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Turnpikes and Toll Roads in Nineteenth-Century America

Daniel B. Klein, Santa Clara University and John Majewski, University of California – Santa Barbara 1

Private turnpikes were business corporations that built and maintained a road for the right to collect fees from travelers.2 Accounts of the nineteenth-century transportation revolution often treat turnpikes as merely a prelude to more important improvements such as canals and railroads. Turnpikes, however, left important social and political imprints on the communities that debated and supported them. Although turnpikes rarely paid dividends or other forms of direct profit, they nevertheless attracted enough capital to expand both the coverage and quality of the U. S. road system. Turnpikes demonstrated how nineteenth-century Americans integrated elements of the modern corporation – with its emphasis on profit-taking residual claimants – with non-pecuniary motivations such as use and esteem.

Private road building came and went in waves throughout the nineteenth century and across the country, with between 2,500 and 3,200 companies successfully financing, building, and operating their toll road. There were three especially important episodes of toll road construction: the turnpike era of the eastern states 1792 to 1845; the plank road boom 1847 to 1853; and the toll road of the far West 1850 to 1902.

The Turnpike Era, 1792–1845

Prior to the 1790s Americans had no direct experience with private turnpikes; roads were built, financed and managed mainly by town governments. Typically, townships compelled a road labor tax. The State of New York, for example, assessed eligible males a minimum of three days of roadwork under penalty of fine of one dollar. The labor requirement could be avoided if the worker paid a fee of 62.5 cents a day. As with public works of any kind, incentives were weak because the chain of activity could not be traced to a residual claimant – that is, private owners who claim the “residuals,” profit or loss. The laborers were brought together in a transitory, disconnected manner. Since overseers and laborers were commonly farmers, too often the crop schedule, rather than road deterioration, dictated the repairs schedule. Except in cases of special appropriations, financing came in dribbles deriving mostly from the fines and commutations of the assessed inhabitants. Commissioners could hardly lay plans for decisive improvements. When a needed connection passed through unsettled lands, it was especially difficult to mobilize labor because assessments could be worked out only in the district in which the laborer resided. Because work areas were divided into districts, as well as into towns, problems arose coordinating the various jurisdictions. Road conditions thus remained inadequate, as New York’s governors often acknowledged publicly (Klein and Majewski 1992, 472-75).

For Americans looking for better connections to markets, the poor state of the road system was a major problem. In 1790, a viable steamboat had not yet been built, canal construction was hard to finance and limited in scope, and the first American railroad would not be completed for another forty years. Better transportation meant, above all, better highways. State and local governments, however, had small bureaucracies and limited budgets which prevented a substantial public sector response. Turnpikes, in essence, were organizational innovations borne out of necessity – “the states admitted that they were unequal to the task and enlisted the aid of private enterprise” (Durrenberger 1931, 37).

America’s very limited and lackluster experience with the publicly operated toll roads of the 1780s hardly portended a future boom in private toll roads, but the success of private toll bridges may have inspired some future turnpike companies. From 1786 to 1798, fifty-nine private toll bridge companies were chartered in the northeast, beginning with Boston’s Charles River Bridge, which brought investors an average annual return of 10.5 percent in its first six years (Davis 1917, II, 188). Private toll bridges operated without many of the regulations that would hamper the private toll roads that soon followed, such as mandatory toll exemptions and conflicts over the location of toll gates. Also, toll bridges, by their very nature, faced little toll evasion, which was a serious problem for toll roads.

The more significant predecessor to America’s private toll road movement was Britain’s success with private toll roads. Beginning in 1663 and peaking from 1750 to 1772, Britain experienced a private turnpike movement large enough to acquire the nickname “turnpike mania” (Pawson 1977, 151). Although the British movement inspired the future American turnpike movement, the institutional differences between the two were substantial. Most important, perhaps, was the difference in their organizational forms. British turnpikes were incorporated as trusts – non-profit organizations financed by bonds – while American turnpikes were stock-financed corporations seemingly organized to pay dividends, though acting within narrow limits determined by the charter. Contrary to modern sensibilities, this difference made the British trusts, which operated under the firm expectation of fulfilling bond obligations, more intent and more successful in garnering residuals. In contrast, for the American turnpikes the hope of dividends was merely a faint hope, and never a legal obligation. Odd as it sounds, the stock-financed “business” corporation was better suited to operating the project as a civic enterprise, paying out returns in use and esteem rather than cash.

The first private turnpike in the United States was chartered by Pennsylvania in 1792 and opened two years later. Spanning 62 miles between Philadelphia and Lancaster, it quickly attracted the attention of merchants in other states, who recognized its potential to direct commerce away from their regions. Soon lawmakers from those states began chartering turnpikes. By 1800, 69 turnpike companies had been chartered throughout the country, especially in Connecticut (23) and New York (13). Over the next decade nearly six times as many turnpikes were incorporated (398). Table 1 shows that in the mid-Atlantic and New England states between 1800 and 1830, turnpike companies accounted for 27 percent of all business incorporations.

Table 1: Turnpikes as a Percentage of All Business Incorporations,
by Special and General Acts, 1800-1830

As shown in Table 2, a wider set of states had incorporated 1562 turnpikes by the end of 1845. Somewhere between 50 to 70 percent of these succeeded in building and operating toll roads. A variety of regulatory and economic conditions – outlined below – account for why a relatively low percentage of chartered turnpikes became going concerns. In New York, for example, tolls could be collected only after turnpikes passed inspections, which were typically conducted after ten miles of roadway had been built. Only 35 to 40 percent of New York turnpike projects – or about 165 companies – reached operational status. In Connecticut, by contrast, where settlement covered the state and turnpikes more often took over existing roadbeds, construction costs were much lower and about 87 percent of the companies reached operation (Taylor 1934, 210).

Table 2: Turnpike Incorporation, 1792-1845

State 1792-1800 1801-10 1811-20 1821-30 1831-40 1841-45 Total
NH 4 45 5 1 4 0 59
VT 9 19 15 7 4 3 57
MA 9 80 8 16 1 1 115
RI 3 13 8 13 3 1 41
CT 23 37 16 24 13 0 113
NY 13 126 133 75 83 27 457
PA 5 39 101 59 101 37 342
NJ 0 22 22 3 3 0 50
VA 0 6 7 8 25 0 46
MD 3 9 33 12 14 7 78
OH 0 2 14 12 114 62 204
Total 69 398 362 230 365 138 1562

Source: Klein and Fielding 1992: 325.

Although the states of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio subsidized privately-operated turnpike companies, most turnpikes were financed solely by private stock subscription and structured to pay dividends. This was a significant achievement, considering the large construction costs (averaging around $1,500 to $2,000 per mile) and the typical length (15 to 40 miles). But the achievement was most striking because, as New England historian Edward Kirkland (1948, 45) put it, “the turnpikes did not make money. As a whole this was true; as a rule it was clear from the beginning.” Organizers and “investors” generally regarded the initial proceeds from sale of stock as a fund from which to build the facility, which would then earn enough in toll receipts to cover operating expenses. One might hope for dividend payments as well, but “it seems to have been generally known long before the rush of construction subsided that turnpike stock was worthless” (Wood 1919, 63).3

Turnpikes promised little in the way of direct dividends and profits, but they offered potentially large indirect benefits. Because turnpikes facilitated movement and trade, nearby merchants, farmers, land owners, and ordinary residents would benefit from a turnpike. Gazetteer Thomas F. Gordon aptly summarized the relationship between these “indirect benefits” and investment in turnpikes: “None have yielded profitable returns to the stockholders, but everyone feels that he has been repaid for his expenditures in the improved value of his lands, and the economy of business” (quoted in Majewski 2000, 49). Gordon’s statement raises an important question. If one could not be excluded from benefiting from a turnpike, and if dividends were not in the offing, what incentive would anyone have to help finance turnpike construction? The turnpike communities faced a serious free-rider problem.

