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John Allen James: A Scholarly Remembrance

Submitted by: Chris Hanes, Hugh Rockoff, Mark Thomas and David Weiman

John anniversary 2013

John entered the MIT graduate program during the early, lofty days of the “new” economic history, and emerged as one of its most deft, sensible and versatile practitioners.  His PhD dissertation—directed by Peter Temin—exemplifies the promise of this new approach to historical analysis.  It addresses a central issue in American political economic development, the formation of a more integrated (or “perfect”) money market in the late nineteenth-century.  Influenced by the earlier contributions of Lance Davis and Richard Sylla, John set out to document systematically the timing and spatial extent of this financial innovation, and then to explain why it occurred where and when it did.  He adapted current finance theory (CAPM) to the historical context by incorporating possible market imperfections due to spatial factors such as local market power.  He collected mounds of data on national banks across the country to derive average annual loan rates—the key variable to be explained —over the period 1888 to 1911.

John’s results, subsequently published in his early scholarly articles (one of which was awarded the prestigious Arthur H. Cole prize by the Economic History Association) and then masterfully synthesized in his book Money and Capital Markets in Postbellum America, still constitute the received wisdom on this topic.  Part of the staying power of John’s work can be attributed to the wide range of techniques that he mastered and used.  John refined the art of descriptive statistics especially graphical analysis—or “eye balling the data” in his words—but he also built sophisticated models and tested them using the most current econometric methods.  And then true to his calling as both economist and historian, he constructed a compelling narrative showing the interaction between popular (or in the case of regional interest rates, more accurately Populist) politics and banking development.  First, he showed that the convergence of bank rates to levels in the Northeast occurred unevenly across the regions of the U.S.  It was most pronounced in the Midwestern and Pacific Coast states, and least evident in the South.  The latter observation was the subject of a separate article on Southern financial underdevelopment, and resurfaces in his recent co-authored research on the evolution of the American currency-monetary union.  Second, he dated this convergence from the late 1880s, timing which defied the alternative hypotheses based on the formation of a national commercial paper market (which occurred earlier) and passage of relevant federal banking reforms (in 1900).  Finally, his results emphasized the importance of local market power as a factor in explaining the delayed and uneven narrowing of regional interest differentials.  Reinforcing this conclusion, John marshaled statistical and qualitative evidence relating the erosion of bank market power to the liberalization of state banking laws in the 1880s, but only where populist candidates challenged incumbents.  Regional differences in the risks of lending, although present, it turned out were of secondary importance in explaining regional differences in interest rates.

John’s subsequent research shows his continued fascination with the manifold, profound transformations in the American economy from the Civil War era through the Roaring Twenties.  He contributed significantly to the debates over the first and second industrial revolutions in a series of articles on the causes and consequences of technological innovation over the nineteenth century.  He first investigated whether labor scarcity induced American manufacturers to adopt more capital-intensive, labor-saving (that is mechanical) innovations.  His most widely cited paper on this issue, co-authored with then University of Virginia colleague Jonathan Skinner, provided the definitive resolution of the “labor scarcity” paradox, showing that new mechanical technologies substituted for relatively scarce skilled labor but were strategic complements to unskilled labor and natural resources.  In turn, the James-Skinner view corroborates empirically an alternative frontier thesis, which emphasizes America’s relative abundance of natural resources and not the lure of abundant farm land on labor supplies.  Applying a similar production function analysis to the late nineteenth century period, John also furnishes one of the few statistical tests of Alfred Chandler’s influential thesis relating shifts in the pattern of technological innovation to the rise of big business.

The James-Skinner article is also noteworthy for its application of general equilibrium simulation modeling in economic history.  John had first deployed this methodology in his analysis of U.S. tariff policy before the Civil War.  Armed with a new sophisticated—and disconcertingly intractable—technique for deriving general equilibrium outcomes, John corroborates the conventional view on the distributional impacts of antebellum tariffs: all other things equal, they burdened Southern cotton exporters but benefitted Northern manufacturers and their workers.  At the same time he challenges the mainstream by suggesting that average tariff rates across the period may have been economically “optimal.”

John also made many important contributions to the general macroeconomic history of prewar United States. Working solely and with several co-authors including Christopher Hanes, Jon Skinner, and Mark Thomas, John’s program embraced pay and wealth inequality during the first industrial revolution; public and private savings behavior and economic growth; unemployment-inflation dynamics and the shifting Phillips curve relationship; and changes in the sources and extent of unemployment and cyclical fluctuations.  John’s work in these areas appealed to macroeconomists and made use of the latest econometric methods.  His 1993 article in the American Economic Review pioneered the use of structural vector autoregression analysis in economic history.  A decade later he published another paper in the AER, which used nineteenth century wage data to look for evidence of downward nominal wage rigidity, a phenomenon that had only recently become a focus of research in monetary policy (and has become even more relevant in the post-2008 slump).  Though much of John’s work in these areas appeared in general-interest economics journals, it displayed all the virtues of the best economic history.  John was careful to account for peculiarities of historical data and institutions, and to point out the implications of his findings for the larger sweep of American social history.

John’s foray into the history of U.S. savings tackled thorny questions at the macro and micro levels.  Complementing his earlier work on the impact of Civil War debt repayment (or public savings) on late nineteenth century growth, John, in tandem with Skinner, analyzed the dramatic rise in the personal savings rate during the first industrial revolution (published in a volume that placed him among the elite in the profession).  True to form, they identified a novel mechanism operating through changes in the occupational rather than the age distribution of the population.  And ironically (at least for John), their results downplayed the importance of financial market innovations, such as the spread of deposit banking so important in his earlier work.  But typical of John’s commitment to following the lead of the data, he could not and did not resist the apparent paradox.

A number of years later John investigated the microeconomics of saving behavior with former Virginia graduate student Michael Palumbo and colleague Mark Thomas.  Grounded in the historical equivalent of ‘big data’—almost 28,000 observations of late 19th century working-class households from Federal and State Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys—they modeled the distribution of savings by age group, derived estimates of the persistence of family income and savings rates over time, and then simulated wealth accumulation by 10,000 model households.  Their striking conclusions challenged critics of old-age insurance and working-class profligacy: workers did not save at higher rates in the era before Social Security than in the 1980s.  They also showed that few late nineteenth century working class households saved enough before age 65 to meet their living expenses in old age (an expected 10 more years of life), and conjectured that they likely depended on their children, in particular co-habitation with an older son or daughter in the very houses where they had raised their families.  Further research revealed that workers smoothed their consumption over a medium-period time horizon, indicating the influence of precautionary savings motives in response to a world of considerable riskiness from unemployment, illness, incapacity, and premature death of the household head.  Attesting to his growing interest in Japan, John (in work with Isoa Suto) extended this approach to Japanese savings behavior in the era before the social safety net.[2]

John’s other major contributions to the micro-economic foundations of macro-economic outcomes focused on wage and unemployment dynamics in late 19th century labor markets.  In characteristic fashion, he collected all available data on these topics and then framed questions of historical and current import.  Besides challenging earlier research showing signs of nominal wage rigidity, John also investigated and did not find evidence of increasing wage inequality over the period.  On the unemployment front, he estimated flows into and out of jobs based on the 1885 Massachusetts census, and found evidence of significant positive duration dependence, for employment and non-employment spells.  With a vaster dataset (containing over 100,000 observations), John estimated the natural rate of unemployment in 1909 to be just under 6 percent, strikingly similar to estimates today.  To explain this relatively high rate, his simulation analysis, which divided the labor market into stable-primary and floater-secondary workers, pointed to an eclectic mix of factors: seasonal disturbances for many stable workers, lay-offs for workers in cyclically sensitive sectors, and brief, relatively frequent spells for the floaters.  The paper, co-authored with Mark Thomas, won John his second Arthur H. Cole Prize from the Economic History Association.  Their joint work also challenged the findings of Christina Romer by showing that unemployment was more cyclically volatile during America’s first Gilded Age than it was during its Golden Age (in the post-WWII period).  His broader conclusion from these various strands of research is both simple and striking—labor markets and the macro-economy worked differently in the past and historians need to focus on the role of changing institutions and changing policies to try to explain how and why history matters.

Just prior to his sudden and untimely death, John returned to a topic briefly addressed in his dissertation and subsequent book on banking-financial markets in postbellum America.  At a St. Louis Fed conference, he presented data showing the increased efficiency of a largely private, decentralized banking system in greasing the wheels of commerce by moving money from one location to another, even across the country, at relatively low cost.  Teaming up with David Weiman, they explained this trend by the formation of a tiered network of correspondent banks centered on New York.

James and Weiman elaborated this initial paper into a book-length project to explain the evolution of this neglected economic infrastructure from the demise of the Second Bank of the United States to the formation of the Fed.  Informed by current policy debates, they conceived these transformations in terms of the “benefits and costs” of alternative institutional forms—private versus public and hierarchical networks versus bureaucracies.  En route, they decided to write on the Civil War era banking legislation, which institutionalized the emerging private correspondent banking network.  Their initial foray uncovered a striking connection between the adoption of a common currency and a longer-term trend toward a “more perfect” bank money (or payments) union.

Armed with this serendipitous result, James and Weiman have broadened the scope of their project to show the complex interplay between the “punctuated” evolution of the interbank payment network and the American monetary union.  Conceived along these lines, their book (in progress with a manuscript expected by the end of 2015) will complete what for John was a lifetime’s exploration of the development of the banking system in postbellum America.  Banks, we know, are peculiar financial institutions, both credit and payments intermediary.  John’s first book Money and Capital Markets analyzed their former dimension, and his forthcoming book will attend to the latter.

John’s scholarly contributions cannot be measured solely by his outstanding research record.  He was an academic mensch, to use a most fitting Yiddish expression.  John never refused the thankless tasks of a productive scholar—the endless referee reports, book reviews and discussant comments—but even when critical, he always struck a constructive tone sweetened with a good dose of his dry wit.  (In the case of the discussants’ role, we should also note that ever the cosmopolitan John would rarely pass up the opportunity to venture far and wide to see new sites and especially opera productions.)  But John’s spirit truly shone through in his interactions with younger scholars from all walks of intellectual life.  He was an intellectual gourmand ever curious to broaden his own substantive and theoretical-methodological horizons, but also a genuinely gifted mentor who guided others down their own paths, not his own.  And he was always ready to share his data, and willing to explain how to use them.  This aspect of John’s career can be best measured by the outpouring of affection from his “juniors,” who now can proudly call him a colleague, collaborator, and friend.  And they all describe him in virtually identical terms: brilliant, probing, curious, supportive, generous, decent, kind, humane, compassionate and passionate.  We are sure that this list is not complete but can attest to one fact.  John will be sorely missed by all of those whose lives he touched so profoundly.


Selected Highlights from John’s Career

Capitalism in Context: Essays on Economic Development and Cultural Change in Honor of R. M. Hartwell, ed. (with Mark Thomas). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Money and Capital Markets in Postbellum America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

“Political Economic Limits to the Fed’s Goal of a Common National Bank Money: The Par Clearing Controversy Revisited” (with David F. Weiman). Research in Economic History.

“Main Street and Wall Street: The Macroeconomic Consequences of New York Bank Suspensions, 1866 to 1914″ (with David F. Weiman and James A. McAndrews), Cliometrica,7 (2013), 99-130.

“The National Banking Act and the Transformation of New York Banking after the Civil War” (with David F. Weiman), Journal of Economic History, 71(June, 2011), pp. 340-364

“Early Twentieth-Century Japanese Worker Saving: Precautionary Behavior before a Social Safety Net” (with Isao Suto), Cliometrica, forthcoming.

“From Drafts to Checks: The Evolution of Correspondent Banking Networks and the  Formation of the Modern U.S. Payments System, 1850-1914″ (with David F. Weiman), Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking, 42 (April, 2010), pp. 237-265.

“Consumption Smoothing among Working-Class American Families before Social

Insurance” (with Michael Palumbo and Mark Thomas), Oxford Economic Papers, 59 (October, 2007), pp. 606-640.

“The Political Economy of the U.S. Monetary Union: The Civil War Era as a Watershed” (with David F. Weiman), American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 97 (May, 2007), pp. 271-275 .

“Romer Revisited: Long-term Changes in the Cyclical Sensitivity of Unemployment” (with Mark Thomas), Cliometrica, 1 (April, 2007), pp. 19-44.

“Have American Workers Always Been Low Savers?” Patterns of Accumulation among Working-Class Households, 1885-1910,” (with Mark Thomas and Michael Palumbo), Research in Economic History, Volume 23, Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2005. Pp. 127-175.

“Financial Clearing Systems” (with David F. Weiman). In Richard Nelson, ed.,

Complexity and Limits of Market Organization, New York: Russell Sage, 2005. Pp. 114-155.

“A Golden Age? Unemployment and the American Labor Market, 1880-1910″ (with Mark Thomas), Journal of Economic History, LXIII (December, 2003), pp. 959-994.

“Wage Adjustment under Low Inflation: Evidence from U.S. History” (with Christopher L. Hanes), American Economic Review, 93 (September, 2003), pp. 1414-1424.

“Industrialization and Wage Inequality in Nineteenth-Century Urban America” (with Mark Thomas), Journal of Income Distribution, 9 (2000), pp. 39-64.

“Savings and Early Economic Growth in the United States and Japan,” Japan and the World Economy, 11 (1999), pp. 161-83.

“The Early History of Nominal Wage Rigidity in American Industrial Labor Markets,” Rivista di Storia Economica, XIV (December, 1998), pp. 243-73.

“The Rise and Fall of the Commercial Paper Market, 1900-1930.” In: M. Bordo and R. Sylla, eds., Anglo-American Finance: Financial Markets and Institutions in 20th Century North America and the UK, Homewood, IL: Dow Jones-Irwin, 1996. Pp. 219-59.

“Reconstructing the Pattern of American Unemployment Before World War I,” Economica, 62 (August, 1995), pp. 291-311.

“Job Tenure in the Gilded Age.” In: George Grantham and Mary MacKinnon eds., Labour Market Evolution, London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1994. Pp. 185-204.

