmith shops, grain merchants, wagon builders and general stores, and recruited settlers. With the spread of railroads, railroad construction companies also played a role in encouraging settlement along their routes to speed the development of traffic.

The differences in processes of westward migration in the North and South were reflected in the divergence of rates of urbanization, transportation infrastructure investment, manufacturing employment, and population density, all of which were higher in the North than in the South in 1860 (Wright 1986, pp. 19-29).

The Distribution of Labor among Economic Activities

Over the course of U.S. economic development technological changes and shifting consumption patterns have caused the demand for labor to increase in manufacturing and services and decline in agriculture and other extractive activities. These broad changes are illustrated in Table 2. As technological changes have increased the advantages of specialization and the division of labor, more and more economic activity has moved outside the scope of the household, and the boundaries of the labor market have been enlarged. As a result more and more women have moved into the paid labor force. On the other hand, with the increasing importance of formal education, there has been a decline in the number of children in the labor force (Whaples 2005).

Table 2

Sectoral Distribution of the Labor Force, 1800-1999

Share in
Year Total Labor Force (1000s) Agriculture Total Manufacturing Services
1800 1,658 76.2 23.8
1850 8,199 53.6 46.4
1900 29,031 37.5 59.4 35.8 23.6
1950 57,860 11.9 88.1 41.0 47.1
1999 133,489 2.3 97.7 24.7 73.0

Notes and Sources: 1800 and 1850 from Weiss (1986), pp. 646-49; remaining years from Hughes and Cain (2003), 547-48. For 1900-1999 Forestry and Fishing are included in the Agricultural labor force.

As these changes have taken place they have placed strains on existing labor market institutions and encouraged the development of new mechanisms to facilitate the distribution of labor. Over the course of the last century and a half the tendency has been a movement away from something approximating a “spot” market characterized by short-term employment relationships in which wages are equated to the marginal product of labor, and toward a much more complex and rule-bound set of long-term transactions (Goldin 2000, p. 586) While certain segments of the labor market still involve relatively anonymous and short-lived transactions, workers and employers are much more likely today to enter into long-term employment relationships that are expected to last for many years.

The evolution of labor market institutions in response to these shifting demands has been anything but smooth. During the late nineteenth century the expansion of organized labor was accompanied by often violent labor-management conflict (Friedman 2002). Not until the New Deal did unions gain widespread acceptance and a legal right to bargain. Yet even today, union organizing efforts are often met with considerable hostility.

Conflicts over union organizing efforts inevitably involved state and federal governments because the legal environment directly affected the bargaining power of both sides, and shifting legal opinions and legislative changes played an important part in determining the outcome of these contests. State and federal governments were also drawn into labor markets as various groups sought to limit hours of work, set minimum wages, provide support for disabled workers, and respond to other perceived shortcomings of existing arrangements. It would be wrong, however, to see the growth of government regulation as simply a movement from freer to more regulated markets. The ability to exchange goods and services rests ultimately on the legal system, and to this extent there has never been an entirely unregulated market. In addition, labor market transactions are never as simple as the anonymous exchange of other goods or services. Because the identities of individual buyers and sellers matter and the long-term nature of many employment relationships, adjustments can occur along other margins besides wages, and many of these dimensions involve externalities that affect all workers at a particular establishment, or possibly workers in an entire industry or sector.

Government regulations have responded in many cases to needs voiced by participants on both sides of the labor market for assistance to achieve desired ends. That has not, of course, prevented both workers and employers from seeking to use government to alter the way in which the gains from trade are distributed within the market.

The Agricultural Labor Market

At the beginning of the nineteenth century most labor was employed in agriculture, and, with the exception of large slave plantations, most agricultural labor was performed on small, family-run farms. There were markets for temporary and seasonal agricultural laborers to supplement family labor supply, but in most parts of the country outside the South, families remained the dominant institution directing the allocation of farm labor. Reliable estimates of the number of farm workers are not readily available before 1860, when the federal Census first enumerated “farm laborers.” At this time census enumerators found about 800 thousand such workers, implying an average of less than one-half farm worker per farm. Interpretation of this figure is complicated, however, and it may either overstate the amount of hired help—since farm laborers included unpaid family workers—or understate it—since it excluded those who reported their occupation simply as “laborer” and may have spent some of their time working in agriculture (Wright 1988, p. 193). A possibly more reliable indicator is provided by the percentage of gross value of farm output spent on wage labor. This figure fell from 11.4 percent in 1870 to around 8 percent by 1900, indicating that hired labor was on average becoming even less important (Wright 1988, pp. 194-95).