Nevertheless, hundreds of communities overcame the free-rider problem, mostly through a civic-minded culture that encouraged investment for long-term community gain. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, excepting those of the South, Americans were infused with a spirit of public-mindedness. Their strong sense of community spirit resulted in the funding of schools, libraries, hospitals, churches, canals, dredging companies, wharves, and water companies, as well as turnpikes (Goodrich 1948). Vibrant community and cooperation sprung, according to Tocqueville, from the fertile ground of liberty:

If it is a question of taking a road past his property, [a man] sees at once that this small public matter has a bearing on his greatest private interests, and there is no need to point out to him the close connection between his private profit and the general interest. … Local liberties, then, which induce a great number of citizens to value the affection of their kindred and neighbors, bring men constantly into contact, despite the instincts which separate them, and force them to help one another. … The free institutions of the United States and the political rights enjoyed there provide a thousand continual reminders to every citizen that he lives in society. … Having no particular reason to hate others, since he is neither their slave nor their master, the American’s heart easily inclines toward benevolence. At first it is of necessity that men attend to the public interest, afterward by choice. What had been calculation becomes instinct. By dint of working for the good of his fellow citizens, he in the end acquires a habit and taste for serving them. … I maintain that there is only one effective remedy against the evils which equality may cause, and that is political liberty (Alexis de Tocqueville, 511-13, Lawrence/Mayer edition).

Tocqueville’s testimonial is broad and general, but its accuracy is seen in the archival records and local histories of the turnpike communities. Stockholder’s lists reveal a web of neighbors, kin, and locally prominent figures voluntarily contributing to what they saw as an important community improvement. Appeals made in newspapers, local speeches, town meetings, door-to-door solicitations, correspondence, and negotiations in assembling the route stressed the importance of community improvement rather than dividends.4 Furthermore, many toll road projects involved the effort to build a monument and symbol of the community. Participating in a company by donating cash or giving moral support was a relatively rewarding way of establishing public services; it was pursued at least in part for the sake of community romance and adventure as ends in themselves (Brown 1973, 68). It should be noted that turnpikes were not entirely exceptional enterprises in the early nineteenth century. In many fields, the corporate form had a public-service ethos, aimed not primarily at paying dividends, but at serving the community (Handlin and Handlin 1945, 22, Goodrich 1948, 306, Hurst 1970, 15).

Given the importance of community activism and long-term gains, most “investors” tended to be not outside speculators, but locals positioned to enjoy the turnpikes’ indirect benefits. “But with a few exceptions, the vast majority of the stockholders in turnpike were farmers, land speculators, merchants or individuals and firms interested in commerce” (Durrenberger 1931, 104). A large number of ordinary households held turnpike stock. Pennsylvania compiled the most complete set of investment records, which show that more than 24,000 individuals purchased turnpike or toll bridge stock between 1800 and 1821. The average holding was $250 worth of stock, and the median was less than $150 (Majewski 2001). Such sums indicate that most turnpike investors were wealthier than the average citizen, but hardly part of the urban elite that dominated larger corporations such as the Bank of the United States. County-level studies indicate that most turnpike investment came from farmers and artisans, as opposed to the merchants and professionals more usually associated with early corporations (Majewski 2000, 49-53).

Turnpikes became symbols of civic pride only after enduring a period of substantial controversy. In the 1790s and early 1800s, some Americans feared that turnpikes would become “engrossing monopolists” who would charge travelers exorbitant tolls or abuse eminent domain privileges. Others simply did not want to pay for travel that had formerly been free. To conciliate these different groups, legislators wrote numerous restrictions into turnpike charters. Toll gates, for example, often could be spaced no closer than every five or even ten miles. This regulation enabled some users to travel without encountering a toll gate, and eased the practice of steering horses and the high-mounted vehicles of the day off the main road so as to evade the toll gate, a practice known as “shunpiking.” The charters or general laws also granted numerous exemptions from toll payment. In New York, the exempt included people traveling on family business, those attending or returning from church services and funerals, town meetings, blacksmiths’ shops, those on military duty, and those who lived within one mile of a toll gate. In Massachusetts some of the same trips were exempt and also anyone residing in the town where the gate is placed and anyone “on the common and ordinary business of family concerns” (Laws of Massachusetts 1805, chapter 79, 649). In the face of exemptions and shunpiking, turnpike operators sometimes petitioned authorities for a toll hike, stiffer penalties against shunpikers, or the relocating of the toll gate. The record indicates that petitioning the legislature for such relief was a costly and uncertain affair (Klein and Majewski 1992, 496-98).

In view of the difficult regulatory environment and apparent free-rider problem, the success of early turnpikes in raising money and improving roads was striking. The movement built new roads at rates previously unheard of in America. Table 3 gives ballpark estimates of the cumulative investment in constructing turnpikes up to 1830 in New England and the Middle Atlantic. Repair and maintenance costs are excluded. These construction investment figures are probably too low – they generally exclude, for example, tolls revenue that might have been used to finish construction – but they nevertheless indicate the ability of private initiatives to raise money in an economy in which capital was in short supply. Turnpike companies in these states raised more than $24 million by 1830, an amount equaling 6.15 percent of those states’ 1830 GDP. To put this into comparative perspective, between 1956 and 1995 all levels of government spent $330 billion (in 1996 dollars) in building the interstate highway system, a cumulative total equaling only 4.30 percent of 1996 GDP.

Table 3
Cumulative Turnpike Investment (1800-1830) as percentage of 1830 GNP

State Cumulative Turnpike Investment, 1800-1830 ($) Cumulative Turnpike Investment as Percent of 1830 GDP Cumulative Turnpike Investment per Capita, 1830 ($)
Maine 35,000 0.16 0.09
New Hampshire 575,100 2.11 2.14
Vermont 484,000 3.37 1.72
Massachusetts 4,200,000 7.41 6.88
Rhode Island 140,000 1.54 1.44
Connecticut 1,036,160 4.68 3.48
New Jersey 1,100,000 4.79 3.43
New York 9,000,000 7.06 4.69
Pennsylvania 6,400,000 6.67 4.75
Maryland 1,500,000 3.85 3.36
TOTAL 24,470,260 6.15 4.49
Interstate Highway System, 1956-1996 330 Billion 4.15 (1996 GNP)

Sources: Pennsylvania turnpike investment: Durrenberger 1931: 61); New England turnpike investment: Taylor 1934: 210-11; New York, New Jersey, and Maryland turnpike investment: Fishlow 2000, 549. Only private investment is included. State GDP data come from Bodenhorn 2000: 237. Figures for the cost of the Interstate Highway System can be found at$.htm. Please note that our investment figures generally do not include investment to finish roads by loans or the use of toll revenue. The table therefore underestimates investment in turnpikes.