“Economic Instability in Nineteenth-Century America,” American Economic Review, 83 (September, 1993), pp. 710-31.

“The Stability of the Nineteenth-Century Phillips Curve Relationship,” Explorations in Economic History, XXVI (April, 1989), pp. 117-34.

“Sources of Savings in the Nineteenth-Century United States” (with Jonathan Skinner). In: Peter Kilby, ed., Quantity and Quiddity: Essays in U.S. Economic History in Honor of Stanley Lebergott, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987. Pp. 255-85.

“The Resolution of the Labor Scarcity Paradox,” (with Jonathan Skinner), Journal of Economic History, XLV (September, 1985), pp. 513-40.

“The Use of General Equilibrium Analysis in Economic History,” Explorations in Economic History, XXI (July, 1984), pp. 231-53.

“Public Debt Management Policy and Nineteenth-Century American Economic Growth,” Explorations in Economic History, XXI (April, 1984), pp. 192-217.

“Structural Change in American Manufacturing, 1850-1890,” Journal of Economic History, XLII (June, 1983), pp. 433-60.

“The Optimal Tariff in the Antebellum United States,” American Economic Review, LXXI (September, 1981), pp. 726-34.

“Some Evidence on Relative Labor Scarcity in Nineteenth-Century American Manufacturing,” Explorations in Economic History, XVIII (September, 1981), pp. 376-88.

“Financial Underdevelopment in the Postbellum South,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XI (Winter, 1980), pp. 443-54.

“Cost Functions of Postbellum National Banks,” Explorations in Economic History, XV (April, 1978), pp. 184-95.

“The Welfare Effects of the Antebellum Tariff: A General Equilibrium Analysis,” Explorations in Economic History, XV (July, 1978), pp. 231-56.

“Banking Market Structure, Risk, and the Pattern of Local Interest Rates in the United States, 1893-1911,” Review of Economics and Statistics, LVIII (November, 1976), pp. 453-62.

“The Conundrum of the Low Issue of National Bank Notes,” Journal of Political Economy, LXXXIV (April, 1976), pp. 359-67.

“The Development of the National Money Market,” Journal of Economic History, XXXVI  (December, 1976), pp. 878-97.

“Portfolio Selection with an Imperfectly Competitive Asset Market,” Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis, XI (December, 1976), pp. 831-46.


[1] Composed by Christopher L. Hanes (SUNY-Binghamton), Hugh Rockoff (Rutgers University), Mark Thomas (University of Virginia), and David F. Weiman (Barnard College, Columbia University)


[2] John had earlier explored the different historical savings patterns in Japan and the U.S. and their implications for economic growth.



Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History

Author(s):Cushman, Gregory T.
Reviewer(s):Levy, Juliette

Published by EH.Net (August 2014)

Gregory T. Cushman, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xvii + 392 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-107-00413-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Juliette Levy, Department of History, University of California, Riverside.

This is not the first book about guano, nor is it the first commodity study that connects the world around it. This book, however, may be the first book that is both a detailed and intricate history of the Pacific basin (mostly weighed to the Peruvian/Latin America side of it) and a fascinating history of the development of an environmental discourse in it. This is as much an environmental history, as it is the history of environmental thought in the Pacific basin. Cushman traces the discourse, theories and acts of environmentalism, nature, ecology and population through the many phases of guano exploration, use and export. He carries the analysis through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, articulating how environmental issues became tied to local and global politics and economics.

Cushman is an excellent writer, bringing in a variety of perspectives, from scientists, environmental evangelists, politicians, economists and commodity traders, as well as island populations and bird-watchers, going so far as to imagine the perspective of the guano-producing birds themselves. In the hands of a less-talented writer this might have become quite confusing, but instead the personal (and animal) perspectives help anchor and reinforce the tight knit of humankind’s relationship with its environment.

To say this book has far-reaching ambitions is an understatement — it is after all a “global ecological history” and as such, the author had to tie the history of bird excrement to the broader implications of late nineteenth-century export booms, agricultural productivity growth, ecological depredation, political transformations and the weaving of a global economic project around the competitive access to this ecological asset. And by and large, the author succeeds in fulfilling these ambitions. Most of all, here is the rare environmental history that is actually about the environment. And here is a global history that does indeed span more than one country and continent. Cushman’s training as a Latin American historian does not obscure his perspective over the rest of the world and in his treatment of Peru (the erstwhile world leader in guano production) does not ignore the efforts, and the significance of the efforts, of the many other countries that tried to ride the guano trail.

He is also not biased by previous assessments of global history. The global nineteenth century, with its colonial expansions into Africa and neo-colonial trade networks has often been cast as the age of American expansionism and local elite cooptation. Here Cushman reveals how the issue of economic growth and national economic strategy at the time occupied the relatively young Latin American nations.  Peru had a bold environmental plan, devised for national growth, and Chile too joined in territorial expansion as a means of securing international and domestic power. This claim is certainly not new, but it is refreshing (as it were) to see the small guano-covered islands becoming pawns in this game. He also continues the story well into the twentieth century, allowing the reader to trace the origins of the conservation movement in the U.S. and Latin America via the studies of ornithologists and naturalists — all of which leads to a coherent long-view environmental history.

The book is dense, and it is not a straight-forward assessment of the issue. This may have something to do with the author’s articulation of his argument. In his own words, the argument is seven-fold and touches on the following issues: 1) the geographical parameters of the Pacific world; 2) the creation/construction of the Pacific world; 3) the agency of nature on the creation of the Pacific world; 4) connection between the Pacific world and the industrial revolution; 5) cultural influences of the transformations in the Pacific world and industrial revolution; 6) social groups that orchestrated much of the guano world; and 7) the ethical ramifications of the world created by guano.

This 7-fold argument is explored across eight chapters, which each also have their own theme and motivating arguments. Chapter 2 focuses on the importance of bird waste in opening the Pacific world Chapters 3 and 4 focus on what the author calls neo-ecological imperialism — with two case studies of post-colonial exploration for nitrates among newly independent nations of Latin America and Austral Asia. Chapter 5 studies how nitrate exploration contributed to creating environmental governance at the turn of the twentieth century in Peru and neighboring regions. Chapter 6 focuses on Peru in the context of guano, the Pacific world, ecology and economy. Chapter 7 turns to Pacific geopolitics specifically between the two World Wars. Chapter 8 delves into the formation of early twentieth century environmentalism in the context of population concerns and chapter 9 deftly discusses the tensions between development projects and the environmental advisors hired to increase the productivity of agriculture in the mid-twentieth century.

One wishes for a more streamlined narrative, which a more forceful editorial hand might have achieved. But this is a minor quibble in a book that is packed with more insight and detail than one single book usually has. There is enough here for two books at least, so historians, environmentalists, and social scientists will find much to explore and learn in its pages.

It remains that Cushman’s specialty is in the environmental aspect of the story, which overlaps with policy and consumption — and history of course. History is actually the most important actor in this valuable book. In his tracing of the policies of young nations in the nineteenth century, which were trying to position themselves in a global market that grew largely out of its colonial use of their resources, Cushman attaches environmental consequences to the colonial legacy. And it is in this environmental treatment of history that Cushman may be reminding all of us that history is meaningless is we don’t acknowledge, and study, its dependence and relationship to its physical environment.

Juliette Levy is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside. Her most recent book, The Making of a Market: Credit, Henequen and Notaries in Yucatán, 1850-1900, was published in 2012 by Penn State Press.

Copyright (c) 2014 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (August 2014). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Cotton: The Fabric that Made the Modern World

Author(s):Riello, Giorgio
Reviewer(s):Jones, Eric

Published by EH.Net (June 2014)

Giorgio Riello, Cotton: The Fabric that Made the Modern World.  New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  xxviii + 407 pp.  $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-107-00022-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric Jones, La Trobe University.

Reviewing this book is a tall order because it is strikingly broad in coverage and even bolder in the sweep of its claims, geographical, chronological and methodological.  The volume is also full of contemporary illustrations of textiles, which, when few physical items have survived, is a practical alternative.  I have never seen so many pictures in a scholarly text on commodity history, used here to support Giorgio Riello’s insistence that economic historians are too narrow in the evidence and approach they use – more of which anon.  It is true that cotton has been the subject of innumerable industrial histories that do not begin to match this author’s reach back to A.D. 1000 or his delving into the detail of textile history in Asia, though his claims for primacy may still be thought a mite overdrawn.  Riello, who is Professor of Global History at the University of Warwick, wishes to answer two main questions: why cotton came to outclass other fibers used for clothing and why northwest Europe, more particularly northwest England, became the improbable location from which manufactured cotton cloth flooded the world market.  He does better, in my view, in tackling the former question than the latter.  Much is to be learned, nevertheless, from both halves, for this is a rich and elaborate work.

Picking out any single section is difficult because so many topics, themes, clever distinctions and academic debates are introduced in a largely successful crusade to demonstrate that cotton is a good lens for viewing global history (though by dealing primarily with India and England, the book is really international history, give or take the late arrival of the nation state).  I will mention only two outstanding treatments of the “why cotton” issue.  The first is the extended demonstration that developments in the printing and design of fabrics should take their place alongside innovations in spinning and weaving.  The second is some ingenious calculating of ghost acreages to show how unreasonably expensive in land or labor it would have been for England to have produced at home enough of any fiber to satisfy its burgeoning industrial sector.  The point is emphasized that the novelty of European cotton production was to delink manufacturing geographically from the source of its raw material.

There is no need to quarrel with the breadth of the geography or chronology other than to say that the choice does rather depend on what one is trying to explain.  Economic historians may, however, bridle at the remark that they are just as interested in measuring outcomes as in explaining them and attribute “all the merit (or blame)” parsimoniously, to one or at most a handful of variables.  This, says Riello, is “a rather narrow way of accruing alternative explanations.”  Insofar as we are guilty as charged, this misconceives the economic method.  Economic historians of my acquaintance are concerned with magnitudes (how many, how much, how often, etc., as Clapham said) but they have an end in view that does not necessarily blind them to the complexity of the world: they simply wish to identify as much order in it as possible.  Admittedly some overdo the approach, bruising the tender tissues of history in the iron grip of neoclassical theory.  Price theory will take you 60 percent of the way, quipped Lance Davis, but he meant only 60 percent.  As soon as sociological and other variables are introduced, the reproducible and the definite deliquesce into less tractable realism.  Maximizing these things simultaneously proves too hard for any of us.  Introducing great breadth, as Riello does, creates engaging narratives but is a different exercise.  Perhaps ironically, Cotton turns out to be far more analytical than his methodological statements might lead one to expect.

Beyond this, Riello joins the coterie of academics determined to cut the role in world history of Europe, and especially of England, down in size.  That the West borrowed ideas about design from India, whence it imported cotton textiles before producing them at home, is familiar enough.  Nevertheless, some credit might be given to the European shipping that did uniquely take trade into another hemisphere.  Riello asserts that England was extreme rather than exceptional, which depends on what these terms mean and as it stands is surely misleading.  He says that whereas the old classic on cotton by Wadsworth and Mann aimed to show how Lancashire changed the world, he wants to show how the world changed Lancashire.  He wishes explicitly to side-line technological history, saying for instance that even if factories did emerge in England suddenly they were only epiphenomena.  They were symptoms of something bigger.  But factories, and a fortiori textile machinery, indeed the entire Lancastrian industrial revolution, were what broke the mold of world history.  Ideas and materials had filtered from the East but that is not the point, even without any allowance for independent discoveries.  The point is the response.  However early in time developments in making cotton had occurred in Asia, and whatever transmission to Europe there was, the technological response in England was utterly novel and utterly formative of the modern world.  The cant term would be “game-changer.”

Riello’s central purpose is to demonstrate how a specific good changed the way people lived, their tastes and physical conditions, and to do this in a way that dissociates him from the supposed limitations of economic history.  The formation of tastes is admittedly something that economic historians do not pretend to understand but I do not see that this book endogenizes it in a rigorous way.  Exposing the passionate heart of Riello’s approach and its apparent defects is of course the first task when reviewing.  It may, however, distract attention from the scope of his achievements.  Given the depth of scholarship and unusual range, a catalogue of contents ought not to be an appendix – but a full account of all the subsidiary episodes and puzzles discussed would be beyond the permissible length of this review.  On its own terms Cotton’s history is immensely informed and informative.

Eric Jones, Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and former Professor, Melbourne Business School, is the author of Locating the Industrial Revolution: Inducement and Response (World Scientific, 2010), The Fabric of Society and How It Creates Wealth (Arley Hall Press, 2013, with Charles Foster), and Revealed Biodiversity: An Economic History of the Human Impact (World Scientific, 2014).

Copyright (c) 2014 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (June 2014). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Catch Up: Developing Countries in the World Economy

Author(s):Nayyar, Deepak
Reviewer(s):Ward-Peradoza, Marianne

Published by EH.Net (May 2014)

Deepak Nayyar, Catch Up: Developing Countries in the World Economy.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.  xvii + 221 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-965298-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Marianne Ward-Peradoza, Department of Economics, Loyola University Maryland.

Deepak Nayyar, Professor Emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University, takes us on a journey tracing the contours of developing country participation in the world economy from the second millennium to the present.  Catch Up thus goes beyond the traditional post-1950 assessment of development experiences, providing additional context and some new perspectives on developing country economic performance.  In particular, the author seeks to contrast divergence between developed and developing countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the closing of the gap that occurred in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.  In addition to the evolution over time, the analysis highlights the disparity in outcomes across regions in the developing world.  For the purposes of this study, the developing world is Africa, Asia (excluding Japan), and Latin America including the Caribbean.