In the South, after the Civil War, arrangements were more complicated. Former plantation owners continued to own large tracts of land that required labor if they were to be made productive. Meanwhile former slaves needed access to land and capital if they were to support themselves. While some land owners turned to wage labor to work their land, most relied heavily on institutions like sharecropping. On the supply side, croppers viewed this form of employment as a rung on the “agricultural ladder” that would lead eventually to tenancy and possibly ownership. Because climbing the agricultural ladder meant establishing one’s credit-worthiness with local lenders, southern farm laborers tended to sort themselves into two categories: locally established (mostly older, married men) croppers and renters on the one hand, and mobile wage laborers (mostly younger and unmarried) on the other. While the labor market for each of these types of workers appears to have been relatively competitive, the barriers between the two markets remained relatively high (Wright 1987, p. 111).

While the predominant pattern in agriculture then was one of small, family-operated units, there was an important countervailing trend toward specialization that both depended on, and encouraged the emergence of a more specialized market for farm labor. Because specialization in a single crop increased the seasonality of labor demand, farmers could not afford to employ labor year-round, but had to depend on migrant workers. The use of seasonal gangs of migrant wage laborers developed earliest in California in the 1870s and 1880s, where employers relied heavily on Chinese immigrants. Following restrictions on Chinese entry, they were replaced first by Japanese, and later by Mexican workers (Wright 1988, pp. 201-204).

The Emergence of Internal Labor Markets

Outside of agriculture, at the beginning of the nineteenth century most manufacturing took place in small establishments. Hired labor might consist of a small number of apprentices, or, as in the early New England textile mills, a few child laborers hired from nearby farms (Ware 1931). As a result labor market institutions remained small-scale and informal, and institutions for training and skill acquisition remained correspondingly limited. Workers learned on the job as apprentices or helpers; advancement came through establishing themselves as independent producers rather than through internal promotion.

With the growth of manufacturing, and the spread of factory methods of production, especially in the years after the end of the Civil War, an increasing number of people could expect to spend their working-lives as employees. One reflection of this change was the emergence in the 1870s of the problem of unemployment. During the depression of 1873 for the first time cities throughout the country had to contend with large masses of industrial workers thrown out of work and unable to support themselves through, in the language of the time, “no fault of their own” (Keyssar 1986, ch. 2).

The growth of large factories and the creation of new kinds of labor skills specific to a particular employer created returns to sustaining long-term employment relationships. As workers acquired job- and employer-specific skills their productivity increased giving rise to gains that were available only so long as the employment relationship persisted. Employers did little, however, to encourage long-term employment relationships. Instead authority over hiring, promotion and retention was commonly delegated to foremen or inside contractors (Nelson 1975, pp. 34-54). In the latter case, skilled craftsmen operated in effect as their own bosses contracting with the firm to supply components or finished products for an agreed price, and taking responsibility for hiring and managing their own assistants.

These arrangements were well suited to promoting external mobility. Foremen were often drawn from the immigrant community and could easily tap into word-of-mouth channels of recruitment. But these benefits came increasingly into conflict with rising costs of hiring and training workers.

The informality of personnel policies prior to World War I seems likely to have discouraged lasting employment relationships, and it is true that rates of labor turnover at the beginning of the twentieth century were considerably higher than they were to be later (Owen, 2004). Scattered evidence on the duration of employment relationships gathered by various state labor bureaus at the end of the century suggests, however, at least some workers did establish lasting employment relationship (Carter 1988; Carter and Savocca 1990; Jacoby and Sharma 1992; James 1994).

The growing awareness of the costs of labor-turnover and informal, casual labor relations led reformers to advocate the establishment of more centralized and formal processes of hiring, firing and promotion, along with the establishment of internal job-ladders, and deferred payment plans to help bind workers and employers. The implementation of these reforms did not make significant headway, however, until the 1920s (Slichter 1929). Why employers began to establish internal labor markets in the 1920s remains in dispute. While some scholars emphasize pressure from workers (Jacoby 1984; 1985) others have stressed that it was largely a response to the rising costs of labor turnover (Edwards 1979).