The organizational advantages of turnpike companies relative to government road not only generated more road mileage, but also higher quality roads (Taylor 1934, 334, Parks 1967, 23, 27). New York state gazetteer Horatio Spafford (1824, 125) wrote that turnpikes have been “an excellent school, in every road district, and people now work the highways to much better advantage than formerly.” Companies worked to intelligently develop roadway to achieve connective communication. The corporate form traversed town and county boundaries, so a single company could bring what would otherwise be separate segments together into a single organization. “Merchants and traders in New York sponsored pikes leading across northern New Jersey in order to tap the Delaware Valley trade which would otherwise have gone to Philadelphia” (Lane 1939, 156).

Turnpike networks became highly organized systems that sought to find the most efficient way of connecting eastern cities with western markets. Decades before the Erie Canal, private individuals realized the natural opening through the Appalachians and planned a system of turnpikes connecting Albany to Syracuse and beyond. Figure 1 shows the principal routes westward from Albany. The upper route begins with the Albany & Schenectady Turnpike, connects to the Mohawk Turnpike, and then the Seneca Turnpike. The lower route begins with the First Great Western Turnpike and then branches at Cherry Valley into the Second and Third Great Western Turnpikes. Corporate papers of these companies reveal that organizers of different companies talked to each other; they were quite capable of coordinating their intentions and planning mutually beneficial activities by voluntary means. When the Erie Canal was completed in 1825 it roughly followed the alignment of the upper route and greatly reduced travel on the competing turnpikes (Baer, Klein, and Majewski 1992).

Figure 1: Turnpike Network in Central New York, 1845

Another excellent example of turnpike integration was the Pittsburgh Pike. The Pennsylvania route consisted of a combination of five turnpike companies, each of which built a road segment connecting Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, where travelers could take another series of turnpikes to Philadelphia. Completed in 1820, the Pittsburgh Pike greatly improved freighting over the rugged Allegheny Mountains. Freight rates between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were cut in half because wagons increased their capacity, speed, and certainty (Reiser 1951, 76-77). Although the state government invested in the companies that formed the Pittsburgh Pike, records of the two companies for which we have complete investment information shows that private interests contributed 62 percent of the capital (calculated from Majewski 2000: 47-51: Reiser 1951, 76). Residents in numerous communities contributed to individual projects out of their own self interest. Their provincialism nevertheless helped create a coherent and integrated system.

A comparison of the Pittsburgh Pike and the National Road demonstrated the advantages of turnpike corporations over roads financed directly from government sources. Financed by the federal government, the National Road was built between Cumberland, Maryland, and Wheeling, West Virginia, where it was then extended through the Midwest with the hopes of reaching the Mississippi River. Although it never reached the Mississippi, the Federal Government nevertheless spent $6.8 million on the project (Goodrich 1960, 54, 65). The trans-Appalachian section of the National Road competed directly against the Pittsburgh Pike. From the records of two of the five companies that formed the Pittsburgh Pike, we estimate it cost $4,805 per mile to build (Majewski 2000, 47-51, Reiser 1951, 76). The Federal government, on the other hand, spent $13,455 per mile to complete the first 200 miles of the National Road (Fishlow 2000, 549). Besides costing much less, the Pennsylvania Pike was far better in quality. The toll gates along the Pittsburgh Pike provided a steady stream of revenue for repairs. The National Road, on the other hand, depended upon intermittent government outlays for basic maintenance, and the road quickly deteriorated. One army engineer in 1832 found “the road in a shocking condition, and every rod of it will require great repair; some of it now is almost impassable” (quoted in Searight, 60). Historians have found that travelers generally preferred to take the Pittsburgh Pike rather than the National Road.

The Plank Road Boom, 1847–1853

By the 1840s the major turnpikes were increasingly eclipsed by the (often state-subsidized) canals and railroads. Many toll roads reverted to free public use and quickly degenerated into miles of dust, mud and wheel-carved ruts. To link to the new and more powerful modes of communication, well-maintained, short-distance highways were still needed, but because governments became overextended in poor investments in canals, taxpayers were increasingly reluctant to fund internal improvements. Private entrepreneurs found the cost of the technologically most attractive road surfacing material (macadam, a compacted covering of crushed stones) prohibitively expensive at $3,500 per mile. Thus the ongoing need for new feeder roads spurred the search for innovation, and plank roads – toll roads surfaced with wooden planks – seemed to fit the need.

The plank road technique appears to have been introduced into Canada from Russia in 1840. It reached New York a few years later, after the village Salina, near Syracuse, sent civil engineer George Geddes to Toronto to investigate. After two trips Geddes (whose father, James, was an engineer for the Erie and Champlain Canals, and an enthusiastic canal advocate) was convinced of the plank roads’ feasibility and became their great booster. Plank roads, he wrote in Scientific American (Geddes 1850a), could be built at an average cost of $1,500 – although $1,900 would have been more accurate (Majewski, Baer and Klein 1994, 109, fn15). Geddes also published a pamphlet containing an influential, if overly optimistic, estimate that Toronto’s road planks had lasted eight years (Geddes 1850b). Simplicity of design made plank roads even more attractive. Road builders put down two parallel lines of timbers four or five feet apart, which formed the “foundation” of the road. They then laid, at right angles, planks that were about eight feet long and three or four inches thick. Builders used no nails or glue to secure the planks – they were secured only by their own weight – but they did build ditches on each side of the road to insure proper drainage (Klein and Majewski 1994, 42-43).

No less important than plank road economics and technology were the public policy changes that accompanied plank roads. Policymakers, perhaps aware that overly restrictive charters had hamstrung the first turnpike movement, were more permissive in the plank road era. Adjusting for deflation, toll rates were higher, toll gates were separated by shorter distances, and fewer local travelers were exempted from payment of tolls.

Although few today have heard of them, for a short time it seemed that plank roads might be one of the great innovations of the day. In just a few years, more than 1,000 companies built more than 10,000 miles of plank roads nationwide, including more than 3,500 miles in New York (Klein and Majewski 1994, Majewski, Baer, Klein 1993). According to one observer, plank roads, along with canals and railroads, were “the three great inscriptions graven on the earth by the hand of modern science, never to be obliterated, but to grow deeper and deeper” (Bogart 1851).

Except for most of New England, plank roads were chartered throughout the United States, especially in the top lumber-producing states of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states, as shown in Table 4.

Table 4: Plank Road Incorporation by State

State Number
New York 335
Pennsylvania 315
Ohio 205
Wisconsin 130
Michigan 122
Illinois 88
North Carolina 54
Missouri 49
New Jersey 25
Georgia 16
Iowa 14
Vermont 14
Maryland 13
Connecticut 7
Massachusetts 1
Rhode Island, Maine 0
Total 1388

Notes: The figure for Ohio is through 1851; Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland are through 1857. Few plank roads were incorporated after 1857. In western states, some roads were incorporated and built as plank roads, so the 1388 total is not to be taken as a total for the nation. For a complete description of the sources for this table, see Majewski, Baer, & Klein 1993: 110.

New York, the leading lumber state, had both the greatest number of plank road charters (350) and the largest value of lumber production ($13,126,000 in 1849 dollars). Plank roads were especially popular in rural dairy counties, where farmers needed quick and dependable transportation to urban markets (Majewski, Baer and Klein 1993).

The plank road and eastern turnpike episodes shared several features in common. Like the earlier turnpikes, investment in plank road companies came from local landowners, farmers, merchants, and professionals. Stock purchases were motivated less by the prospect of earning dividends than by the convenience and increased trade and development that the roads would bring. To many communities, plank roads held the hope of revitalization and the reversal (or slowing) of relative decline. But those hoping to attain these benefits once again were faced with a free-rider problem. Investors in plank roads, like the investors of the earlier turnpikes, were motivated often by esteem mechanisms – community allegiance and appreciation, reputational incentives, and their own conscience.