The book is divided into two broad sections.  The first, comprising chapters 2 and 3, examines the period 1000 to 1950.  The second section, chapters 4 through 9, focuses on the post-1950 period, and considers the nature of developing country participation in the world economy since 1950.  Nayyar supports his arguments throughout using GDP, population, trade, and manufacturing data along with inequality and poverty measures for developed and developing countries.  While it is possible to raise various questions about data choices and sources, these issues are tangential and do not appear to affect the overall argument.   Two striking points emerge from the analysis.  First, divergence before 1950 and catch up in recent decades are more about divergence and subsequent catch up in Asia, and India and China in particular, than in developing countries as a group.  Second, regional disparities in economic performance across developing countries are substantial.
Chapters 1 through 3 provide the foundation for the analysis of “catch-up” in the post-1950 period.   Chapter 1 identifies the issues to be addressed.  Chapter 2 documents the process of divergence that characterized the interaction between developed and developing countries in the two centuries before 1950.  While developing countries dominated world manufacturing production in 1750, this situation would soon change.  Between 1820 and 1950 the share of world GDP for developing countries (called “The Rest”), fell from 63.1% in 1820 to 27.1% in 1950.  This dramatic decline occurred largely due to declines in GDP, particularly manufacturing output, in India and China.   Over the same period, the “West” increased its share of world GDP from 36.9% in 1820 to 72.9% in 1950.  Chapter 3 seeks to identify the factors that set the stage for the observed divergence.  The factors identified include the development of initial conditions in Europe during 1500-1700, the start of the industrial revolution in Britain and its expansion to Europe, and the global economy of the late nineteenth century.

Chapter 4 picks up in the post-1950 period, and documents the end of divergence between developing and developing countries, and the beginnings of the process of catch-up.  Between 1950 and 1980, developing countries continued to fall behind industrial countries, though at a slower pace than in the nineteenth century.  The period 1950-2008 was characterized by a closing of the gap in levels of GDP and GDP per capita relative to industrial countries and higher growth rates in developing countries.  As with the divergence for the period before 1950, this process of catch up is driven by GDP gains in Asia, as Latin America maintained its position relative to industrial countries and Africa continued to fall behind.

Chapter 5 focuses on international trade, international investment and international migration. While developing countries have experienced expansion in their share of world trade as compared to 1900, the disparities in outcomes across regions remain.  In the post-1950 period, Asia has seen dramatic gains in the share of world trade, while Africa experienced declines, and Latin America after declines in the 1990s, remains at approximately 1970 levels.  The data on foreign investment is for a much shorter period, starting in 1990.  Activity was again more heavily concentrated in Asia with the significance of international investment at the end of the twentieth century similar to levels at the end of the nineteenth century.
Chapter six focuses on structural change across regions.  Asia emerged as the only developing region showing the classic pattern of structural change with a reduction of GDP and employment shares in agriculture, along with increases in manufacturing and services.  Asia was also the only region that saw a substantial increase in its share of world manufacturing valued added.   For developing countries as a group, there is a transition in the composition of merchandise exports over time from primary products, to low-technology manufactures, to medium-technology manufactures to high-technology manufactures.  This stands in contrast to the late nineteenth century when developing countries exported primary products and imported manufactured goods.

Chapter seven focus on the performance of fourteen individual countries identified as leaders.  The author considers four countries in Latin America, eight countries in Asia and two countries in Africa.  These examples, encompassing a wide range of endowments, transition paths and development models, highlight the diversity of approaches that can produce successful outcomes.   The broad lessons that emerge are the importance of physical infrastructure and access to education (called initial conditions by the author), enabling institutions to support the process of industrialization, and supportive governments.

Chapter eight address the evolution of poverty and inequality across countries and people.  While inequality across countries has declined since 1950, inequality within countries, including developing countries has increased.  Similarly, poverty rates have declined somewhat since 1980 but the number of people classified as poor (living below PPP $1.25 and PPP $2 per day) remains substantial.  While Asia has driven the catch up process that is the central theme of this book, it remains home to over seventy percent of the world’s poor.

Chapter 9 concludes, outlines opportunities and potential problems for developing countries, and sketches some possibilities for the future.  The author sees the beginning of the twenty-first century as heralding a shift in the world balance of power similar to the rise of Britain in the nineteenth century, and the rise of the United States in the twentieth century.  What does this mean for the twenty-first century?  While the analysis highlights the importance of Asian economies in the recent catch up process, it remains unclear if any potential shift in the world balance of power will tilt toward one country, or several countries.

This book will be of interest to anyone interested in the evolution of the world economy. The focus on the role of developing countries in this process provides a new perspective on this important topic. Perhaps the most useful aspect of this book is that it integrates a long history of complex and multifaceted growth experiences across the developing world into a coherent and concise format, making it accessible to a wide audience.  Scholars from across the social sciences, policy-makers, students and general readers will all find this book interesting and insightful.

Marianne Ward-Peradoza is Associate Professor of Economics at Loyola University Maryland.  Her research is focused at the intersection of economic history, economic development and international macroeconomics.  She is working on international comparisons of incomes and productivity for a variety of industrial countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and several Caribbean countries in the twentieth century.

Copyright (c) 2014 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (May 2014). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality

Author(s):Deaton, Angus
Reviewer(s):Parman, John

Published by EH.Net (March 2014)

Angus Deaton, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013. xv + 360 pp. $30 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-691-15354-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by John Parman, Department of Economics, College of William and Mary.

In The Great Escape, Angus Deaton describes the historical rise of the world’s population out of poverty and poor health.  Deaton, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of Economics in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs and the Economics Department at Princeton University, offers a thorough accounting of the simultaneous rise of income and longevity; it is a general history of the progress of the world that recognizes the importance of both wealth and health to wellbeing.  The book’s constant theme is that this is a story of both growth and inequality.  Overall increases in income and longevity have been dramatic in scale but those gains have not been distributed evenly.  Deaton sets out to demonstrate just how impressive the escape from poverty and death has been and identify which groups have made that escape and which have not, a task the book accomplishes quite well.  In the process, many questions are raised about the underlying causal relationships between health, wealth and inequality.  It is here that the book leaves the reader with much to think about but few definitive answers.

While the book sets out to examine the nexus between health and wealth, making a strong case for why the two should be viewed in tandem, the bulk of the chapters treat them separately.  The first chapters trace the history of human health.  There is a brief treatment of health in pre-industrial times based on skeletal records and anthropological studies of hunter-gatherer tribes but the bulk of the material focuses on longevity from the time of the Industrial Revolution onward.   Deaton offers a clear, compelling story of how nutrition, scientific advance and particularly the rise of germ theory helped the Western world reduce mortality from infectious disease.

With this discussion of the history of health in rich countries, two central themes of the book take shape.  First, improvements in wellbeing often, at least initially, beget greater inequality.  Scientific advance brings about solutions to health problems that are initially affordable only for the wealthy.  Deaton’s examples range from smallpox variolation in the eighteenth century to the modern drugs readily available to rich countries but prohibitively expensive for those in poor countries.

The second crucial point Deaton seeks to make is that the spread of these innovations, the improvement in wellbeing throughout the income distribution, is dependent on public health programs and, more generally, politics and institutions.  The benefits of germ theory were not widespread until there was the political will and the state capacity to implement public health programs such as water treatment and other modern sanitation measures.

This issue is reinforced when Deaton turns to health in the modern world.  With elegant graphs and careful analysis, Deaton describes the overall rise in world life expectancies and the convergence of poor countries to rich countries but explains that these trends are misleading.  Life expectancies are rising in rich countries because we are making progress in extending the lives of our elderly, tackling issues of chronic adult diseases with expensive medical innovations.  The rise of life expectancies in the poor countries, however, is being driven by reductions in childhood mortality.  While declining childhood mortality is certainly good, it is distressing that it is still high enough to support large declines; children in developing countries are still dying from diseases for which medical science has answers.  The book further chips away at the rosy interpretation of convergence in life expectancies with data on heights that reveal far less convergence in health between rich and poor countries.

Deaton notes that it is not necessarily lack of income that has prevented poor countries from fully converging to the health outcomes of rich countries.  If one ignores China and India, there is no relationship between economic growth and long term declines in infant mortality.  (A recurring question throughout the book is whether one should treat India and China as just two unique cases out of many developing countries or focus on India and China given their enormous populations.  Deaton does an excellent job of explaining why answering this question is crucial for determining how to measure world progress and direct international aid efforts.)  It is the lack of good institutions in poor countries that helps maintain these health inequalities.  Deaton fingers failure of the state as a main culprit: governments fail in the provision of public health goods and underinvest in their health care systems.  He hints at a version of the resource curse; governments that gain their revenue and power from natural resources do not depend on the people for revenue and are therefore uninterested in the population’s general health and wellbeing.

In the later chapters, the book shifts from improvements in health to improvements in material wellbeing.   GDP per capita and poverty rates do the work that longevity and height did in the earlier chapters, albeit for a shorter time period and a smaller set of countries.  Deaton focuses on income in the United States over the twentieth century and GDP per capita and poverty rates for cross-country comparisons covering the past half-century.  As with longevity and height, Deaton goes to great lengths to explain how these measures are constructed and precisely what they can and cannot capture.  The limited data he employs to discuss income growth and inequality lead to a history that is well known to any economist.  The value of his discussion for the academic lies more in forcing the reader to reconsider the limitations of the stylized facts we have grown comfortable with.

Deaton’s history of material wellbeing echoes his approach to health.  The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment kick started a world in which innovation led to economic gains.  These gains have been enormous but far from evenly distributed either across or within countries. Technology is once again at the heart of both growth and inequality.  To explain American growth and inequality, Deaton points to the ideas of skill-biased technological change and the race between education and technology familiar to economic historians from the work of Goldin and Katz.  Bad institutions are once again a main contributor to the failure of poor countries to converge to rich countries.

The history of health, wealth and inequality leads to the pressing question of what is to be done.  As the book notes in great detail, many people are still living in poverty and dying from diseases that are now non-existent in wealthy countries.  Deaton’s answer to what should be done comes in the form of a strongly worded argument for what should not be done.  Aid, at least in its current form, is not the answer.  The bad institutions and bad governments that have kept poor countries from achieving the physical and material wellbeing enjoyed by those in wealthy countries also prevent aid from being effective.  Deaton argues at length that international aid is at best ineffective and often times counterproductive.  In contrast, his discussion of what can be done is rather brief.  The extensive work being done on how households in developing countries respond to various aid programs, the results of randomized control trials, and, most significantly, the potential impact of expanding educational opportunities in developing countries all receive passing mention but little analysis in terms of what effective steps may be taken.

The Great Escape is an eloquent and passionate description of what sickness and health look like for the world’s populations and economies.  Deaton’s history of health and wealth offers a compelling narrative for both the general reader and academics alike.  It raises a range of questions of why some countries falter, why others succeed and what can be done to close gaps between them.  Unfortunately, the book’s length cannot accommodate a rigorous discussion of the causal links between human behavior, institutions, health and wealth that matches the detail and care with which the histories of health and wealth are presented.   The book succeeds in demonstrating just how great the Great Escape was for many countries but leaves the reader largely uncertain about how others will follow.

John Parman ( is an assistant professor of economics at the College of William and Mary.  He is currently researching the impact of childhood health shocks on household resource allocation in the early twentieth century and the evolution of spatial patterns of segregation, health and economic development in the United States over the past century.

Copyright (c) 2014 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (March 2014). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Project 2000/2001

Project 2000

Each month during 2000, EH.NET published a review essay on a significant work in twentieth-century economic history. The purpose of these essays was to survey the works that have had the most influence on the field of economic history and to highlight the intellectual accomplishments of twentieth-century economic historians. Each review essay outlines the work’s argument and findings, discusses the author’s methods and sources, and examines the impact that the work has had since its publication.

Nominations were received from dozens of EH.Net’s users. P2K
selection committee members were: Stanley Engerman (University of
Rochester), Alan Heston (University of Pennsylvania), Paul
Hohenberg, chair (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), and Mary
Yeager (University of California-Los Angeles). Project Chair was
Robert Whaples (Wake Forest University).

The review essays are:

Braudel, Fernand
Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century Time
Reviewed by Alan Heston (University of Pennsylvania).

Chandler, Alfred D. Jr.
The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business
Reviewed by David S. Landes (Department of Economics and History, Harvard University).

Chaudhuri, K. N.
The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company, 1660-1760
Reviewed by Santhi Hejeebu.

Davis, Lance E. and North, Douglass C. (with the assistance of Calla Smorodin)
Institutional Change and American Economic Growth.
Reviewed by Cynthia Taft Morris (Department of Economics, Smith College and American University).

Fogel, Robert W.
Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History
Reviewed by Lance Davis (California Institute of Technology).

Friedman, Milton and Schwartz, Anna Jacobson
A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960
Reviewed by Hugh Rockoff (Rutgers University).

Heckscher, Eli F.
Reviewed by John J. McCusker (Departments of History and Economics, Trinity University).

Landes, David S.
The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present
Reviewed by Paul M. Hohenberg (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute).

Pinchbeck, Ivy
Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850 
Reviewed by Joyce Burnette (Wabash College).

Polanyi, Karl
The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time
Reviewed by Anne Mayhew (University of Tennessee).

Schumpeter, Joseph A.
Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy 
Reviewed by Thomas K. McCraw (Harvard Business School).

Weber, Max
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
Reviewed by Stanley Engerman.

Project 2001

Throughout 2001 and 2002, EH.Net published a second series
of review essays on important and influential works in economic
history. As with Project 2000, nominations for Project 2001 were
received from many EH.Net users and reviewed by the Selection
Committee: Lee Craig (North Carolina State University); Giovanni
Federico (University of Pisa); Anne McCants (MIT); Marvin McInnis
(Queen’s University); Albrecht Ritschl (University of Zurich);
Winifred Rothenberg (Tufts University); and Richard Salvucci
(Trinity College).

Project 2001 selections were:

Borah, Woodrow Wilson
New Spain’s Century of Depression
Reviewed by Richard Salvucci (Department of Economics, Trinity University).

Boserup, Ester
Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure
Reviewed by Giovanni Federico (Department of Modern History, University of Pisa).

Deane, Phyllis and W. A. Cole
British Economic Growth, 1688-1959: Trends and Structure
Reviewed by Knick Harley (Department of Economics, University of Western Ontario).