The Government and the Labor Market

The growth of large factories contributed to rising labor tensions in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. Issues like hours of work, safety, and working conditions all have a significant public goods aspect. While market forces of entry and exit will force employers to adopt policies that are sufficient to attract the marginal worker (the one just indifferent between staying and leaving), less mobile workers may find that their interests are not adequately represented (Freeman and Medoff 1984). One solution is to establish mechanisms for collective bargaining, and the years after the American Civil War were characterized by significant progress in the growth of organized labor (Friedman 2002). Unionization efforts, however, met strong opposition from employers, and suffered from the obstacles created by the American legal system’s bias toward protecting property and the freedom of contract. Under prevailing legal interpretation, strikes were often found by the courts to be conspiracies in restraint of trade with the result that the apparatus of government was often arrayed against labor.

Although efforts to win significant improvements in working conditions were rarely successful, there were still areas where there was room for mutually beneficial change. One such area involved the provision of disability insurance for workers injured on the job. Traditionally, injured workers had turned to the courts to adjudicate liability for industrial accidents. Legal proceedings were costly and their outcome unpredictable. By the early 1910s it became clear to all sides that a system of disability insurance was preferable to reliance on the courts. Resolution of this problem, however, required the intervention of state legislatures to establish mandatory state workers compensation insurance schemes and remove the issue from the courts. Once introduced workers compensation schemes spread quickly: nine states passed legislation in 1911; 13 more had joined the bandwagon by 1913, and by 1920 44 states had such legislation (Fishback 2001).

Along with workers compensation state legislatures in the late nineteenth century also considered legislation restricting hours of work. Prevailing legal interpretations limited the effectiveness of such efforts for adult males. But rules restricting hours for women and children were found to be acceptable. The federal government passed legislation restricting the employment of children under 14 in 1916, but this law was found unconstitutional in 1916 (Goldin 2000, p. 612-13).

The economic crisis of the 1930s triggered a new wave of government interventions in the labor market. During the 1930s the federal government granted unions the right to organize legally, established a system of unemployment, disability and old age insurance, and established minimum wage and overtime pay provisions.

In 1933 the National Industrial Recovery Act included provisions legalizing unions’ right to bargain collectively. Although the NIRA was eventually ruled to be unconstitutional, the key labor provisions of the Act were reinstated in the Wagner Act of 1935. While some of the provisions of the Wagner Act were modified in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act, its passage marks the beginning of the golden age of organized labor. Union membership jumped very quickly after 1935 from around 12 percent of the non-agricultural labor force to nearly 30 percent, and by the late 1940s had attained a peak of 35 percent, where it stabilized. Since the 1960s, however, union membership has declined steadily, to the point where it is now back at pre-Wagner Act levels.

The Social Security Act of 1935 introduced a federal unemployment insurance scheme that was operated in partnership with state governments and financed through a tax on employers. It also created government old age and disability insurance. In 1938, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act provided for minimum wages and for overtime pay. At first the coverage of these provisions was limited, but it has been steadily increased in subsequent years to cover most industries today.

In the post-war era, the federal government has expanded its role in managing labor markets both directly—through the establishment of occupational safety regulations, and anti-discrimination laws, for example—and indirectly—through its efforts to manage the macroeconomy to insure maximum employment.

A further expansion of federal involvement in labor markets began in 1964 with passage of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited employment discrimination against both minorities and women. In 1967 the Age Discrimination and Employment Act was passed prohibiting discrimination against people aged 40 to 70 in regard to hiring, firing, working conditions and pay. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1994 allows for unpaid leave to care for infants, children and other sick relatives (Goldin 2000, p. 614).

Whether state and federal legislation has significantly affected labor market outcomes remains unclear. Most economists would argue that the majority of labor’s gains in the past century would have occurred even in the absence of government intervention. Rather than shaping market outcomes, many legislative initiatives emerged as a result of underlying changes that were making advances possible. According to Claudia Goldin (2000, p. 553) “government intervention often reinforced existing trends, as in the decline of child labor, the narrowing of the wage structure, and the decrease in hours of work.” In other cases, such as Workers Compensation and pensions, legislation helped to establish the basis for markets.