Although plank roads were smooth and sturdy, faring better in rain and snow than did dirt and gravel roads, they lasted only four or five years – not the eight to twelve years that promoters had claimed. Thus, the rush of construction ended suddenly by 1853, and by 1865 most companies had either switched to dirt and gravel surfaces or abandoned their road altogether.

Toll Roads in the Far West, 1850 to 1902

Unlike the areas served by the earlier turnpikes and plank roads, Colorado, Nevada, and California in the 1850s and 1860s lacked the settled communities and social networks that induced participation in community enterprise and improvement. Miners and the merchants who served them knew that the mining boom would not continue indefinitely and therefore seldom planted deep roots. Nor were the large farms that later populated California ripe for civic engagement in anywhere near the degree of the small farms of the east. Society in the early years of the West was not one where town meetings, door-to-door solicitations, and newspaper campaigns were likely to rally broad support for a road project. The lack of strong communities also meant that there would be few opponents to pressure the government for toll exemptions and otherwise hamper toll road operations. These conditions ensured that toll roads would tend to be more profit-oriented than the eastern turnpikes and plank road companies. Still, it is not clear whether on the whole the toll roads of the Far West were profitable.

The California toll road era began in 1850 after passage of general laws of incorporation. In 1853 new laws were passed reducing stock subscription requirements from $2,000 per mile to $300 per mile. The 1853 laws also delegated regulatory authority to the county governments. Counties were allowed “to set tolls at rates not to prevent a return of 20 percent,” but they did not interfere with the location of toll roads and usually looked favorably on the toll road companies. After passage of the 1853 laws, the number of toll road incorporations increased dramatically, peaking to nearly 40 new incorporations in 1866 alone. Companies were also created by special acts of the legislature. And sometimes they seemed to have operated without formal incorporation at all. David and Linda Beito (1998, 75, 84) show that in Nevada many entrepreneurs had built and operated toll roads – or other basic infrastructure – before there was a State of Nevada, and some operated for years without any government authority at all.

All told, in the Golden State, approximately 414 toll road companies were initiated,5 resulting in at least 159 companies that successfully built and operated toll roads. Table 5 provides some rough numbers for toll roads in western states. The numbers presented there are minimums. For California and Nevada, the numbers probably only slightly underestimate the true totals; for the other states the figures are quite sketchy and might significantly underestimate true totals. Again, an abundance of testimony indicates that the private road companies were the serious road builders, in terms of quantity and quality (see the ten quotations at Klein and Yin 1996, 689-90).

Table 5: Rough Minimums on Toll Roads in the West

Toll Road
Toll Roads
actually built
California 414 159
Colorado 350 n.a.
Nevada n.a. 117
Texas 50 n.a.
Wyoming 11 n.a.
Oregon 10 n.a.

Sources: For California, Klein and Yin 1996: 681-82; for Nevada, Beito and Beito 1998: 74; for the other states, notes and correspondence in D. Klein’s files.

Table 6 makes an attempt to justify guesses about total number of toll road companies and total toll road miles. The first three numbers in the “Incorporations” column come from Tables 2, 4, and 5. The estimates of success rates and average road length (in the third and fourth columns) are extrapolations from components that have been studied with more care. We have made these estimates conservative, in the sense of avoiding any overstatement of the extent of private road building. The ~ symbol has been used to keep the reader mindful of the fact that many of these numbers are estimates. The numbers in the right hand column have been rounded to the nearest 1000, so as to avoid any impression of accuracy. The “Other” row throws in a line to suggest a minimum to cover all the regions, periods, and road types not covered in Tables 2, 4, and 5. For example, the “Other” row would cover turnpikes in the East, South and Midwest after 1845 (Virginia’s turnpike boom came in the late 1840s and 1850s), and all turnpikes and plank roads in Indiana, whose county-based incorporation, it seems, has never been systematically researched. Ideally, not only would the numbers be more definite and complete, but there would be a weighting by years of operation. The “30,000 – 52,000 miles” should be read as a range for the sum of all the miles operated by any company at any time during the 100+ year period.

Table 6: A Rough Tally of the Private Toll Roads

Toll Road Movements Incorporations % Successful in Building Road Roads Built and Operated Average Road Length Toll Road

Miles Operated

Turnpikes incorporated from 1792 to 1845 1562 ~ 55 % ~ 859 ~ 18 ~ 15,000
Plank Roads incorporated from 1845 to roughly 1860 1388 ~ 65 % ~ 902 ~ 10 ~ 9,000
Toll Roads in the West incorporated from 1850 to roughly 1902 ~ 1127 ~ 40 % ~ 450 ~ 15 ~ 7,000
Other ~ <1000>

[a rough guess]

~ 50 % ~ 500 ~ 16 ~ 8,000
Ranges for


5,000 – 5,600


48 – 60 percent 2,500 – 3,200 roads 12 – 16 miles 30,000 – 52,000


Sources: Those of Tables 2, 4, and 5, plus the research files of the authors.

The End of Toll Roads in the Progressive Period

In 1880 many toll road companies nationwide continued to operate – probably in the range of 400 to 600 companies.6 But by 1920 the private toll road was almost entirely stamped out. From Maine to California, the laws and political attitudes from around 1880 onward moved against the handling of social affairs in ways that seemed informal, inexpert and unsystematic. Progressivism represented a burgeoning of more collectivist ideologies and policy reforms. Many progressive intellectuals took inspiration from European socialist doctrines. Although the politics of restraining corporate evils had a democratic and populist aspect, the bureaucratic spirit was highly managerial and hierarchical, intending to replicate the efficiency of large corporations in the new professional and scientific administration of government (Higgs 1987, 113-116, Ekirch 1967, 171-94).

One might point to the rise of the bicycle and later the automobile, which needed a harder and smoother surface, to explain the growth of America’s road network in the Progressive period. But such demand-side changes do not speak to the issues of road ownership and tolling. Automobiles achieved higher speeds, which made stopping to pay a toll more inconvenient, and that may have reinforced the anti-toll-road company movement that was underway prior to the automobile. Such developments figured into the history of road policy, but they really did not provide a good reason for the policy movement against the toll roads The following words of a county board of supervisors in New York in 1906 indicate a more general ideological bent against toll road companies:

[T]he ownership and operation of this road by a private corporation is contrary to public sentiment in this county, and [the] cause of good roads, which has received so much attention in this state in recent years, requires that this antiquated system should be abolished. … That public opinion throughout the state is strongly in favor of the abolition of toll roads is indicated by the fact that since the passage of the act of 1899, which permits counties to acquire these roads, the boards of supervisors of most of the counties where such roads have existed have availed themselves of its provisions and practically abolished the toll road.

Given such attitudes, it was no wonder that within the U. S. Department of Agricultural, the new Office of Road Inquiry began in 1893 to gather information, conduct research, and “educate” for better roads. The new bureaucracy opposed toll roads, and the Federal Highway Act of 1916 barred the use of tolls on highways receiving federal money (Seely 1987, 15, 79). Anti-toll-road sentiment became state and national policy.