Fogel, Robert and Stanley Engerman
Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery
Reviewed by Thomas Weiss (Department of Economics, University of Kansas).

Gerschenkron, Alexander
Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective
Review Essay by Albert Fishlow (International Affairs, Columbia University).

Horwitz, Morton
The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860
Reviewed by Winifred B. Rothenberg (Department of Economics, Tufts University).

Kuznets, Simon
Modern Economic Growth: Rate, Structure and Spread
Reviewed by Richard A. Easterlin (Department of Economics, University of Southern California).

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel
The Peasants of Languedoc
Reviewed by Anne E.C. McCants (Department of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

North, Douglass and Robert Paul Thomas
The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History
Reviewed by Philip R. P. Coelho (Department of Economics, Ball State University).

de Vries, Jan
The Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis, 1600-1750
Review Essay by George Grantham (Department of Economics, McGill University).

Temin, Peter
The Jacksonian Economy
Reviewed by Richard Sylla (Department of Economics, Stern School of Business, New York University).

Wrigley, E. A. and R. S. Schofield
The Population History of England, 1541-1871: A Reconstruction

Project Coordinator and Editor: Robert Whaples (Wake Forest

History of Workplace Safety in the United States, 1880-1970

Mark Aldrich, Smith College

The dangers of work are usually measured by the number of injuries or fatalities occurring to a group of workers, usually over a period of one year. 1 Over the past century such measures reveal a striking improvement in the safety of work in all the advanced countries. In part this has been the result of the gradual shift of jobs from relatively dangerous goods production such as farming, fishing, logging, mining, and manufacturing into such comparatively safe work as retail trade and services. But even the dangerous trades are now far safer than they were in 1900. To take but one example, mining today remains a comparatively risky activity. Its annual fatality rate is about nine for every one hundred thousand miners employed. A century ago in 1900 about three hundred out of every one hundred thousand miners were killed on the job each year. 2

The Nineteenth Century

Before the late nineteenth century we know little about the safety of American workplaces because contemporaries cared little about it. As a result, only fragmentary information exists prior to the 1880s. Pre-industrial laborers faced risks from animals and hand tools, ladders and stairs. Industrialization substituted steam engines for animals, machines for hand tools, and elevators for ladders. But whether these new technologies generally worsened the dangers of work is unclear. What is clear is that nowhere was the new work associated with the industrial revolution more dangerous than in America.

US Was Unusually Dangerous

Americans modified the path of industrialization that had been pioneered in Britain to fit the particular geographic and economic circumstances of the American continent. Reflecting the high wages and vast natural resources of a new continent, this American system encouraged use of labor saving machines and processes. These developments occurred within a legal and regulatory climate that diminished employer’s interest in safety. As a result, Americans developed production methods that were both highly productive and often very dangerous. 3

Accidents Were “Cheap”

While workers injured on the job or their heirs might sue employers for damages, winning proved difficult. Where employers could show that the worker had assumed the risk, or had been injured by the actions of a fellow employee, or had himself been partly at fault, courts would usually deny liability. A number or surveys taken about 1900 showed that only about half of all workers fatally injured recovered anything and their average compensation only amounted to about half a year’s pay. Because accidents were so cheap, American industrial methods developed with little reference to their safety. 4


Nowhere was the American system more dangerous than in early mining. In Britain, coal seams were deep and coal expensive. As a result, British mines used mining methods that recovered nearly all of the coal because they used waste rock to hold up the roof. British methods also concentrated the working, making supervision easy, and required little blasting. American coal deposits by contrast, were both vast and near the surface; they could be tapped cheaply using techniques known as “room and pillar” mining. Such methods used coal pillars and timber to hold up the roof, because timber and coal were cheap. Since miners worked in separate rooms, labor supervision was difficult and much blasting was required to bring down the coal. Miners themselves were by no means blameless; most were paid by the ton, and when safety interfered with production, safety often took a back seat. For such reasons, American methods yielded more coal per worker than did European techniques, but they were far more dangerous, and toward the end of the nineteenth century, the dangers worsened (see Table 1).5

Table 1

British and American Mine Safety, 1890 -1904

(Fatality rates per Thousand Workers per Year)

Years American Anthracite American Bituminous Great Britain
1890-1894 3.29 2.52 1.61
1900-1904 3.13 3.53 1.28

Source: British data from Great Britain, General Report. Other data from Aldrich, Safety First.


Nineteenth century American railroads were also comparatively dangerous to their workers – and their passengers as well – and for similar reasons. Vast North American distances and low population density turned American carriers into predominantly freight haulers – and freight was far more dangerous to workers than passenger traffic, for men had to go in between moving cars for coupling and uncoupling and ride the cars to work brakes. The thin traffic and high wages also forced American carriers to economize on both capital and labor. Accordingly, American carriers were poorly built and used few signals, both of which resulted in many derailments and collisions. Such conditions made American railroad work far more dangerous than that in Britain (see Table 2).6

Table 2

Comparative Safety of British and American Railroad Workers, 1889 – 1901

(Fatality Rates per Thousand Workers per Year)

1889 1895 1901
British railroad workers

All causes
1.14 0.95 0.89
British trainmena

All causes
4.26 3.22 2.21
Coupling 0.94 0.83 0.74
American Railroad workers

All causes
2.67 2.31 2.50
American trainmen

All causes
8.52 6.45 7.35
Coupling 1.73c 1.20 0.78
Brakingb 3.25c 2.44 2.03

Source: Aldrich, Safety First, Table 1 and Great Britain Board of Trade, General Report.


Note: Death rates are per thousand employees.

a. Guards, brakemen, and shunters.

b. Deaths from falls from cars and striking overhead obstructions.


American manufacturing also developed in a distinctively American fashion that substituted power and machinery for labor and manufactured products with interchangeable arts for ease in mass production. Whether American methods were less safe than those in Europe is unclear but by 1900 they were extraordinarily risky by modern standards, for machines and power sources were largely unguarded. And while competition encouraged factory managers to strive for ever-increased output, they showed little interest in improving safety.7

Worker and Employer Responses

Workers and firms responded to these dangers in a number of ways. Some workers simply left jobs they felt were too dangerous, and risky jobs may have had to offer higher pay to attract workers. After the Civil War life and accident insurance companies expanded, and some workers purchased insurance or set aside savings to offset the income risks from death or injury. Some unions and fraternal organizations also offered their members insurance. Railroads and some mines also developed hospital and insurance plans to care for injured workers while many carriers provided jobs for all their injured men. 8

Improving safety, 1910-1939

Public efforts to improve safety date from the very beginnings of industrialization. States established railroad regulatory commissions as early as the 1840s. But while most of the commissions were intended to improve safety, they had few powers and were rarely able to exert much influence on working conditions. Similarly, the first state mining commission began in Pennsylvania in 1869, and other states soon followed. Yet most of the early commissions were ineffectual and as noted safety actually deteriorated after the Civil War. Factory commissions also dated from but most were understaffed and they too had little power.9


The most successful effort to improve work safety during the nineteenth century began on the railroads in the 1880s as a small band of railroad regulators, workers, and managers began to campaign for the development of better brakes and couplers for freight cars. In response George Westinghouse modified his passenger train air brake in about 1887 so it would work on long freights, while at roughly the same time Ely Janney developed an automatic car coupler. For the railroads such equipment meant not only better safety, but also higher productivity and after 1888 they began to deploy it. The process was given a boost in 1889-1890 when the newly-formed Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) published its first accident statistics. They demonstrated conclusively the extraordinary risks to trainmen from coupling and riding freight (Table 2). In 1893 Congress responded, passing the Safety Appliance Act, which mandated use of such equipment. It was the first federal law intended primarily to improve work safety, and by 1900 when the new equipment was widely diffused, risks to trainmen had fallen dramatically.10

Federal Safety Regulation

In the years between 1900 and World War I, a rather strange band of Progressive reformers, muckraking journalists, businessmen, and labor unions pressed for changes in many areas of American life. These years saw the founding of the Federal Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Reserve System and much else. Work safety also became of increased public concern and the first important developments came once again on the railroads. Unions representing trainmen had been impressed by the safety appliance act of 1893 and after 1900 they campaigned for more of the same. In response Congress passed a host of regulations governing the safety of locomotives and freight cars. While most of these specific regulations were probably modestly beneficial, collectively their impact was small because unlike the rules governing automatic couplers and air brakes they addressed rather minor risks.11

In 1910 Congress also established the Bureau of Mines in response to a series of disastrous and increasingly frequent explosions. The Bureau was to be a scientific, not a regulatory body and it was intended to discover and disseminate new knowledge on ways to improve mine safety.12

Workers’ Compensation Laws Enacted

Far more important were new laws that raised the cost of accidents to employers. In 1908 Congress passed a federal employers’ liability law that applied to railroad workers in interstate commerce and sharply limited defenses an employee could claim. Worker fatalities that had once cost the railroads perhaps $200 now cost $2,000. Two years later in 1910, New York became the first state to pass a workmen’s compensation law. This was a European idea. Instead of requiring injured workers to sue for damages in court and prove the employer was negligent, the new law automatically compensated all injuries at a fixed rate. Compensation appealed to businesses because it made costs more predictable and reduced labor strife. To reformers and unions it promised greater and more certain benefits. Samuel Gompers, leader of the American Federation of Labor had studied the effects of compensation in Germany. He was impressed with how it stimulated business interest in safety, he said. Between 1911 and 1921 forty-four states passed compensation laws.13

Employers Become Interested in Safety

The sharp rise in accident costs that resulted from compensation laws and tighter employers’ liability initiated the modern concern with work safety and initiated the long-term decline in work accidents and injuries. Large firms in railroading, mining, manufacturing and elsewhere suddenly became interested in safety. Companies began to guard machines and power sources while machinery makers developed safer designs. Managers began to look for hidden dangers at work, and to require that workers wear hard hats and safety glasses. They also set up safety departments run by engineers and safety committees that included both workers and managers. In 1913 companies founded the National Safety Council to pool information. Government agencies such as the Bureau of Mines and National Bureau of Standards provided scientific support while universities also researched safety problems for firms and industries14

Accident Rates Begin to Fall Steadily

During the years between World War I and World War II the combination of higher accident costs along with the institutionalization of safety concerns in large firms began to show results. Railroad employee fatality rates declined steadily after 1910 and at some large companies such as DuPont and whole industries such as steel making (see Table 3) safety also improved dramatically. Largely independent changes in technology and labor markets also contributed to safety as well. The decline in labor turnover meant fewer new employees who were relatively likely to get hurt, while the spread of factory electrification not only improved lighting but reduced the dangers from power transmission as well. In coal mining the shift from underground work to strip mining also improved safety. Collectively these long-term forces reduced manufacturing injury rates about 38 percent between 1926 and 1939 (see Table 4).15

Table 3

Steel Industry fatality and Injury rates, 1910-1939

(Rates are per million manhours)

Period Fatality rate Injury Rate
1910-1913 0.40 44.1
1937-1939 0.13 11.7

Pattern of Improvement Was Uneven

Yet the pattern of improvement was uneven, both over time and among firms and industries. Safety still deteriorated in times of economic boon when factories mines and railroads were worked to the limit and labor turnover rose. Nor were small companies as successful in reducing risks, for they paid essentially the same compensation insurance premium irrespective of their accident rate, and so the new laws had little effect there. Underground coal mining accidents also showed only modest improvement. Safety was also expensive in coal and many firms were small and saw little payoff from a lower accident rate. The one source of danger that did decline was mine explosions, which diminished in response to technologies developed by the Bureau of Mines. Ironically, however, in 1940 six disastrous blasts that killed 276 men finally led to federal mine inspection in 1941.16

Table 4

Work Injury Rates, Manufacturing and Coal Mining, 1926-1970

(Per Million Manhours)


Year Manufacturing Coal Mining
1926 24.2
1931 18.9 89.9
1939 14.9 69.5
1945 18.6 60.7
1950 14.7 53.3
1960 12.0 43.4
1970 15.2 42.6

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, 1975), Series D-1029 and D-1031.

Postwar Trends, 1945-1970

The economic boon and associated labor turnover during World War II worsened work safety in nearly all areas of the economy, but after 1945 accidents again declined as long-term forces reasserted themselves (Table 4). In addition, after World War II newly powerful labor unions played an increasingly important role in work safety. In the 1960s however economic expansion again led to rising injury rates and the resulting political pressures led Congress to establish the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration in 1970. The continuing problem of mine explosions also led to the foundation of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) that same year. The work of these agencies had been controversial but on balance they have contributed to the continuing reductions in work injuries after 1970.17

References and Further Reading

Aldrich, Mark. Safety First: Technology, Labor and Business in the Building of Work Safety, 1870-1939. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Aldrich, Mark. “Preventing ‘The Needless Peril of the Coal Mine': the Bureau of Mines and the Campaign Against Coal Mine Explosions, 1910-1940.” Technology and Culture 36, no. 3 (1995): 483-518.

Aldrich, Mark. “The Peril of the Broken Rail: the Carriers, the Steel Companies, and Rail Technology, 1900-1945.” Technology and Culture 40, no. 2 (1999): 263-291

Aldrich, Mark. “Train Wrecks to Typhoid Fever: The Development of Railroad Medicine Organizations, 1850 -World War I.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 75, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 254-89.

Derickson Alan. “Participative Regulation of Hazardous Working Conditions: Safety Committees of the United Mine Workers of America,” Labor Studies Journal 18, no. 2 (1993): 25-38.

Dix, Keith. Work Relations in the Coal Industry: The Hand Loading Era. Morgantown: University of West Virginia Press, 1977. The best discussion of coalmine work for this period.

Dix, Keith. What’s a Coal Miner to Do? Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988. The best discussion of coal mine labor during the era of mechanization.

Fairris, David. “From Exit to Voice in Shopfloor Governance: The Case of Company Unions.” Business History Review 69, no. 4 (1995): 494-529.

Fairris, David. “Institutional Change in Shopfloor Governance and the Trajectory of Postwar Injury Rates in U.S. Manufacturing, 1946-1970.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 51, no. 2 (1998): 187-203.