The Changing Boundaries of the Labor Market

The rise of factories and urban employment had implications that went far beyond the labor market itself. On farms women and children had found ready employment (Craig 1993, ch. 4). But when the male household head worked for wages, employment opportunities for other family members were more limited. Late nineteenth-century convention largely dictated that married women did not work outside the home unless their husband was dead or incapacitated (Goldin 1990, p. 119-20). Children, on the other hand, were often viewed as supplementary earners in blue-collar households at this time.

Since 1900 changes in relative earnings power related to shifts in technology have encouraged women to enter the paid labor market while purchasing more of the goods and services that were previously produced within the home. At the same time, the rising value of formal education has lead to the withdrawal of child labor from the market and increased investment in formal education (Whaples 2005). During the first half of the twentieth century high school education became nearly universal. And since World War II, there has been a rapid increase in the number of college educated workers in the U.S. economy (Goldin 2000, p. 609-12).

Assessing the Efficiency of Labor Market Institutions

The function of labor markets is to match workers and jobs. As this essay has described the mechanisms by which labor markets have accomplished this task have changed considerably as the American economy has developed. A central issue for economic historians is to assess how changing labor market institutions have affected the efficiency of labor markets. This leads to three sets of questions. The first concerns the long-run efficiency of market processes in allocating labor across space and economic activities. The second involves the response of labor markets to short-run macroeconomic fluctuations. The third deals with wage determination and the distribution of income.

Long-Run Efficiency and Wage Gaps

Efforts to evaluate the efficiency of market allocation begin with what is commonly know as the “law of one price,” which states that within an efficient market the wage of similar workers doing similar work under similar circumstances should be equalized. The ideal of complete equalization is, of course, unlikely to be achieved given the high information and transactions costs that characterize labor markets. Thus, conclusions are usually couched in relative terms, comparing the efficiency of one market at one point in time with those of some other markets at other points in time. A further complication in measuring wage equalization is the need to compare homogeneous workers and to control for other differences (such as cost of living and non-pecuniary amenities).

Falling transportation and communications costs have encouraged a trend toward diminishing wage gaps over time, but this trend has not always been consistent over time, nor has it applied to all markets in equal measure. That said, what stands out is in fact the relative strength of forces of market arbitrage that have operated in many contexts to promote wage convergence.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the costs of trans-Atlantic migration were still quite high and international wage gaps large. By the 1840s, however, vast improvements in shipping cut the costs of migration, and gave rise to an era of dramatic international wage equalization (O’Rourke and Williamson 1999, ch. 2; Williamson 1995). Figure 1 shows the movement of real wages relative to the United States in a selection of European countries. After the beginning of mass immigration wage differentials began to fall substantially in one country after another. International wage convergence continued up until the 1880s, when it appears that the accelerating growth of the American economy outstripped European labor supply responses and reversed wage convergence briefly. World War I and subsequent immigration restrictions caused a sharper break, and contributed to widening international wage differences during the middle portion of the twentieth century. From World War II until about 1980, European wage levels once again began to converge toward the U.S., but this convergence reflected largely internally-generated improvements in European living standards rather then labor market pressures.

Figure 1

Relative Real Wages of Selected European Countries, 1830-1980 (US = 100)

Source: Williamson (1995), Tables A2.1-A2.3.

Wage convergence also took place within some parts of the United States during the nineteenth century. Figure 2 traces wages in the North Central and Southern regions of the U.S relative to those in the Northeast across the period from 1820 to the early twentieth century. Within the United States, wages in the North Central region of the country were 30 to 40 percent higher than in the East in the 1820s (Margo 2000a, ch. 5). Thereafter, wage gaps declined substantially, falling to the 10-20 percent range before the Civil War. Despite some temporary divergence during the war, wage gaps had fallen to 5 to 10 percent by the 1880s and 1890s. Much of this decline was made possible by faster and less expensive means of transportation, but it was also dependent on the development of labor market institutions linking the two regions, for while transportation improvements helped to link East and West, there was no corresponding North-South integration. While southern wages hovered near levels in the Northeast prior to the Civil War, they fell substantially below northern levels after the Civil War, as Figure 2 illustrates.