Conclusions and Implications

Throughout the nineteenth-century, the United States was notoriously “land-rich” and “capital poor.” The viability of turnpikes shows how Americans devised institutions – in this case, toll-collecting corporations – that allowed them to invest precious capital in important public projects. What’s more, turnpikes paid little in direct dividends and stock appreciation, yet still attracted investment. Investors, of course, cared for long-term economic development, but that does not account for how turnpike organizers overcame the important public goods problem of buying turnpike stock. Esteem, social pressure, and other non-economic motivations influenced local residents to make investments that they knew would be unprofitable (at least in a direct sense) but would nevertheless help the entire community. On the other hand, the turnpike companies enjoyed the organizational clarity of stock ownership and residual returns. All companies faced the possibility of pressure from investors, who might have wanted to salvage something of their investment. Residual claimancy may have enhanced the viability of many projects, including communitarian projects undertaken primarily for use and esteem.

The combining of these two ingredients – the appeal of use and esteem, and the incentives and proprietary clarity of residual returns – is today severely undermined by the modern legal bifurcation of private initiative into “not-for-profit” and “for-profit” concerns. Not-for-profit corporations can appeal to use and esteem but cannot organize themselves to earn residual returns. For-profit corporations organize themselves for residual returns but cannot very well appeal to use and esteem. As already noted, prior to modern tax law and regulation, the old American toll roads were, relative to the British turnpike trusts, more, not less, use-and-esteem oriented by virtue of being structured to pay dividends rather than interest. Like the eighteenth century British turnpike trusts, the twentieth century American governmental toll projects financed (in part) by privately purchased bonds generally failed, relative to the nineteenth century American company model, to draw on use and esteem motivations.

The turnpike experience of nineteenth-century America suggests that the stock/dividend company can also be a fruitful, efficient, and socially beneficial way to make losses and go on making losses. The success of turnpikes suggests that our modern sensibility of dividing enterprises between profit and non-profit – a distinction embedded in modern tax laws and regulations – unnecessarily impoverishes the imagination of economists and other policy makers. Without such strict legal and institutional bifurcation, our own modern society might better recognize the esteem in trade and the trade in esteem.


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Klein, Daniel. “The Voluntary Provision of Public Goods? The Turnpike Companies of Early America.” Economic Inquiry (1990): 788-812. (Reprinted in The Voluntary City, edited by David Beito, Peter Gordon and Alexander Tabarrok. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.)

Klein, Daniel B. and Gordon J. Fielding. “Private Toll Roads: Learning from the Nineteenth Century.” Transportation Quarterly 46, no. 3 (1992): 321-41.

Klein, Daniel B. and John Majewski. “Economy, Community and Law: The Turnpike Movement in New York, 1797-1845.” Law & Society Review 26, no. 3 (1992): 469-512.

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Searight, Thomas B. The Old Pike: A History of the National Road. Uniontown, PA: Thomas Searight, 1894.

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1 Daniel Klein, Department of Economics, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA, 95053, and Ratio Institute, Stockholm, Sweden; Email:

John Majewski, Department of History, University of California, Santa Barbara, 93106; Email:

2 The term “turnpike” comes from Britain, referring to a long staff (or pike) that acted as a swinging barrier or tollgate. In nineteenth century America, “turnpike” specifically means a toll road with a surface of gravel and earth, as opposed to “plank roads” which refer to toll roads surfaced by wooden planks. Later in the century, all such roads were typically just “toll roads.”

3 For a discussion of returns and expectations, see Klein 1990: 791-95.

4 See Klein 1990: 803-808, Klein and Majewski 1994: 56-61.

5 The 414 figure consists of 222 companies organized under the general law, 102 charted by the legislature, and 90 companies that we learned of by county records, local histories, and various other sources.

6 Durrenberger (1931: 164) notes that in 1911 there were 108 turnpikes operating in Pennsylvania alone.

Citation: Klein, Daniel and John Majewski. “Turnpikes and Toll Roads in Nineteenth-Century America”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. February 10, 2008. URL

Economic History of Retirement in the United States

Joanna Short, Augustana College

One of the most striking changes in the American labor market over the twentieth century has been the virtual disappearance of older men from the labor force. Moen (1987) and Costa (1998) estimate that the labor force participation rate of men age 65 and older declined from 78 percent in 1880 to less than 20 percent in 1990 (see Table 1). In recent decades, the labor force participation rate of somewhat younger men (age 55-64) has been declining as well. When coupled with the increase in life expectancy over this period, it is clear that men today can expect to spend a much larger proportion of their lives in retirement, relative to men living a century ago.

Table 1

Labor Force Participation Rates of Men Age 65 and Over

Year Labor Force Participation Rate (percent)
1850 76.6
1860 76.0
1870 —–
1880 78.0
1890 73.8
1900 65.4
1910 58.1
1920 60.1
1930 58.0
1940 43.5
1950 47.0
1960 40.8
1970 35.2
1980 24.7
1990 18.4
2000 17.5

Sources: Moen (1987), Costa (1998), Bureau of Labor Statistics

Notes: Prior to 1940, ‘gainful employment’ was the standard the U.S. Census used to determine whether or not an individual was working. This standard is similar to the ‘labor force participation’ standard used since 1940. With the exception of the figure for 2000, the data in the table are based on the gainful employment standard.

How can we explain the rise of retirement? Certainly, the development of government programs like Social Security has made retirement more feasible for many people. However, about half of the total decline in the labor force participation of older men from 1880 to 1990 occurred before the first Social Security payments were made in 1940. Therefore, factors other than the Social Security program have influenced the rise of retirement.

In addition to the increase in the prevalence of retirement over the twentieth century, the nature of retirement appears to have changed. In the late nineteenth century, many retirements involved a few years of dependence on children at the end of life. Today, retirement is typically an extended period of self-financed independence and leisure. This article documents trends in the labor force participation of older men, discusses the decision to retire, and examines the causes of the rise of retirement including the role of pensions and government programs.

Trends in U.S. Retirement Behavior

Trends by Gender

Research on the history of retirement focuses on the behavior of men because retirement, in the sense of leaving the labor force permanently in old age after a long career, is a relatively new phenomenon among women. Goldin (1990) concludes that “even as late as 1940, most young working women exited the labor force on marriage, and only a small minority would return.” The employment of married women accelerated after World War II, and recent evidence suggests that the retirement behavior of men and women is now very similar. Gendell (1998) finds that the average age at exit from the labor force in the U.S. was virtually identical for men and women from 1965 to 1995.

Trends by Race and Region

Among older men at the beginning of the twentieth century, labor force participation rates varied greatly by race, region of residence, and occupation. In the early part of the century, older black men were much more likely to be working than older white men. In 1900, for example, 84.1 percent of black men age 65 and over and 64.4 percent of white men were in the labor force. The racial retirement gap remained at about twenty percentage points until 1920, then narrowed dramatically by 1950. After 1950, the racial retirement gap reversed. In recent decades older black men have been slightly less likely to be in the labor force than older white men (see Table 2).

Table 2

Labor Force Participation Rates of Men Age 65 and Over, by Race

Labor Force Participation Rate (percent)
Year White Black
1880 76.7 87.3
1890 —- —-
1900 64.4 84.1
1910 58.5 86.0
1920 57.0 76.8
1930 —- —-
1940 44.1 54.6
1950 48.7 51.3
1960 40.3 37.3
1970 36.6 33.8
1980 27.1 23.7
1990 18.6 15.7
2000 17.8 16.6

Sources: Costa (1998), Bureau of Labor Statistics

Notes: Census data are unavailable for the years 1890 and 1930.