Fishback, Price. Soft Coal Hard Choices: The Economic Welfare of Bituminous Coal Miners, 1890-1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. The best economic analysis of the labor market for coalmine workers.

Fishback, Price and Shawn Kantor. A Prelude to the Welfare State: The Origins of Workers’ Compensation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. The best discussions of how employers’ liability rules worked.

Graebner, William. Coal Mining Safety in the Progressive Period. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1976.

Great Britain Board of Trade. General Report upon the Accidents that Have Occurred on Railways of the United Kingdom during the Year 1901. London, HMSO, 1902.

Great Britain Home Office Chief Inspector of Mines. General Report with Statistics for 1914, Part I. London: HMSO, 1915.

Hounshell, David. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Humphrey, H. B. “Historical Summary of Coal-Mine Explosions in the United States — 1810-1958.” United States Bureau of Mines Bulletin 586 (1960).

Kirkland, Edward. Men, Cities, and Transportation. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948, Discusses railroad regulation and safety in New England.

Lankton, Larry. Cradle to Grave: Life, Work, and Death in Michigan Copper Mines. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Licht, Walter. Working for the Railroad. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Long, Priscilla. Where the Sun Never Shines. New York: Paragon, 1989. Covers coal mine safety at the end of the nineteenth century.

Mendeloff, John. Regulating Safety: An Economic and Political Analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Policy. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1979. An accessible modern discussion of safety under OSHA.

National Academy of Sciences. Toward Safer Underground Coal Mines. Washington, DC: NAS, 1982.

Rogers, Donald. “From Common Law to Factory Laws: The Transformation of Workplace Safety Law in Wisconsin before Progressivism.” American Journal of Legal History (1995): 177-213.

Root, Norman and Daley, Judy. “Are Women Safer Workers? A New Look at the Data.” Monthly Labor Review 103, no. 9 (1980): 3-10.

Rosenberg, Nathan. Technology and American Economic Growth. New York: Harper and Row, 1972. Analyzes the forces shaping American technology.

Rosner, David and Gerald Markowity, editors. Dying for Work. Blomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Shaw, Robert. Down Brakes: A History of Railroad Accidents, Safety Precautions, and Operating Practices in the United States of America. London: P. R. Macmillan. 1961.

Trachenberg, Alexander. The History of Legislation for the Protection of Coal Miners in Pennsylvania, 1824 – 1915. New York: International Publishers. 1942.

U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970. Washington, DC, 1975.

Usselman, Steven. “Air Brakes for Freight Trains: Technological Innovation in the American Railroad Industry, 1869-1900.” Business History Review 58 (1984): 30-50.

Viscusi, W. Kip. Risk By Choice: Regulating Health and Safety in the Workplace. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983. The most readable treatment of modern safety issues by a leading scholar.

Wallace, Anthony. Saint Clair. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. Provides a superb discussion of early anthracite mining and safety.

Whaples, Robert and David Buffum. “Fraternalism, Paternalism, the Family and the Market: Insurance a Century Ago.” Social Science History 15 (1991): 97-122.

White, John. The American Railroad Freight Car. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. The definitive history of freight car technology.

Whiteside, James. Regulating Danger: The Struggle for Mine Safety in the Rocky Mountain Coal Industry. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Wokutch, Richard. Worker Protection Japanese Style: Occupational Safety and Health in the Auto Industry. Ithaca, NY: ILR, 1992

Worrall, John, editor. Safety and the Work Force: Incentives and Disincentives in Workers’ Compensation. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1983.

1 Injuries or fatalities are expressed as rates. For example, if ten workers are injured out of 450 workers during a year, the rate would be .006666. For readability it might be expressed as 6.67 per thousand or 666.7 per hundred thousand workers. Rates may also be expressed per million workhours. Thus if the average work year is 2000 hours, ten injuries in 450 workers results in [10/450×2000]x1,000,000 = 11.1 injuries per million hours worked.

2 For statistics on work injuries from 1922-1970 see U.S. Department of Commerce, Historical Statistics, Series 1029-1036. For earlier data are in Aldrich, Safety First, Appendix 1-3.

3 Hounshell, American System. Rosenberg, Technology,. Aldrich, Safety First.

4 On the workings of the employers’ liability system see Fishback and Kantor, A Prelude, chapter 2

5 Dix, Work Relations, and his What’s a Coal Miner to Do? Wallace, Saint Clair, is a superb discussion of early anthracite mining and safety. Long, Where the Sun, Fishback, Soft Coal, chapters 1, 2, and 7. Humphrey, “Historical Summary.” Aldrich, Safety First, chapter 2.

6 Aldrich, Safety First chapter 1.

7 Aldrich, Safety First chapter 3

8 Fishback and Kantor, A Prelude, chapter 3, discusses higher pay for risky jobs as well as worker savings and accident insurance See also Whaples and Buffum, “Fraternalism, Paternalism.” Aldrich, ” Train Wrecks to Typhoid Fever.”

9Kirkland, Men, Cities. Trachenberg, The History of Legislation Whiteside, Regulating Danger. An early discussion of factory legislation is in Susan Kingsbury, ed.,xxxxx. Rogers,” From Common Law.”

10 On the evolution of freight car technology see White, American Railroad Freight Car, Usselman “Air Brakes for Freight trains,” and Aldrich, Safety First, chapter 1. Shaw, Down Brakes, discusses causes of train accidents.

11 Details of these regulations may be found in Aldrich, Safety First, chapter 5.

12 Graebner, Coal-Mining Safety, Aldrich, “‘The Needless Peril.”

13 On the origins of these laws see Fishback and Kantor, A Prelude, and the sources cited therein.

14 For assessments of the impact of early compensation laws see Aldrich, Safety First, chapter 5 and Fishback and Kantor, A Prelude, chapter 3. Compensation in the modern economy is discussed in Worrall, Safety and the Work Force. Government and other scientific work that promoted safety on railroads and in coal mining are discussed in Aldrich, “‘The Needless Peril’,” and “The Broken Rail.”

15 Farris, “From Exit to Voice.”

16 Aldrich, “‘Needless Peril,” and Humphrey

17 Derickson, “Participative Regulation” and Fairris, “Institutional Change,” also emphasize the role of union and shop floor issues in shaping safety during these years. Much of the modern literature on safety is highly quantitative. For readable discussions see Mendeloff, Regulating Safety (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1979), and Viscusi, Risk by Choice

The US Coal Industry in the Nineteenth Century

Sean Patrick Adams, University of Central Florida


The coal industry was a major foundation for American industrialization in the nineteenth century. As a fuel source, coal provided a cheap and efficient source of power for steam engines, furnaces, and forges across the United States. As an economic pursuit, coal spurred technological innovations in mine technology, energy consumption, and transportation. When mine managers brought increasing sophistication to the organization of work in the mines, coal miners responded by organizing into industrial trade unions. The influence of coal was so pervasive in the United States that by the advent of the twentieth century, it became a necessity of everyday life. In an era where smokestacks equaled progress, the smoky air and sooty landscape of industrial America owed a great deal to the growth of the nation’s coal industry. By the close of the nineteenth century, many Americans across the nation read about the latest struggle between coal companies and miners by the light of a coal-gas lamp and in the warmth of a coal-fueled furnace, in a house stocked with goods brought to them by coal-fired locomotives. In many ways, this industry served as a major factor of American industrial growth throughout the nineteenth century.

The Antebellum American Coal Trade

Although coal had served as a major source of energy in Great Britain for centuries, British colonists had little use for North America’s massive reserves of coal prior to American independence. With abundant supplies of wood, water, and animal fuel, there was little need to use mineral fuel in seventeenth and eighteenth-century America. But as colonial cities along the eastern seaboard grew in population and in prestige, coal began to appear in American forges and furnaces. Most likely this coal was imported from Great Britain, but a small domestic trade developed in the bituminous fields outside of Richmond, Virginia and along the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Richmond Basin

Following independence from Britain, imported coal became less common in American cities and the domestic trade became more important. Economic nationalists such as Tench Coxe, Albert Gallatin, and Alexander Hamilton all suggested that the nation’s coal trade — at that time centered in the Richmond coal basin of eastern Virginia — would serve as a strategic resource for the nation’s growth and independence. Although it labored under these weighty expectations, the coal trade of eastern Virginia was hampered by its existence on the margins of the Old Dominion’s plantation economy. Colliers of the Richmond Basin used slave labor effectively in their mines, but scrambled to fill out their labor force, especially during peak periods of agricultural activity. Transportation networks in the region also restricted the growth of coal mining. Turnpikes proved too expensive for the coal trade and the James River and Kanawha Canal failed to make necessary improvements in order to accommodate coal barge traffic and streamline the loading, conveyance, and distribution of coal at Richmond’s tidewater port. Although the Richmond Basin was nation’s first major coalfield, miners there found growth potential to be limited.

The Rise of Anthracite Coal

At the same time that the Richmond Basin’s coal trade declined in importance, a new type of mineral fuel entered urban markets of the American seaboard. Anthracite coal has higher carbon content and is much harder than bituminous coal, thus earning the nickname “stone coal” in its early years of use. In 1803, Philadelphians watched a load of anthracite coal actually squelch a fire during a trial run, and city officials used the load of “stone coal” as attractive gravel for sidewalks. Following the War of 1812, however, a series of events paved the way for anthracite coal’s acceptance in urban markets. Colliers like Jacob Cist saw the shortage of British and Virginia coal in urban communities as an opportunity to promote the use of “stone coal.” Philadelphia’s American Philosophical Society and Franklin Institute enlisted the aid of the area’s scientific community to disseminate information to consumers on the particular needs of anthracite. The opening of several links between Pennsylvania’s anthracite fields via the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company (1820), the Schuylkill Navigation Company (1825), and the Delaware and Hudson (1829) insured that the flow of anthracite from mine to market would be cheap and fast. “Stone coal” became less a geological curiosity by the 1830s and instead emerged as a valuable domestic fuel for heating and cooking, as well as a powerful source of energy for urban blacksmiths, bakers, brewers, and manufacturers. As demonstrated in Figure 1, Pennsylvania anthracite dominated urban markets by the late 1830s. By 1840, annual production had topped one million tons, or about ten times the annual production of the Richmond bituminous field.

Figure One: Percentage of Seaboard Coal Consumption by Origin, 1822-1842


Hunt’s Merchant’s Magazine and Commercial Review 8 (June 1843): 548;

Alfred Chandler, “Anthracite Coal and the Beginnings of the Industrial Revolution,” p. 154.

The Spread of Coalmining

The antebellum period also saw the expansion of coal mining into many more states than Pennsylvania and Virginia, as North America contains a variety of workable coalfields. Ohio’s bituminous fields employed 7,000 men and raised about 320,000 tons of coal in 1850 — only three years later the state’s miners had increased production to over 1,300,000 tons. In Maryland, the George’s Creek bituminous region began to ship coal to urban markets by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (1842) and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (1850). The growth of St. Louis provided a major boost to the coal industries of Illinois and Missouri, and by 1850 colliers in the two states raised about 350,000 tons of coal annually. By the advent of the Civil War, coal industries appeared in at least twenty states.

Organization of Antebellum Mines

Throughout the antebellum period, coal mining firms tended to be small and labor intensive. The seams that were first worked in the anthracite fields of eastern Pennsylvania or the bituminous fields in Virginia, western Pennsylvania, and Ohio tended to lie close to the surface. A skilled miner and a handful of laborers could easily raise several tons of coal a day through the use of a “drift” or “slope” mine that intersected a vein of coal along a hillside. In the bituminous fields outside of Pittsburgh, for example, coal seams were exposed along the banks of the Monongahela and colliers could simply extract the coal with a pickax or shovel and roll it down the riverbank via a handcart into a waiting barge. Once the coal left the mouth of the mine, however, the size of the business handling it varied. Proprietary colliers usually worked on land that was leased for five to fifteen years — often from a large landowner or corporation. The coal was often shipped to market via a large railroad or canal corporation such as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, or the Delaware and Hudson Canal. Competition between mining firms and increases in production kept prices and profit margins relatively low, and many colliers slipped in and out of bankruptcy. These small mining firms were typical of the “easy entry, easy exit” nature of American business competition in the antebellum period.

Labor Relations

Since most antebellum coal mining operations were often limited to a few skilled miners aided by lesser skilled laborers, the labor relations in American coal mining regions saw little extended conflict. Early coal miners also worked close to the surface, often in horizontal drift mines, which meant that work was not as dangerous in the era before deep shaft mining. Most mining operations were far-flung enterprises away from urban centers, which frustrated attempts to organize miners into a “critical mass” of collective power — even in the nation’s most developed anthracite fields. These factors, coupled with the mine operator’s belief that individual enterprise in the anthracite regions insured a harmonious system of independent producers, had inhibited the development of strong labor organizations in Pennsylvania’s antebellum mining industry. In less developed regions, proprietors often worked in the mines themselves, so the lines between ownership, management, and labor were often blurred.

Early Unions

Most disputes, when they did occur, were temporary affairs that focused upon the low wages spurred by the intense competition among colliers. The first such action in the anthracite industry occurred in July of 1842 when workers from Minersville in Schuylkill County marched on Pottsville to protest low wages. This short-lived strike was broken up by the Orwigsburgh Blues, a local militia company. In 1848 John Bates enrolled 5,000 miners and struck for higher pay in the summer of 1849. But members of the “Bates Union” found themselves locked out of work and the movement quickly dissipated. In 1853, the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company’s miners struck for a 2½ cent per ton increase in their piece rate. This strike was successful, but failed to produce any lasting union presence in the D&H’s operations. Reports of disturbances in the bituminous fields of western Pennsylvania and Ohio follow the same pattern, as antebellum strikes tended to be localized and short-lived. Production levels thus remained high, and consumers of mineral fuel could count upon a steady supply reaching market.