Figure 2

Relative Regional Real Wage Rates in the United States, 1825-1984

(Northeast = 100 in each year)

Notes and sources: Rosenbloom (2002, p. 133); Montgomery (1992). It is not possible to assemble entirely consistent data on regional wage variations over such an extended period. The nature of the wage data, the precise geographic coverage of the data, and the estimates of regional cost-of-living indices are all different. The earliest wage data—Margo (2000); Sundstrom and Rosenbloom (1993) and Coelho and Shepherd (1976) are all based on occupational wage rates from payroll records for specific occupations; Rosenbloom (1996) uses average earnings across all manufacturing workers; while Montgomery (1992) uses individual level wage data drawn from the Current Population Survey, and calculates geographic variations using a regression technique to control for individual differences in human capital and industry of employment. I used the relative real wages that Montgomery (1992) reported for workers in manufacturing, and used an unweighted average of wages across the cities in each region to arrive at relative regional real wages. Interested readers should consult the various underlying sources for further details.

Despite the large North-South wage gap Table 3 shows there was relatively little migration out of the South until large-scale foreign immigration came to an end. Migration from the South during World War I and the 1920s created a basis for future chain migration, but the Great Depression of the 1930s interrupted this process of adjustment. Not until the 1940s did the North-South wage gap begin to decline substantially (Wright 1986, pp. 71-80). By the 1970s the southern wage disadvantage had largely disappeared, and because of the decline fortunes of older manufacturing districts and the rise of Sunbelt cities, wages in the South now exceed those in the Northeast (Coelho and Ghali 1971; Bellante 1979; Sahling and Smith 1983; Montgomery 1992). Despite these shocks, however, the overall variation in wages appears comparable to levels attained by the end of the nineteenth century. Montgomery (1992), for example finds that from 1974 to 1984 the standard deviation of wages across SMSAs was only about 10 percent of the average wage.

Table 3

Net Migration by Region, and Race, 1870-1950

South Northeast North Central West
Period White Black White Black White Black White Black
Number (in 1,000s)
1870-80 91 -68 -374 26 26 42 257 0
1880-90 -271 -88 -240 61 -43 28 554 0
1890-00 -30 -185 101 136 -445 49 374 0
1900-10 -69 -194 -196 109 -1,110 63 1,375 22
1910-20 -663 -555 -74 242 -145 281 880 32
1920-30 -704 -903 -177 435 -464 426 1,345 42
1930-40 -558 -480 55 273 -747 152 1,250 55
1940-50 -866 -1581 -659 599 -1,296 626 2,822 356
Rate (migrants/1,000 Population)
1870-80 11 -14 -33 55 2 124 274 0
1880-90 -26 -15 -18 107 -3 65 325 0
1890-00 -2 -26 6 200 -23 104 141 0
1900-10 -4 -24 -11 137 -48 122 329 542
1910-20 -33 -66 -3 254 -5 421 143 491
1920-30 -30 -103 -7 328 -15 415 160 421
1930-40 -20 -52 2 157 -22 113 116 378
1940-50 -28 -167 -20 259 -35 344 195 964

Note: Net migration is calculated as the difference between the actual increase in population over each decade and the predicted increase based on age and sex specific mortality rates and the demographic structure of the region’s population at the beginning of the decade. If the actual increase exceeds the predicted increase this implies a net migration into the region; if the actual increase is less than predicted this implies net migration out of the region. The states included in the Southern region are Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Source: Eldridge and Thomas (1964, pp. 90, 99).

In addition to geographic wage gaps economists have considered gaps between farm and city, between black and white workers, between men and women, and between different industries. The literature on these topics is quite extensive and this essay can only touch on a few of the more general themes raised here as they relate to U.S. economic history.

Studies of farm-city wage gaps are a variant of the broader literature on geographic wage variation, related to the general movement of labor from farms to urban manufacturing and services. Here comparisons are complicated by the need to adjust for the non-wage perquisites that farm laborers typically received, which could be almost as large as cash wages. The issue of whether such gaps existed in the nineteenth century has important implications for whether the pace of industrialization was impeded by the lack of adequate labor supply responses. By the second half of the nineteenth century at least, it appears that farm-manufacturing wage gaps were small and markets were relatively integrated (Wright 1988, pp. 204-5). Margo (2000, ch. 4) offers evidence of a high degree of equalization within local labor markets between farm and urban wages as early as 1860. Making comparisons within counties and states, he reports that farm wages were within 10 percent of urban wages in eight states. Analyzing data from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s, Hatton and Williamson (1991) find that farm and city wages were nearly equal within U.S. regions by the 1890s. It appears, however that during the Great Depression farm wages were much more flexible than urban wages causing a large gap to emerge at this time (Alston and Williamson 1991).