With the exception of the figures for 2000, participation rates are based on the gainful employment standard

Similarly, the labor force participation rate of men age 65 and over living in the South was higher than that of men living in the North in the early twentieth century. In 1900, for example, the labor force participation rate for older Southerners was sixteen percentage points higher than for Northerners. The regional retirement gap began to narrow between 1910 and 1920, and narrowed substantially by 1940 (see Table 3).

Table 3

Labor Force Participation Rates of Men Age 65 and Over, by Region

Labor Force Participation Rate (percent)
Year North South
1880 73.7 85.2
1890 —- —-
1900 66.0 82.9
1910 56.6 72.8
1920 58.8 69.9
1930 —- —-
1940 42.8 49.4
1950 43.2 42.9

Source: Calculated from Ruggles and Sobek, Integrated Public Use Microdata Series for 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1940, and 1950, Version 2.0, 1997

Note: North includes the New England, Middle Atlantic, and North Central regions

South includes the South Atlantic and South Central regions

Differences in retirement behavior by race and region of residence are related. One reason Southerners appear less likely to retire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is that a relatively large proportion of Southerners were black. In 1900, 90 percent of black households were located in the South (see Maloney on African Americans in this Encyclopedia). In the early part of the century, black men were effectively excluded from skilled occupations. The vast majority worked for low pay as tenant farmers or manual laborers. Even controlling for race, southern per capita income lagged behind the rest of the nation well into the twentieth century. Easterlin (1971) estimates that in 1880, per capita income in the South was only half that in the Midwest, and per capita income remained less than 70 percent of the Midwestern level until 1950. Lower levels of income among blacks, and in the South as a whole during this period, may have made it more difficult for these men to accumulate resources sufficient to rely on in retirement.

Trends by Occupation

Older men living on farms have long been more likely to be working than men living in nonfarm households. In 1900, for example, 80.6 percent of farm residents and 62.7 percent of nonfarm residents over the age of 65 were in the labor force. Durand (1948), Graebner (1980), and others have suggested that older farmers could remain in the labor force longer than urban workers because of help from children or hired labor. Urban workers, on the other hand, were frequently forced to retire once they became physically unable to keep up with the pace of industry.

Despite the large difference in the labor force participation rates of farm and nonfarm residents, the actual gap in the retirement rates of farmers and nonfarmers was not that great. Confusion on this issue stems from the fact that the labor force participation rate of farm residents does not provide a good representation of the retirement behavior of farmers. Moen (1994) and Costa (1995a) point out that farmers frequently moved off the farm in retirement. When the comparison is made by occupation, farmers have labor force participation rates only slightly higher than laborers or skilled workers. Lee (2002) finds that excluding the period 1900-1910 (a period of exceptional growth in the value of farm property), the labor force participation rate of older farmers was on average 9.3 percentage points higher than that of nonfarmers from 1880-1940.

Trends in Living Arrangements

In addition to the overall rise of retirement, and the closing of differences in retirement behavior by race and region, over the twentieth century retired men became much more independent. In 1880, nearly half of retired men lived with children or other relatives. Today, fewer than 5 percent of retired men live with relatives. Costa (1998) finds that between 1910 and 1940, men who were older, had a change in marital status (typically from married to widowed), or had low income were much more likely to live with family members as a dependent. Rising income appears to explain most of the movement away from coresidence, suggesting that the elderly have always preferred to live by themselves, but they have only recently had the means to do so.

Explaining Trends in the Retirement Decision

One way to understand the rise of retirement is to consider the individual retirement decision. In order to retire permanently from the labor force, one must have enough resources to live on to the end of the expected life span. In retirement, one can live on pension income, accumulated savings, and anticipated contributions from family and friends. Without at least the minimum amount of retirement income necessary to survive, the decision-maker has little choice but to remain in the labor force. If the resource constraint is met, individuals choose to retire once the net benefits of retirement (e.g., leisure time) exceed the net benefits of working (labor income less the costs associated with working). From this model, we can predict that anything that increases the costs associated with working, such as advancing age, an illness, or a disability, will increase the probability of retirement. Similarly, an increase in pension income increases the probability of retirement in two ways. First, an increase in pension income makes it more likely the resource constraint will be satisfied. In addition, higher pension income makes it possible to enjoy more leisure in retirement, thereby increasing the net benefits of retirement.

Health Status

Empirically, age, disability, and pension income have all been shown to increase the probability that an individual is retired. In the context of the individual model, we can use this observation to explain the overall rise of retirement. Disability, for example, has been shown to increase the probability of retirement, both today and especially in the past. However, it is unlikely that the rise of retirement was caused by increases in disability rates — advances in health have made the overall population much healthier. Costa (1998), for example, shows that chronic conditions were much more prevalent for the elderly born in the nineteenth century than for men born in the twentieth century.

The Decline of Agriculture

Older farmers are somewhat more likely to be in the labor force than nonfarmers. Furthermore, the proportion of people employed in agriculture has declined steadily, from 51 percent of the work force in 1880, to 17 percent in 1940, to about 2 percent today (Lebergott, 1964). Therefore, as argued by Durand (1948), the decline in agriculture could explain the rise in retirement. Lee (2002) finds, though, that the decline of agriculture only explains about 20 percent of the total rise of retirement from 1880 to 1940. Since most of the shift away from agricultural work occurred before 1940, the decline of agriculture explains even less of the retirement trend since 1940. Thus, the occupational shift away from farming explains part of the rise of retirement. However, the underlying trend has been a long-term increase in the probability of retirement within all occupations.

Rising Income: The Most Likely Explanation

The most likely explanation for the rise of retirement is the overall increase in income, both from labor market earnings and from pensions. Costa (1995b) has shown that the pension income received by Union Army veterans in the early twentieth century had a strong effect on the probability that the veteran was retired. Over the period from 1890 to 1990, economic growth has led to nearly an eightfold increase in real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. In 1890, GDP per capita was $3430 (in 1996 dollars), which is comparable to the levels of production in Morocco or Jamaica today. In 1990, real GDP per capita was $26,889. On average, Americans today enjoy a standard of living commensurate with eight times the income of Americans living a century ago. More income has made it possible to save for an extended retirement.

Rising income also explains the closing of differences in retirement behavior by race and region by the 1950s. Early in the century blacks and Southerners earned much lower income than Northern whites, but these groups made substantial gains in earnings by 1950. In the second half of the twentieth century, the increasing availability of pension income has also made retirement more attractive. Expansions in Social Security benefits, Medicare, and growth in employer-provided pensions all serve to increase the income available to people in retirement.

Costa (1998) has found that income is now less important to the decision to retire than it once was. In the past, only the rich could afford to retire. Income is no longer a binding constraint. One reason is that Social Security provides a safety net for those who are unable or unwilling to save for retirement. Another reason is that leisure has become much cheaper over the last century. Television, for example, allows people to enjoy concerts and sporting events at a very low price. Golf courses and swimming pools, once available only to the rich, are now publicly provided. Meanwhile, advances in health have allowed people to enjoy leisure and travel well into old age. All of these factors have made retirement so much more attractive that people of all income levels now choose to leave the labor force in old age.