Use of Anthracite in the Iron Industry

The most important technological development in the antebellum American coal industry was the successful adoption of anthracite coal to iron making techniques. Since the 1780s, bituminous coal or coke — which is bituminous coal with the impurities burned away — had been the preferred fuel for British iron makers. Once anthracite had nearly successfully entered American hearths, there seemed to be no reason why stone coal could not be used to make iron. As with its domestic use, however, the industrial potential of anthracite coal faced major technological barriers. In British and American iron furnaces of the early nineteenth century, the high heat needed to smelt iron ore required a blast of excess air to aid the combustion of the fuel, whether it was coal, wood, or charcoal. While British iron makers in the 1820s attempted to increase the efficiency of the process by using superheated air, known commonly as a “hot blast,” American iron makers still used a “cold blast” to stoke their furnaces. The density of anthracite coal resisted attempts to ignite it through the cold blast and therefore appeared to be an inappropriate fuel for most American iron furnaces.

Anthracite iron first appeared in Pennsylvania in 1840, when David Thomas brought Welsh hot blast technology into practice at the Lehigh Crane Iron Company. The firm had been chartered in 1839 under the general incorporation act. The Allentown firm’s innovation created a stir in iron making circles, and iron furnaces for smelting ore with anthracite began to appear across eastern and central Pennsylvania. In 1841, only a year after the Lehigh Crane Iron Company’s success, Walter Johnson found no less than eleven anthracite iron furnaces in operation. That same year, an American correspondent of London bankers cited savings on iron making of up to twenty-five percent after the conversion to anthracite and noted that “wherever the coal can be procured the proprietors are changing to the new plan; and it is generally believed that the quality of the iron is much improved where the entire process is affected with anthracite coal.” Pennsylvania’s investment in anthracite iron paid dividends for the industrial economy of the state and proved that coal could be adapted to a number of industrial pursuits. By 1854, forty-six percent of all American pig iron had been smelted with anthracite coal as a fuel, and by 1860 anthracite’s share of pig iron was more than fifty-six percent.

Rising Levels of Coal Output and Falling Prices

The antebellum decades saw the coal industry emerge as a critical component of America’s industrial revolution. Anthracite coal became a fixture in seaboard cities up and down the east coast of North America — as cities grew, so did the demand for coal. To the west, Pittsburgh and Ohio colliers shipped their coal as far as Louisville, Cincinnati, or New Orleans. As wood, animal, and waterpower became scarcer, mineral fuel usually took their place in domestic consumption and small-scale manufacturing. The structure of the industry, many small-scale firms working on short-term leases, meant that production levels remained high throughout the antebellum period, even in the face of falling prices. In 1840, American miners raised 2.5 million tons of coal to serve these growing markets and by 1850 increased annual production to 8.4 million tons. Although prices tended to fluctuate with the season, in the long run, they fell throughout the antebellum period. For example, in 1830 anthracite coal sold for about $11 per ton. Ten years later, the price had dropped to $7 per ton and by 1860 anthracite sold for about $5.50 a ton in New York City. Annual production in 1860 also passed twenty million tons for the first time in history. Increasing production, intense competition, low prices, and quiet labor relations all were characteristics of the antebellum coal trade in the United States, but developments during and after the Civil War would dramatically alter the structure and character of this critical industrial pursuit.

Coal and the Civil War

The most dramatic expansion of the American coal industry occurred in the late antebellum decades but the outbreak of the Civil War led to some major changes. The fuel needs of the federal army and navy, along with their military suppliers, promised a significant increase in the demand for coal. Mine operators planned for rising, or at least stable, coal prices for the duration of the war. Their expectations proved accurate. Even when prices are adjusted for wartime inflation, they increased substantially over the course of the conflict. Over the years 1860 to 1863, the real (i.e., inflation-adjusted) price of a ton of anthracite rose by over thirty percent, and in 1864 the real price had increased to forty-five percent above its 1860 level. In response, the production of coal increased to over twelve million tons of anthracite and over twenty-four million tons nationwide by 1865.

The demand for mineral fuel in the Confederacy led to changes in southern coalfields as well. In 1862, the Confederate Congress organized the Niter and Mining Bureau within the War Department to supervise the collection of niter (also known as saltpeter) for the manufacture of gunpowder and the mining of copper, lead, iron, coal, and zinc. In addition to aiding the Richmond Basin’s production, the Niter and Mining Bureau opened new coalfields in North Carolina and Alabama and coordinated the flow of mineral fuel to Confederate naval stations along the coast. Although the Confederacy was not awash in coal during the conflict, the work of the Niter and Mining Bureau established the groundwork for the expansion of mining in the postbellum South.

In addition to increases in production, the Civil War years accelerated some qualitative changes in the structure of the industry. In the late 1850s, new railroads stretched to new bituminous coalfields in states like Maryland, Ohio, and Illinois. In the established anthracite coal regions of Pennsylvania, railroad companies profited immensely from the increased traffic spurred by the war effort. For example, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad’s margin of profit increased from $0.88 per ton of coal in 1861 to $1.72 per ton in 1865. Railroad companies emerged from the Civil War as the most important actors in the nation’s coal trade.

The American Coal Trade after the Civil War

Railroads and the Expansion of the Coal Trade

In the years immediately following the Civil War, the expansion of the coal trade accelerated as railroads assumed the burden of carrying coal to market and opening up previously inaccessible fields. They did this by purchasing coal tracts directly and leasing them to subsidiary firms or by opening their own mines. In 1878, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad shipped three million tons of bituminous coal from mines in Maryland and from the northern coalfields of the new state of West Virginia. When the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad linked Huntington, West Virginia with Richmond, Virginia in 1873, the rich bituminous coal fields of southern West Virginia were open for development. The Norfolk and Western developed the coalfields of southwestern Virginia by completing their railroad from tidewater to remote Tazewell County in 1883. A network of smaller lines linking individual collieries to these large trunk lines facilitated the rapid development of Appalachian coal.

Railroads also helped open up the massive coal reserves west of the Mississippi. Small coal mines in Missouri and Illinois existed in the antebellum years, but were limited to the steamboat trade down the Mississippi River. As the nation’s web of railroad construction expanded across the Great Plains, coalfields in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming witnessed significant development. Coal had truly become a national endeavor in the United States.

Technological Innovations

As the coal industry expanded, it also incorporated new mining methods. Early slope or drift mines intersected coal seams relatively close to the surface and needed only small capital investments to prepare. Most miners still used picks and shovels to extract the coal, but some miners used black powder to blast holes in the coal seams, then loaded the broken coal onto wagons by hand. But as miners sought to remove more coal, shafts were dug deeper below the water line. As a result, coal mining needed larger amounts of capital as new systems of pumping, ventilation, and extraction required the implementation of steam power in mines. By the 1890s, electric cutting machines replaced the blasting method of loosening the coal in some mines, and by 1900 a quarter of American coal was mined using these methods. As the century progressed, miners raised more and more coal by using new technology. Along with this productivity came the erosion of many traditional skills cherished by experienced miners.

The Coke Industry

Consumption patterns also changed. The late nineteenth century saw the emergence of coke — a form of processed bituminous coal in which impurities are “baked” out under high temperatures — as a powerful fuel in the iron and steel industry. The discovery of excellent coking coal in the Connellsville region of southwestern Pennsylvania spurred the aggressive growth of coke furnaces there. By 1880, the Connellsville region contained more than 4,200 coke ovens and the national production of coke in the United States stood at three million tons. Two decades later, the United States consumed over twenty million tons of coke fuel.

Competition and Profits

The successful incorporation of new mining methods and the emergence of coke as a major fuel source served as both a blessing and a curse to mining firms. With the new technology they raised more coal, but as more coalfields opened up and national production neared eighty million tons by 1880, coal prices remained relatively low. Cheap coal undoubtedly helped America’s rapidly industrializing economy, but it also created an industry structure characterized by boom and bust periods, low profit margins, and cutthroat competition among firms. But however it was raised, the United States became more and more dependent upon coal as the nineteenth century progressed, as demonstrated by Figure 2.

Figure 2: Coal as a Percentage of American Energy Consumption, 1850-1900

Source: Sam H. Schurr and Bruce C. Netschert, Energy in the American Economy, 1850-1975 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1960), 36-37.

The Rise of Labor Unions

As coal mines became more capital intensive over the course of the nineteenth century, the role of miners changed dramatically. Proprietary mines usually employed skilled miners as subcontractors in the years prior to the Civil War; by doing so they abdicated a great deal of control over the pace of mining. Corporate reorganization and the introduction of expensive machinery eroded the traditional authority of the skilled miner. By the 1870s, many mining firms employed managers to supervise the pace of work, but kept the old system of paying mine laborers per ton rather than an hourly wage. Falling piece rates quickly became a source of discontent in coal mining regions.

Miners responded to falling wages and the restructuring of mine labor by organizing into craft unions. The Workingmen’s Benevolent Association founded in Pennsylvania in 1868, united English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh anthracite miners. The WBA won some concessions from coal companies until Franklin Gowen, acting president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad led a concerted effort to break the union in the winter of 1874-75. When sporadic violence plagued the anthracite fields, Gowen led the charge against the “Molly Maguires,” a clandestine organization supposedly led by Irish miners. After the breaking of the WBA, most coal mining unions served to organize skilled workers in specific regions. In 1890, a national mining union appeared when delegates from across the United States formed the United Mine Workers of America. The UMWA struggled to gain widespread acceptance until 1897, when widespread strikes pushed many workers into union membership. By 1903, the UMWA listed about a quarter of a million members, raised a treasury worth over one million dollars, and played a major role in industrial relations of the nation’s coal industry.

Coal at the Turn of the Century

By 1900, the American coal industry was truly a national endeavor that raised fifty-seven million tons of anthracite and 212 million tons of bituminous coal. (See Tables 1 and 2 for additional trends.) Some coal firms grew to immense proportions by nineteenth-century standards. The U.S. Coal and Oil Company, for example, was capitalized at six million dollars and owned the rights to 30,000 acres of coal-bearing land. But small mining concerns with one or two employees also persisted through the turn of the century. New developments in mine technology continued to revolutionize the trade as more and more coal fields across the United States became integrated into the national system of railroads. Industrial relations also assumed nationwide dimensions. John Mitchell, the leader of the UMWA, and L.M. Bowers of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, symbolized a new coal industry in which hard-line positions developed in both labor and capital’s respective camps. Since the bituminous coal industry alone employed over 300,000 workers by 1900, many Americans kept a close eye on labor relations in this critical trade. Although “King Coal” stood unchallenged as the nation’s leading supplier of domestic and industrial fuel, tension between managers and workers threatened the stability of the coal industry in the twentieth century.


Table 1: Coal Production in the United States, 1829-1899

Year Coal Production (thousands of tons) Percent Increase over Decade Tons per capita
Anthracite Bituminous
1829 138 102 0.02
1839 1008 552 550 0.09
1849 3995 2453 313 0.28
1859 9620 6013 142 0.50
1869 17,083 15,821 110 0.85
1879 30,208 37,898 107 1.36
1889 45,547 95,683 107 2.24
1899 60,418 193,323 80 3.34

Source: Fourteenth Census of the United States, Vol. XI, Mines and Quarries, 1922, Tables 8 and 9, pp. 258 and 260.

Table 2: Leading Coal Producing States, 1889

State Coal Production (thousands of tons)
Pennsylvania 81,719
Illinois 12,104
Ohio 9977
West Virginia 6232
Iowa 4095
Alabama 3573
Indiana 2845
Colorado 2544
Kentucky 2400
Kansas 2221
Tennessee 1926

Source: Thirteenth Census of the United States, Vol. XI, Mines and Quarries, 1913, Table 4, p. 187

Suggestions for Further Reading

Adams, Sean Patrick. “Different Charters, Different Paths: Corporations and Coal in Antebellum Pennsylvania and Virginia,” Business and Economic History 27 (Fall 1998): 78-90.

Binder, Frederick Moore. Coal Age Empire: Pennsylvania Coal and Its Utilization to 1860. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1974.

Blatz, Perry. Democratic Miners: Work and Labor Relations in the Anthracite Coal Industry, 1875-1925. Albany: SUNY Press, 1994.

Broehl, Wayne G. The Molly Maguires. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Bruce, Kathleen. Virginia Iron Manufacture in the Slave Era. New York: The Century Company, 1931.

Chandler, Alfred. “Anthracite Coal and the Beginnings of the ‘Industrial Revolution’ in the United States,” Business History Review 46 (1972): 141-181.

DiCiccio, Carmen. Coal and Coke in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1996

Eavenson, Howard. The First Century and a Quarter of the American Coal Industry. Pittsburgh: Privately Printed, 1942.

Eller, Ronald. Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982.

Harvey, Katherine. The Best Dressed Miners: Life and Labor in the Maryland Coal Region, 1835-1910. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Hoffman, John. “Anthracite in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, 1820-1845,” United States National Museum Bulletin 252 (1968): 91-141.

Laing, James T. “The Early Development of the Coal Industry in the Western Counties of Virginia,” West Virginia History 27 (January 1966): 144-155.

Laslett, John H.M. editor. The United Mine Workers: A Model of Industrial Solidarity? University Park: Penn State University Press, 1996.

Letwin, Daniel. The Challenge of Interracial Unionism: Alabama Coal Miners, 1878-1921 Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Lewis, Ronald. Coal, Iron, and Slaves. Industrial Slavery in Maryland and Virginia, 1715-1865. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1979.

Long, Priscilla. Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry. New York: Paragon, 1989.

Nye, David E.. Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1998.

Palladino, Grace. Another Civil War: Labor, Capital, and the State in the Anthracite Regions of Pennsylvania, 1840-1868. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Powell, H. Benjamin. Philadelphia’s First Fuel Crisis. Jacob Cist and the Developing Market for Pennsylvania Anthracite. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978.

Schurr, Sam H. and Bruce C. Netschert. Energy in the American Economy, 1850-1975: An Economic Study of Its History and Prospects. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1960.

Stapleton, Darwin. The Transfer of Early Industrial Technologies to America. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1987.

Stealey, John E.. The Antebellum Kanawha Salt Business and Western Markets. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1993.