Much attention has been focused on trends in wage gaps by race and sex. The twentieth century has seen a substantial convergence in both of these differentials. Table 4 displays comparisons of earnings of black males relative to white males for full time workers. In 1940, full-time black male workers earned only about 43 percent of what white male full-time workers did. By 1980 the racial pay ratio had risen to nearly 73 percent, but there has been little subsequent progress. Until the mid-1960s these gains can be attributed primarily to migration from the low-wage South to higher paying areas in the North, and to increases in the quantity and quality of black education over time (Margo 1995; Smith and Welch 1990). Since then, however, most gains have been due to shifts in relative pay within regions. Although it is clear that discrimination was a key factor in limiting access to education, the role of discrimination within the labor market in contributing to these differentials has been a more controversial topic (see Wright 1986, pp. 127-34). But the episodic nature of black wage gains, especially after 1964 is compelling evidence that discrimination has played a role historically in earnings differences and that federal anti-discrimination legislation was a crucial factor in reducing its effects (Donohue and Heckman 1991).

Table 4

Black Male Wages as a Percentage of White Male Wages, 1940-2004

Date Black Relative Wage
1940 43.4
1950 55.2
1960 57.5
1970 64.4
1980 72.6
1990 70.0
2004 77.0

Notes and Sources: Data for 1940 through 1980 are based on Census data as reported in Smith and Welch (1989, Table 8). Data for 1990 are from Ehrenberg and Smith (2000, Table 12.4) and refer to earnings of full time, full year workers. Data from 2004 are for median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers derived from data in the Current Population Survey accessed on-line from the Bureau of Labor Statistic on 13 December 2005; URL

Male-Female wage gaps have also narrowed substantially over time. In the 1820s women’s earnings in manufacturing were a little less than 40 percent of those of men, but this ratio rose over time reaching about 55 percent by the 1920s. Across all sectors women’s relative pay rose during the first half of the twentieth century, but gains in female wages stalled during the 1950s and 1960s at the time when female labor force participation began to increase rapidly. Beginning in the late 1970s or early 1980s, relative female pay began to rise again, and today women earn about 80 percent what men do (Goldin 1990, table 3.2; Goldin 2000, pp. 606-8). Part of this remaining difference is explained by differences in the occupational distribution of men and women, with women tending to be concentrated in lower paying jobs. Whether these differences are the result of persistent discrimination or arise because of differences in productivity or a choice by women to trade off greater flexibility in terms of labor market commitment for lower pay remains controversial.

In addition to locational, sectoral, racial and gender wage differentials, economists have also documented and analyzed differences by industry. Krueger and Summers (1987) find that there are pronounced differences in wages by industry within well-specified occupational classes, and that these differentials have remained relatively stable over several decades. One interpretation of this phenomenon is that in industries with substantial market power workers are able to extract some of the monopoly rents as higher pay. An alternative view is that workers are in fact heterogeneous, and differences in wages reflect a process of sorting in which higher paying industries attract more able workers.

The Response to Short-run Macroeconomic Fluctuations

The existence of unemployment is one of the clearest indications of the persistent frictions that characterize labor markets. As described earlier, the concept of unemployment first entered common discussion with the growth of the factory labor force in the 1870s. Unemployment was not a visible social phenomenon in an agricultural economy, although there was undoubtedly a great deal of hidden underemployment.

Although one might have expected that the shift from spot toward more contractual labor markets would have increased rigidities in the employment relationship that would result in higher levels of unemployment there is in fact no evidence of any long-run increase in the level of unemployment.