Financing Retirement

Rising income also provided the young with a new strategy for planning for old age and retirement. Ransom and Sutch (1986a,b) and Sundstrom and David (1988) hypothesize that in the nineteenth century men typically used the promise of a bequest as an incentive for children to help their parents in old age. As more opportunities for work off the farm became available, children left home and defaulted on the implicit promise to care for retired parents. Children became an unreliable source of old age support, so parents stopped relying on children — had fewer babies — and began saving (in bank accounts) for retirement.

To support the “babies-to-bank accounts” theory, Sundstrom and David look for evidence of an inheritance-for-old age support bargain between parents and children. They find that many wills, particularly in colonial New England and some ethnic communities in the Midwest, included detailed clauses specifying the care of the surviving parent. When an elderly parent transferred property directly to a child, the contracts were particularly specific, often specifying the amount of food and firewood with which the parent was to be supplied. There is also some evidence that people viewed children and savings as substitute strategies for retirement planning. Haines (1985) uses budget studies from northern industrial workers in 1890 and finds a negative relationship between the number of children and the savings rate. Short (2001) conducts similar studies for southern men that indicate the two strategies were not substitutes until at least 1920. This suggests that the transition from babies to bank accounts occurred later in the South, only as income began to approach northern levels.

Pensions and Government Retirement Programs

Military and Municipal Pensions (1781-1934)

In addition to the rise in labor market income, the availability of pension income greatly increased with the development of Social Security and the expansion of private (employer-provided) pensions. In the U.S., public (government-provided) pensions originated with the military pensions that have been available to disabled veterans and widows since the colonial era. Military pensions became available to a large proportion of Americans after the Civil War, when the federal government provided pensions to Union Army widows and veterans disabled in the war. The Union Army pension program expanded greatly as a result of the Pension Act of 1890. As a result of this law, pensions were available for all veterans age 65 and over who had served more than 90 days and were honorably discharged, regardless of current employment status. In 1900, about 20 percent of all white men age 55 and over received a Union Army pension. The Union Army pension was generous even by today’s standards. Costa (1995b) finds that the average pension replaced about 30 percent of the income of a laborer. At its peak of nearly one million pensioners in 1902, the program consumed about 30 percent of the federal budget.

Each of the formerly Confederate states also provided pensions to its Confederate veterans. Most southern states began paying pensions to veterans disabled in the war and to war widows around 1880. These pensions were gradually liberalized to include most poor or disabled veterans and their widows. Confederate veteran pensions were much less generous than Union Army pensions. By 1910, the average Confederate pension was only about one-third the amount awarded to the average Union veteran.

By the early twentieth century, state and municipal governments also began paying pensions to their employees. Most major cities provided pensions for their firemen and police officers. By 1916, 33 states had passed retirement provisions for teachers. In addition, some states provided limited pensions to poor elderly residents. By 1934, 28 states had established these pension programs (See Craig in this Encyclopedia for more on public pensions).

Private Pensions (1875-1934)

As military and civil service pensions became available to more men, private firms began offering pensions to their employees. The American Express Company developed the first formal pension in 1875. Railroads, among the largest employers in the country, also began providing pensions in the late nineteenth century. Williamson (1992) finds that early pension plans, like that of the Pennsylvania Railroad, were funded entirely by the employer. Thirty years of service were required to qualify for a pension, and retirement was mandatory at age 70. Because of the lengthy service requirement and mandatory retirement provision, firms viewed pensions as a way to reduce labor turnover and as a more humane way to remove older, less productive employees. In addition, the 1926 Revenue Act excluded from current taxation all income earned in pension trusts. This tax advantage provided additional incentive for firms to provide pensions. By 1930, a majority of large firms had adopted pension plans, covering about 20 percent of all industrial workers.

In the early twentieth century, labor unions also provided pensions to their members. By 1928, thirteen unions paid pension benefits. Most of these were craft unions, whose members were typically employed by smaller firms that did not provide pensions.

Most private pensions survived the Great Depression. Exceptions were those plans that were funded under a ‘pay as you go’ system — where benefits were paid out of current earnings, rather than from built-up reserves. Many union pensions were financed under this system, and hence failed in the 1930s. Thanks to strong political allies, the struggling railroad pensions were taken over by the federal government in 1937.

Social Security (1935-1991)

The Social Security system was designed in 1935 to extend pension benefits to those not covered by a private pension plan. The Social Security Act consisted of two programs, Old Age Assistance (OAA) and Old Age Insurance (OAI). The OAA program provided federal matching funds to subsidize state old age pension programs. The availability of federal funds quickly motivated many states to develop a pension program or to increase benefits. By 1950, 22 percent of the population age 65 and over received OAA benefits. The OAA program peaked at this point, though, as the newly liberalized OAI program began to dominate Social Security. The OAI program is administered by the federal government, and financed by payroll taxes. Retirees (and later, survivors, dependents of retirees, and the disabled) who have paid into the system are eligible to receive benefits. The program remained small until 1950, when coverage was extended to include farm and domestic workers, and average benefits were increased by 77 percent. In 1965, the Social Security Act was amended to include Medicare, which provides health insurance to the elderly. The Social Security program continued to expand in the late 1960s and early 1970s — benefits increased 13 percent in 1968, another 15 percent in 1969, and 20 percent in 1972.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Congress was finally forced to slow the growth of Social Security benefits, as the struggling economy introduced the possibility that the program would not be able to pay beneficiaries. In 1977, the formula for determining benefits was adjusted downward. Reforms in 1983 included the delay of a cost-of-living adjustment, the taxation of up to half of benefits, and payroll tax increases.

Today, Social Security benefits are the main source of retirement income for most retirees. Poterba, Venti, and Wise (1994) find that Social Security wealth was three times as large as all the other financial assets of those age 65-69 in 1991. The role of Social Security benefits in the budgets of elderly households varies greatly. In elderly households with less than $10,000 in income in 1990, 75 percent of income came from Social Security. Higher income households gain larger shares of income from earnings, asset income, and private pensions. In households with $30,000 to $50,000 in income, less than 30 percent was derived from Social Security.

The Growth of Private Pensions (1935-2000)

Even in the shadow of the Social Security system, employer-provided pensions continued to grow. The Wage and Salary Act of 1942 froze wages in an attempt to contain wartime inflation. In order to attract employees in a tight labor market, firms increasingly offered generous pensions. Providing pensions had the additional benefit that the firm’s contributions were tax deductible. Therefore, pensions provided firms with a convenient tax shelter from high wartime tax rates. From 1940 to 1960, the number of people covered by private pensions increased from 3.7 million to 23 million, or to nearly 30 percent of the labor force.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the federal government acted to regulate private pensions, and to provide tax incentives (like those for employer-provided pensions) for those without access to private pensions to save for retirement. Since 1962, the self-employed have been able to establish ‘Keogh plans’ — tax deferred accounts for retirement savings. In 1974, the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) regulated private pensions to ensure their solvency. Under this law, firms are required to follow funding requirements and to insure against unexpected events that could cause insolvency. To further level the playing field, ERISA provided those not covered by a private pension with the option of saving in a tax-deductible Individual Retirement Account (IRA). The option of saving in a tax-advantaged IRA was extended to everyone in 1981.

Over the last thirty years, the type of pension plan that firms offer employees has shifted from ‘defined benefit’ to ‘defined contribution’ plans. Defined benefit plans, like Social Security, specify the amount of benefits the retiree will receive. Defined contribution plans, on the other hand, specify only how much the employer will contribute to the plan. Actual benefits then depend on the performance of the pension investments. The switch from defined benefit to defined contribution plans therefore shifts the risk of poor investment performance from the employer to the employee. The employee stands to benefit, though, because the high long-run average returns on stock market investments may lead to a larger retirement nest egg. Recently, 401(k) plans have become a popular type of pension plan, particularly in the service industries. These plans typically involve voluntary employee contributions that are tax deductible to the employee, employer matching of these contributions, and more choice as far as how the pension is invested.