Wallace, Anthony F.C. St. Clair. A Nineteenth-Century Coal Town’s Experience with a Disaster-Prone Industry. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

Warren, Kenneth. Triumphant Capitalism: Henry Clay Frick and the Industrial Transformation of America. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996.

Woodworth, J. B.. “The History and Conditions of Mining in the Richmond Coal-Basin, Virginia.” Transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers 31 (1902): 477-484.

Yearley, Clifton K.. Enterprise and Anthracite: Economics and Democracy in Schuylkill County, 1820-1875. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1961.

Arthur Young

David R. Stead, University of York

Arthur Young (1741-1820) was widely regarded by his contemporaries as the leading agricultural writer of the time. Born in London, he was the youngest child of the Suffolk gentry landowners Anne and the Reverend Arthur. Young was educated at Lavenham Grammar School, and after abortive attempts to become a merchant and then army officer, in 1763 took a farm on his mother’s estate at Bradfield, although he had little knowledge of farming. Nevertheless he conducted a variety of agricultural experiments and continued his early interest in writing by publishing his first major agricultural work, The Farmer’s Letters, in 1767. Young’s subsequent output was prolific. Most famous are his Tours of England, Ireland and France, which mixed travel diaries with facts, figures and critical commentary on farming practices. In 1784 he founded the periodical Annals of Agriculture, and edited the forty-six volumes published as well as contributing a large proportion of their content. Young was somewhat controversially appointed Secretary of the Board of Agriculture (a state-sponsored body promoting improved farming standards) in 1793, a position he held until his death. He also wrote six of the Board’s surveys of English counties.

Young was a vigorous advocate of agrarian improvements, especially enclosures and long leases, and his statistics and lively prose must have helped publicize and diffuse the innovations in farming practices that were taking place. He was consulted by agriculturists and politicians at home and abroad, including George Washington, and received numerous honors. His marriage to Martha Allen from 1765 was unhappy, though, with faults seemingly on both sides. The youngest of the couple’s four children died in 1797, triggering the melancholia and religious fervor that characterised Young in his later years. His prodigious work rate slowed after about 1805 on account of deteriorating vision, and ultimately blindness.

Some contemporary rivals, notably William Marshall, were fiercely critical of Young’s abilities as a farmer and accurate observer: the judgment of historians remains divided. Young certainly never made a financial success of farming, but this was partly because he expended large sums on agricultural experiments and was frequently absent from his farm writing or travelling. Allegations that Young’s enquiries were based on alehouse gossip, or conducted too hastily, are perhaps not without some truth, but his sample survey investigative procedure undoubtedly represented a pioneering scientific approach to agricultural research. Ironically, historians’ analysis of Youngs facts and figures has produced results that do not always support his original conclusions. For example, enclosures turn out to be not as important in increasing farm output as Young maintained.


Allen, Robert C. and Cormac Ó Gráda. “On the Road Again with Arthur Young: English, Irish, and French Agriculture during the Industrial Revolution.” Journal of Economic History 48 (1988): 93-116.Betham-Edwards, M., editor. The Autobiography of Arthur Young. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1898.

Brunt, Liam. “The Advent of the Sample Survey in the Social Sciences.” The Statistician 50 (2001): 179-89.

Brunt, Liam. “Rehabilitating Arthur Young.” Economic History Review 56 (2003): 265-99.

Gazley, John G. The Life of Arthur Young, 1741-1820. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1973.

Kerridge, Eric. “Arthur Young and William Marshall.” History Studies 1 (1968): 43-53.

Mingay, G. E., editor. Arthur Young and His Times. London: Macmillan, 1975.

Citation: Stead, David. “Arthur Young”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. November 18, 2003. URL

Sweden – Economic Growth and Structural Change, 1800-2000

Lennart Schön, Lund University

This article presents an overview of Swedish economic growth performance internationally and statistically and an account of major trends in Swedish economic development during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.1

Modern economic growth in Sweden took off in the middle of the nineteenth century and in international comparative terms Sweden has been rather successful during the past 150 years. This is largely thanks to the transformation of the economy and society from agrarian to industrial. Sweden is a small economy that has been open to foreign influences and highly dependent upon the world economy. Thus, successive structural changes have put their imprint upon modern economic growth.

Swedish Growth in International Perspective

The century-long period from the 1870s to the 1970s comprises the most successful part of Swedish industrialization and growth. On a per capita basis the Japanese economy performed equally well (see Table 1). The neighboring Scandinavian countries also grew rapidly but at a somewhat slower rate than Sweden. Growth in the rest of industrial Europe and in the U.S. was clearly outpaced. Growth in the entire world economy, as measured by Maddison, was even slower.

Table 1 Annual Economic Growth Rates per Capita in Industrial Nations and the World Economy, 1871-2005

Year Sweden Rest of Nordic Countries Rest of Western Europe United States Japan World Economy
1871/1875-1971/1975 2.4 2.0 1.7 1.8 2.4 1.5
1971/1975-2001/2005 1.7 2.2 1.9 2.0 2.2 1.6

Note: Rest of Nordic countries = Denmark, Finland and Norway. Rest of Western Europe = Austria, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

Source: Maddison (2006); Krantz/Schön (forthcoming 2007); World Bank, World Development Indicator 2000; Groningen Growth and Development Centre,

The Swedish advance in a global perspective is illustrated in Figure 1. In the mid-nineteenth century the Swedish average income level was close to the average global level (as measured by Maddison). In a European perspective Sweden was a rather poor country. By the 1970s, however, the Swedish income level was more than three times higher than the global average and among the highest in Europe.

Figure 1
Swedish GDP per Capita in Relation to World GDP per Capita, 1870-2004
(Nine year moving averages)
Swedish GDP per Capita in Relation to World GDP per Capita, 1870-2004
Sources: Maddison (2006); Krantz/Schön (forthcoming 2007).

Note. The annual variation in world production between Maddison’s benchmarks 1870, 1913 and 1950 is estimated from his supply of annual country series.

To some extent this was a catch-up story. Sweden was able to take advantage of technological and organizational advances made in Western Europe and North America. Furthermore, Scandinavian countries with resource bases such as Sweden and Finland had been rather disadvantaged as long as agriculture was the main source of income. The shift to industry expanded the resource base and industrial development – directed both to a growing domestic market but even more to a widening world market – became the main lever of growth from the late nineteenth century.

Catch-up is not the whole story, though. In many industrial areas Swedish companies took a position at the technological frontier from an early point in time. Thus, in certain sectors there was also forging ahead,2 quickening the pace of structural change in the industrializing economy. Furthermore, during a century of fairly rapid growth new conditions have arisen that have required profound adaptation and a renewal of entrepreneurial activity as well as of economic policies.

The slow down in Swedish growth from the 1970s may be considered in this perspective. While in most other countries growth from the 1970s fell only in relation to growth rates in the golden post-war ages, Swedish growth fell clearly below the historical long run growth trend. It also fell to a very low level internationally. The 1970s certainly meant the end to a number of successful growth trajectories in the industrial society. At the same time new growth forces appeared with the electronic revolution, as well as with the advance of a more service based economy. It may be the case that this structural change hit the Swedish economy harder than most other economies, at least of the industrial capitalist economies. Sweden was forced into a transformation of its industrial economy and of its political economy in the 1970s and the 1980s that was more profound than in most other Western economies.

A Statistical Overview, 1800-2000

Swedish economic development since 1800 may be divided into six periods with different growth trends, as well as different composition of growth forces.

Table 2 Annual Growth Rates in per Capita Production, Total Investments, Foreign Trade and Population in Sweden, 1800-2000

Period Per capita GDP Investments Foreign Trade Population
1800-1840 0.6 0.3 0.7 0.8
1840-1870 1.2 3.0 4.6 1.0
1870-1910 1.7 3.0 3.3 0.6
1910-1950 2.2 4.2 2.0 0.5
1950-1975 3.6 5.5 6.5 0.6
1975-2000 1.4 2.1 4.3 0.4
1800-2000 1.9 3.4 3.8 0.7

Source: Krantz/Schön (forthcoming 2007).

In the first decades of the nineteenth century the agricultural sector dominated and growth was slow in all aspects but in population. Still there was per capita growth, but to some extent this was a recovery from the low levels during the Napoleonic Wars. The acceleration during the next period around the mid-nineteenth century is marked in all aspects. Investments and foreign trade became very dynamic ingredients with the onset of industrialization. They were to remain so during the following periods as well. Up to the 1970s per capita growth rates increased for each successive period. In an international perspective it is most notable that per capita growth rates increased also in the interwar period, despite the slow down in foreign trade. The interwar period is crucial for the long run relative success of Swedish economic growth. The decisive culmination in the post-war period with high growth rates in investments and in foreign trade stands out as well, as the deceleration in all aspects in the late twentieth century.

An analysis in a traditional growth accounting framework gives a long term pattern with certain periodic similarities (see Table 3). Thus, total factor productivity growth has increased over time up to the 1970s, only to decrease to its long run level in the last decades. This deceleration in productivity growth may be looked upon either as a failure of the “Swedish Model” to accommodate new growth forces or as another case of the “productivity paradox” in lieu of the information technology revolution.3

Table 3 Total Factor Productivity (TFP) Growth and Relative Contribution of Capital, Labor and TFP to GDP Growth in Sweden, 1840-2000

Period TFP Growth Capital Labor TFP
1840-1870 0.4 55 27 18
1870-1910 0.7 50 18 32
1910-1950 1.0 39 24 37
1950-1975 2.1 45 7 48
1975-2000 1.0 44 1 55
1840-2000 1.1 45 16 39

Source: See Table 2.

In terms of contribution to overall growth, TFP has increased its share for every period. The TFP share was low in the 1840s but there was a very marked increase with the onset of modern industrialization from the 1870s. In relative terms TFP reached its highest level so far from the 1970s, thus indicating an increasing role of human capital, technology and knowledge in economic growth. The role of capital accumulation was markedly more pronounced in early industrialization with the build-up of a modern infrastructure and with urbanization, but still capital did retain much of its importance during the twentieth century. Thus its contribution to growth during the post-war Golden Ages was significant with very high levels of material investments. At the same time TFP growth culminated with positive structural shifts, as well as increased knowledge intensity complementary to the investments. Labor has in quantitative terms progressively reduced its role in economic growth. One should observe, however, the relatively large importance of labor in Swedish economic growth during the interwar period. This was largely due to demographic factors and to the employment situation that will be further commented upon.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, growth was still led by the primary production of agriculture, accompanied by services and transport. Secondary production in manufacturing and building was, on the contrary, very stagnant. From the 1840s the industrial sector accelerated, increasingly supported by transport and communications, as well as by private services. The sectoral shift from agriculture to industry became more pronounced at the turn of the twentieth century when industry and transportation boomed, while agricultural growth decelerated into subsequent stagnation. In the post-war period the volume of services, both private and public, increased strongly, although still not outpacing industry. From the 1970s the focus shifted to private services and to transport and communications, indicating fundamental new prerequisites of growth.

Table 4 Growth Rates of Industrial Sectors, 1800-2000

Period Agriculture Industrial and Hand Transport and Communic. Building Private Services Public Services GDP
1800-1840 1.5 0.3 1.1 -0.1 1.4 1.5 1.3
1840-1870 2.1 3.7 1.8 2.4 2.7 0.8 2.3
1870-1910 1.0 5.0 3.9 1.3 2.7 1.0 2.3
1910-1950 0.0 3.5 4.9 1.4 2.2 2.2 2.7
1950-1975 0.4 5.1 4.4 3.8 4.3 4.0 4.3
1975-2000 -0.4 1.9 2.6 -0.8 2.2 0.2 1.8
1800-2000 0.9 3.8 3.7 1.8 2.7 1.7 2.6

Source: See Table 2.

Note: Private services are exclusive of dwelling services.

Growth and Transformation in the Agricultural Society of the Early Nineteenth Century

During the first half of the nineteenth century the agricultural sector and the rural society dominated the Swedish economy. Thus, more than three-quarters of the population were occupied in agriculture while roughly 90 percent lived in the countryside. Many non-agrarian activities such as the iron industry, the saw mill industry and many crafts as well as domestic, religious and military services were performed in rural areas. Although growth was slow, a number of structural and institutional changes occurred that paved the way for future modernization.

Most important was the transformation of agriculture. From the late eighteenth century commercialization of the primary sector intensified. Particularly during the Napoleonic Wars, the domestic market for food stuffs widened. The population increase in combination with the temporary decrease in imports stimulated enclosures and reclamation of land, the introduction of new crops and new methods and above all it stimulated a greater degree of market orientation. In the decades after the war the traditional Swedish trade deficit in grain even shifted to a trade surplus with an increasing exportation of oats, primarily to Britain.

Concomitant with the agricultural transformation were a number of infrastructural and institutional changes. Domestic transportation costs were reduced through investments in canals and roads. Trade of agricultural goods was liberalized, reducing transaction costs and integrating the domestic market even further. Trading companies became more effective in attracting agricultural surpluses for more distant markets. In support of the agricultural sector new means of information were introduced by, for example, agricultural societies that published periodicals on innovative methods and on market trends. Mortgage societies were established to supply agriculture with long term capital for investments that in turn intensified the commercialization of production.

All these elements meant a profound institutional change in the sense that the price mechanism became much more effective in directing human behavior. Furthermore, a greater interest in information and in the main instrument of information, namely literacy, was infused. Traditionally, popular literacy had been upheld by the church, mainly devoted to knowledge of the primary Lutheran texts. In the new economic environment, literacy was secularized and transformed into a more functional literacy marked by the advent of schools for public education in the 1840s.

The Breakthrough of Modern Economic Growth in the Mid-nineteenth Century

In the decades around the middle of the nineteenth century new dynamic forces appeared that accelerated growth. Most notably foreign trade expanded by leaps and bounds in the 1850s and 1860s. With new export sectors, industrial investments increased. Furthermore, railways became the most prominent component of a new infrastructure and with this construction a new component in Swedish growth was introduced, heavy capital imports.