Contemporaneous measurements of the rate of unemployment only began in 1940. Prior to this date, economic historians have had to estimate unemployment levels from a variety of other sources. Decennial censuses provide benchmark levels, but it is necessary to interpolate between these benchmarks based on other series. Conclusions about long-run changes in unemployment behavior depend to a large extent on the method used to interpolate between benchmark dates. Estimates prepared by Stanley Lebergott (1964) suggest that the average level of unemployment and its volatility have declined between the pre-1930 and post-World War II periods. Christina Romer (1986a, 1986b), however, has argued that there was no decline in volatility. Rather, she argues that the apparent change in behavior is the result of Lebergott’s interpolation procedure.

While the aggregate behavior of unemployment has changed surprisingly little over the past century, the changing nature of employment relationships has been reflected much more clearly in changes in the distribution of the burden of unemployment (Goldin 2000, pp. 591-97). At the beginning of the twentieth century, unemployment was relatively widespread, and largely unrelated to personal characteristics. Thus many employees faced great uncertainty about the permanence of their employment relationship. Today, on the other hand, unemployment is highly concentrated: falling heavily on the least skilled, the youngest, and the non-white segments of the labor force. Thus, the movement away from spot markets has tended to create a two-tier labor market in which some workers are highly vulnerable to economic fluctuations, while others remain largely insulated from economic shocks.

Wage Determination and Distributional Issues

American economic growth has generated vast increases in the material standard of living. Real gross domestic product per capita, for example, has increased more than twenty-fold since 1820 (Steckel 2002). This growth in total output has in large part been passed on to labor in the form of higher wages. Although labor’s share of national output has fluctuated somewhat, in the long-run it has remained surprisingly stable. According to Abramovitz and David (2000, p. 20), labor received 65 percent of national income in the years 1800-1855. Labor’s share dropped in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, falling to a low of 54 percent of national income between 1890 and 1927, but has since risen, reaching 65 percent again in 1966-1989. Thus, over the long term, labor income has grown at the same rate as total output in the economy.

The distribution of labor’s gains across different groups in the labor force has also varied over time. I have already discussed patterns of wage variation by race and gender, but another important issue revolves around the overall level of inequality of pay, and differences in pay between groups of skilled and unskilled workers. Careful research by Picketty and Saez (2003) using individual income tax returns has documented changes in the overall distribution of income in the United States since 1913. They find that inequality has followed a U-shaped pattern over the course of the twentieth century. Inequality was relatively high at the beginning of the period they consider, fell sharply during World War II, held steady until the early 1970s and then began to increase, reaching levels comparable to those in the early twentieth century by the 1990s.

An important factor in the rising inequality of income since 1970 has been growing dispersion in wage rates. The wage differential between workers in the 90th percentile of the wage distribution and those in the 10th percentile increased by 49 percent between 1969 and 1995 (Plotnick et al 2000, pp. 357-58). These shifts are mirrored in increased premiums earned by college graduates relative to high school graduates. Two primary explanations have been advanced for these trends. First, there is evidence that technological changes—especially those associated with the increased use of information technology—has increased relative demand for more educated workers (Murnane, Willett and Levy (1995). Second, increased global integration has allowed low-wage manufacturing industries overseas to compete more effectively with U.S. manufacturers, thus depressing wages in what have traditionally been high-paying blue collar jobs.

Efforts to expand the scope of analysis over a longer-run encounter problems with more limited data. Based on selected wage ratios of skilled and unskilled workers Willamson and Lindert (1980) have argued that there was an increase in wage inequality over the course of the nineteenth century. But other scholars have argued that the wage series that Williamson and Lindert used are unreliable (Margo 2000b, pp. 224-28).


The history of labor market institutions in the United States illustrates the point that real world economies are substantially more complex than the simplest textbook models. Instead of a disinterested and omniscient auctioneer, the process of matching buyers and sellers takes place through the actions of self-interested market participants. The resulting labor market institutions do not respond immediately and precisely to shifting patterns of incentives. Rather they are subject to historical forces of increasing-returns and lock-in that cause them to change gradually and along path-dependent trajectories.

For all of these departures from the theoretically ideal market, however, the history of labor markets in the United States can also be seen as a confirmation of the remarkable power of market processes of allocation. From the beginning of European settlement in mainland North America, labor markets have done a remarkable job of responding to shifting patterns of demand and supply. Not only have they accomplished the massive geographic shifts associated with the settlement of the United States, but they have also dealt with huge structural changes induced by the sustained pace of technological change.


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