The upswing in industrial growth in Western Europe during the 1850s, in combination with demand induced through the Crimean War, led to a particularly strong expansion in Swedish exports with sharp price increases for three staple goods – bar iron, wood and oats. The charcoal-based Swedish bar iron had been the traditional export good and had completely dominated Swedish exports until mid-nineteenth century. Bar iron met, however, increasingly strong competition from British and continental iron and steel industries and Swedish exports had stagnated in the first half of the nineteenth century. The upswing in international demand, following the diffusion of industrialization and railway construction, gave an impetus to the modernization of Swedish steel production in the following decades.

The saw mill industry was a really new export industry that grew dramatically in the 1850s and 1860s. Up until this time, the vast forests in Sweden had been regarded mainly as a fuel resource for the iron industry and for household heating and local residential construction. With sharp price increases on the Western European market from the 1840s and 1850s, the resources of the sparsely populated northern part of Sweden suddenly became valuable. A formidable explosion of saw mill construction at the mouths of the rivers along the northern coastline followed. Within a few decades Swedish merchants, as well as Norwegian, German, British and Dutch merchants, became saw mill owners running large-scale capitalist enterprises at the fringe of the European civilization.

Less dramatic but equally important was the sudden expansion of Swedish oat exports. The market for oats appeared mainly in Britain, where short-distance transportation in rapidly growing urban centers increased the fleet of horses. Swedish oats became an important energy resource during the decades around the mid-nineteenth century. In Sweden this had a special significance since oats could be cultivated on rather barren and marginal soils and Sweden was richly endowed with such soils. Thus, the market for oats with strongly increasing prices stimulated further the commercialization of agriculture and the diffusion of new methods. It was furthermore so since oats for the market were a substitute for local flax production – also thriving on barren soils – while domestic linen was increasingly supplanted by factory-produced cotton goods.

The Swedish economy was able to respond to the impetus from Western Europe during these decades, to diffuse the new influences in the economy and to integrate them in its development very successfully. The barriers to change seem to have been weak. This is partly explained by the prior transformation of agriculture and the evolution of market institutions in the rural economy. People reacted to the price mechanism. New social classes of commercial peasants, capitalists and wage laborers had emerged in an era of domestic market expansion, with increased regional specialization, and population increase.

The composition of export goods also contributed to the diffusion of participation and to the diffusion of export income. Iron, wood and oats meant both a regional and a social distribution. The value of prior marginal resources such as soils in the south and forests in the north was inflated. The technology was simple and labor intensive in industry, forestry, agriculture and transportation. The demand for unskilled labor increased strongly that was to put an imprint upon Swedish wage development in the second half of the nineteenth century. Commercial houses and industrial companies made profits but export income was distributed to many segments of the population.

The integration of the Swedish economy was further enforced through initiatives taken by the State. The parliament decision in the 1850s to construct the railway trunk lines meant, first, a more direct involvement by the State in the development of a modern infrastructure and, second, new principles of finance since the State had to rely upon capital imports. At the same time markets for goods, labor and capital were liberalized and integration both within Sweden and with the world market deepened. The Swedish adoption of the Gold Standard in 1873 put a final stamp on this institutional development.

A Second Industrial Revolution around 1900

In the late nineteenth century, particularly in the 1880s, international competition became fiercer for agriculture and early industrial branches. The integration of world markets led to falling prices and stagnation in the demand for Swedish staple goods such as iron, sawn wood and oats. Profits were squeezed and expansion thwarted. On the other hand there arose new markets. Increasing wages intensified mechanization both in agriculture and in industry. The demand increased for more sophisticated machinery equipment. At the same time consumer demand shifted towards better foodstuff – such as milk, butter and meat – and towards more fabricated industrial goods.

The decades around the turn of the twentieth century meant a profound structural change in the composition of Swedish industrial expansion that was crucial for long term growth. New and more sophisticated enterprises were founded and expanded particularly from the 1890s, in the upswing after the Baring Crisis.

The new enterprises were closely related to the so called Second Industrial Revolution in which scientific knowledge and more complex engineering skills were main components. The electrical motor became especially important in Sweden. A new development block was created around this innovation that combined engineering skills in companies such as ASEA (later ABB) with a large demand in energy-intensive processes and with the large supply of hydropower in Sweden.4 Financing the rapid development of this large block engaged commercial banks, knitting closer ties between financial capital and industry. The State, once again, engaged itself in infrastructural development in support of electrification, still resorting to heavy capital imports.

A number of innovative industries were founded in this period – all related to increased demand for mechanization and engineering skills. Companies such as AGA, ASEA, Ericsson, Separator (AlfaLaval) and SKF have been labeled “enterprises of genius” and all are represented with renowned inventors and innovators. This was, of course, not an entirely Swedish phenomenon. These branches developed simultaneously on the Continent, particularly in nearby Germany and in the U.S. Knowledge and innovative stimulus was diffused among these economies. The question is rather why this new development became so strong in Sweden so that new industries within a relatively short period of time were able to supplant old resource-based industries as main driving forces of industrialization.

Traditions of engineering skills were certainly important, developed in old heavy industrial branches such as iron and steel industries and stimulated further by State initiatives such as railway construction or, more directly, the founding of the Royal Institute of Technology. But apart from that the economic development in the second half of the nineteenth century fundamentally changed relative factor prices and the profitability of allocation of resources in different lines of production.

The relative increase in the wages of unskilled labor had been stimulated by the composition of early exports in Sweden. This was much reinforced by two components in the further development – emigration and capital imports.

Within approximately the same period, 1850-1910, the Swedish economy received a huge amount of capital mainly from Germany and France, while delivering an equally huge amount of labor to primarily the U.S. Thus, Swedish relative factor prices changed dramatically. Swedish interest rates remained at rather high levels compared to leading European countries until 1910, due to a continuous large demand for capital in Sweden, but relative wages rose persistently (see Table 5). As in the rest of Scandinavia, wage increases were much stronger than GDP growth in Sweden indicating a shift in income distribution in favor of labor, particularly in favor of unskilled labor, during this period of increased world market integration.

Table 5 Annual Increase in Real Wages of Unskilled Labor and Annual GDP Growth per Capita, 1870-1910

Country Annual real wage increase, 1870-1910 Annual GDP growth per capita, 1870-1910
Sweden 2.8 1.7
Denmark and Norway 2.6 1.3
France, Germany and Great Britain 1.1 1.2
United States 1.1 1.6

Sources: Wages from Williamson (1995); GDP growth see Table 1.

Relative profitability fell in traditional industries, which exploited rich natural resources and cheap labor, while more sophisticated industries were favored. But the causality runs both ways. Had this structural shift with the growth of new and more profitable industries not occurred, the Swedish economy would not have been able to sustain the wage increase.5

Accelerated Growth in the War-stricken Period, 1910-1950

The most notable feature of long term Swedish growth is the acceleration in growth rates during the period 1910-1950, which in Europe at large was full of problems and catastrophes.6 Thus, Swedish per capita production grew at 2.2 percent annually while growth in the rest of Scandinavia was somewhat below 2 percent and in the rest of Europe hovered at 1 percent. The Swedish acceleration was based mainly on three pillars.

First, the structure created at the end of the nineteenth century was very viable, with considerable long term growth potential. It consisted of new industries and new infrastructures that involved industrialists and financial capitalists, as well as public sector support. It also involved industries meeting a relatively strong demand in war times, as well as in the interwar period, both domestically and abroad.

Second, the First World War meant an immense financial bonus to the Swedish market. A huge export surplus at inflated prices during the war led to the domestication of the Swedish national debt. This in turn further capitalized the Swedish financial market, lowering interest rates and ameliorating sequential innovative activity in industry. A domestic money market arose that provided the State with new instruments for economic policy that were to become important for the implementation of the new social democratic “Keynesian” policies of the 1930s.

Third, demographic development favored the Swedish economy in this period. The share of the economically active age group 15-64 grew substantially. This was due partly to the fact that prior emigration had sized down cohorts that now would have become old age pensioners. Comparatively low mortality of young people during the 1910s, as well as an end to mass emigration further enhanced the share of the active population. Both the labor market and domestic demand was stimulated in particular during the 1930s when the household forming age group of 25-30 years increased.

The augmented labor supply would have increased unemployment had it not been combined with the richer supply of capital and innovative industrial development that met elastic demand both domestically and in Europe.

Thus, a richer supply of both capital and labor stimulated the domestic market in a period when international market integration deteriorated. Above all it stimulated the development of mass production of consumption goods based upon the innovations of the Second Industrial Revolution. Significant new enterprises that emanated from the interwar period were very much related to the new logic of the industrial society, such as Volvo, SAAB, Electrolux, Tetra Pak and IKEA.

The Golden Age of Growth, 1950-1975

The Swedish economy was clearly part of the European Golden Age of growth, although Swedish acceleration from the 1950s was less pronounced than in the rest of Western Europe, which to a much larger extent had been plagued by wars and crises.7 The Swedish post-war period was characterized primarily by two phenomena – the full fruition of development blocks based upon the great innovations of the late nineteenth century (the electrical motor and the combustion engine) and the cementation of the “Swedish Model” for the welfare state. These two phenomena were highly complementary.

The Swedish Model had basically two components. One was a greater public responsibility for social security and for the creation and preservation of human capital. This led to a rapid increase in the supply of public services in the realms of education, health and children’s day care as well as to increases in social security programs and in public savings for transfers to pensioners program. The consequence was high taxation. The other component was a regulation of labor and capital markets. This was the most ingenious part of the model, constructed to sustain growth in the industrial society and to increase equality in combination with the social security program and taxation.

The labor market program was the result of negotiations between trade unions and the employers’ organization. It was labeled “solidaristic wage policy” with two elements. One was to achieve equal wages for equal work, regardless of individual companies’ ability to pay. The other element was to raise the wage level in low paid areas and thus to compress the wage distribution. The aim of the program was actually to increase the speed in the structural rationalization of industries and to eliminate less productive companies and branches. Labor should be transferred to the most productive export-oriented sectors. At the same time income should be distributed more equally. A drawback of the solidaristic wage policy from an egalitarian point of view was that profits soared in the productive sectors since wage increases were held back. However, capital market regulations hindered the ability of high profits to be converted into very high incomes for shareholders. Profits were taxed very low if they were converted into further investments within the company (the timing in the use of the funds was controlled by the State in its stabilization policy) but taxed heavily if distributed to share holders. The result was that investments within existing profitable companies were supported and actually subsidized while the mobility of capital dwindled and the activity at the stock market fell.

As long as the export sectors grew, the program worked well.8 Companies founded in the late nineteenth century and in the interwar period developed into successful multinationals in engineering with machinery, auto industries and shipbuilding, as well as in resource-based industries of steel and paper. The expansion of the export sector was the main force behind the high growth rates and the productivity increases but the sector was strongly supported by public investments or publicly subsidized investments in infrastructure and residential construction.

Hence, during the Golden Age of growth the development blocks around electrification and motorization matured in a broad modernization of the society, where mass consumption and mass production was supported by social programs, by investment programs and by labor market policy.

Crisis and Restructuring from the 1970s

In the 1970s and early 1980s a number of industries – such as steel works, pulp and paper, shipbuilding, and mechanical engineering – ran into crisis. New global competition, changing consumer behavior and profound innovative renewal, especially in microelectronics, made some of the industrial pillars of the Swedish Model crumble. At the same time the disadvantages of the old model became more apparent. It put obstacles to flexibility and to entrepreneurial initiatives and it reduced individual incentives for mobility. Thus, while the Swedish Model did foster rationalization of existing industries well adapted to the post-war period, it did not support more profound transformation of the economy.

One should not exaggerate the obstacles to transformation, though. The Swedish economy was still very open in the market for goods and many services, and the pressure to transform increased rapidly. During the 1980s a far-reaching structural change within industry as well as in economic policy took place, engaging both private and public actors. Shipbuilding was almost completely discontinued, pulp industries were integrated into modernized paper works, the steel industry was concentrated and specialized, and the mechanical engineering was digitalized. New and more knowledge-intensive growth industries appeared in the 1980s, such as IT-based telecommunication, pharmaceutical industries, and biotechnology, as well as new service industries.

During the 1980s some of the constituent components of the Swedish model were weakened or eliminated. Centralized negotiations and solidaristic wage policy disappeared. Regulations in the capital market were dismantled under the pressure of increasing international capital flows simultaneously with a forceful revival of the stock market. The expansion of public sector services came to an end and the taxation system was reformed with a reduction of marginal tax rates. Thus, Swedish economic policy and welfare system became more adapted to the main European level that facilitated the Swedish application of membership and final entrance into the European Union in 1995.

It is also clear that the period from the 1970s to the early twenty-first century comprise two growth trends, before and after 1990 respectively. During the 1970s and 1980s, growth in Sweden was very slow and marked by the great structural problems that the Swedish economy had to cope with. The slow growth prior to 1990 does not signify stagnation in a real sense, but rather the transformation of industrial structures and the reformulation of economic policy, which did not immediately result in a speed up of growth but rather in imbalances and bottle necks that took years to eliminate. From the 1990s up to 2005 Swedish growth accelerated quite forcefully in comparison with most Western economies.9 Thus, the 1980s may be considered as a Swedish case of “the productivity paradox,” with innovative renewal but with a delayed acceleration of productivity and growth from the 1990s – although a delayed productivity effect of more profound transformation and radical innovative behavior is not paradoxical.

Table 6 Annual Growth Rates per Capita, 1971-2005

Period Sweden Rest of Nordic Countries Rest of Western Europe United States World Economy
1971/1975-1991/1995 1.2 2.1 1.8 1.6 1.4
1991/1995-2001/2005 2.4 2.5 1.7 2.1 2.1

Sources: See Table 1.

The recent acceleration in growth may also indicate that some of the basic traits from early industrialization still pertain to the Swedish economy – an international attitude in a small open economy fosters transformation and adaptation of human skills to new circumstances as a major force behind long term growth.


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Citation: Schön, Lennart. “Sweden – Economic Growth and Structural Change, 1800-2000″. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. February 10, 2008. URL