Summary and Conclusions

The retirement pattern we see today, typically involving decades of self-financed leisure, developed gradually over the last century. Economic historians have shown that rising labor market and pension income largely explain the dramatic rise of retirement. Rather than being pushed out of the labor force because of increasing obsolescence, older men have increasingly chosen to use their rising income to finance an earlier exit from the labor force. In addition to rising income, the decline of agriculture, advances in health, and the declining cost of leisure have contributed to the popularity of retirement. Rising income has also provided the young with a new strategy for planning for old age and retirement. Instead of being dependent on children in retirement, men today save for their own, more independent, retirement.


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The History of American Labor Market Institutions and Outcomes

Joshua Rosenbloom, University of Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Geographic Distribution of Labor

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

Trans-Atlantic Migration in the Colonial Period

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table 1

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

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

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

International Migration in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internal Migration in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

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

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

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

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

The Distribution of Labor among Economic Activities

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

Table 2

Sectoral Distribution of the Labor Force, 1800-1999

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agricultural Labor Market

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

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

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

The Emergence of Internal Labor Markets

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Government and the Labor Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Changing Boundaries of the Labor Market

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

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

Assessing the Efficiency of Labor Market Institutions

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

Long-Run Efficiency and Wage Gaps

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

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

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

Figure 1

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

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

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

Figure 2

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

(Northeast = 100 in each year)

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

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

Table 3

Net Migration by Region, and Race, 1870-1950

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table 4

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

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

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

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

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

The Response to Short-run Macroeconomic Fluctuations

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

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

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

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

Wage Determination and Distributional Issues

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

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

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

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


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

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


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Japanese Industrialization and Economic Growth

Carl Mosk, University of Victoria

Japan achieved sustained growth in per capita income between the 1880s and 1970 through industrialization. Moving along an income growth trajectory through expansion of manufacturing is hardly unique. Indeed Western Europe, Canada, Australia and the United States all attained high levels of income per capita by shifting from agrarian-based production to manufacturing and technologically sophisticated service sector activity.

Still, there are four distinctive features of Japan’s development through industrialization that merit discussion:

The proto-industrial base

Japan’s agricultural productivity was high enough to sustain substantial craft (proto-industrial) production in both rural and urban areas of the country prior to industrialization.

Investment-led growth

Domestic investment in industry and infrastructure was the driving force behind growth in Japanese output. Both private and public sectors invested in infrastructure, national and local governments serving as coordinating agents for infrastructure build-up.

  • Investment in manufacturing capacity was largely left to the private sector.
  • Rising domestic savings made increasing capital accumulation possible.
  • Japanese growth was investment-led, not export-led.

Total factor productivity growth — achieving more output per unit of input — was rapid.

On the supply side, total factor productivity growth was extremely important. Scale economies — the reduction in per unit costs due to increased levels of output — contributed to total factor productivity growth. Scale economies existed due to geographic concentration, to growth of the national economy, and to growth in the output of individual companies. In addition, companies moved down the “learning curve,” reducing unit costs as their cumulative output rose and demand for their product soared.

The social capacity for importing and adapting foreign technology improved and this contributed to total factor productivity growth:

  • At the household level, investing in education of children improved social capability.
  • At the firm level, creating internalized labor markets that bound firms to workers and workers to firms, thereby giving workers a strong incentive to flexibly adapt to new technology, improved social capability.
  • At the government level, industrial policy that reduced the cost to private firms of securing foreign technology enhanced social capacity.

Shifting out of low-productivity agriculture into high productivity manufacturing, mining, and construction contributed to total factor productivity growth.


Sharply segmented labor and capital markets emerged in Japan after the 1910s. The capital intensive sector enjoying high ratios of capital to labor paid relatively high wages, and the labor intensive sector paid relatively low wages.

Dualism contributed to income inequality and therefore to domestic social unrest. After 1945 a series of public policy reforms addressed inequality and erased much of the social bitterness around dualism that ravaged Japan prior to World War II.

The remainder of this article will expand on a number of the themes mentioned above. The appendix reviews quantitative evidence concerning these points. The conclusion of the article lists references that provide a wealth of detailed evidence supporting the points above, which this article can only begin to explore.

The Legacy of Autarky and the Proto-Industrial Economy: Achievements of Tokugawa Japan (1600-1868)

Why Japan?

Given the relatively poor record of countries outside the European cultural area — few achieving the kind of “catch-up” growth Japan managed between 1880 and 1970 – the question naturally arises: why Japan? After all, when the United States forcibly “opened Japan” in the 1850s and Japan was forced to cede extra-territorial rights to a number of Western nations as had China earlier in the 1840s, many Westerners and Japanese alike thought Japan’s prospects seemed dim indeed.

Tokugawa achievements: urbanization, road networks, rice cultivation, craft production

In answering this question, Mosk (2001), Minami (1994) and Ohkawa and Rosovsky (1973) emphasize the achievements of Tokugawa Japan (1600-1868) during a long period of “closed country” autarky between the mid-seventeenth century and the 1850s: a high level of urbanization; well developed road networks; the channeling of river water flow with embankments and the extensive elaboration of irrigation ditches that supported and encouraged the refinement of rice cultivation based upon improving seed varieties, fertilizers and planting methods especially in the Southwest with its relatively long growing season; the development of proto-industrial (craft) production by merchant houses in the major cities like Osaka and Edo (now called Tokyo) and its diffusion to rural areas after 1700; and the promotion of education and population control among both the military elite (the samurai) and the well-to-do peasantry in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Tokugawa political economy: daimyo and shogun

These developments were inseparable from the political economy of Japan. The system of confederation government introduced at the end of the fifteenth century placed certain powers in the hands of feudal warlords, daimyo, and certain powers in the hands of the shogun, the most powerful of the warlords. Each daimyo — and the shogun — was assigned a geographic region, a domain, being given taxation authority over the peasants residing in the villages of the domain. Intercourse with foreign powers was monopolized by the shogun, thereby preventing daimyo from cementing alliances with other countries in an effort to overthrow the central government. The samurai military retainers of the daimyo were forced to abandon rice farming and reside in the castle town headquarters of their daimyo overlord. In exchange, samurai received rice stipends from the rice taxes collected from the villages of their domain. By removing samurai from the countryside — by demilitarizing rural areas — conflicts over local water rights were largely made a thing of the past. As a result irrigation ditches were extended throughout the valleys, and riverbanks were shored up with stone embankments, facilitating transport and preventing flooding.

The sustained growth of proto-industrialization in urban Japan, and its widespread diffusion to villages after 1700 was also inseparable from the productivity growth in paddy rice production and the growing of industrial crops like tea, fruit, mulberry plant growing (that sustained the raising of silk cocoons) and cotton. Indeed, Smith (1988) has given pride of place to these “domestic sources” of Japan’s future industrial success.

Readiness to emulate the West

As a result of these domestic advances, Japan was well positioned to take up the Western challenge. It harnessed its infrastructure, its high level of literacy, and its proto-industrial distribution networks to the task of emulating Western organizational forms and Western techniques in energy production, first and foremost enlisting inorganic energy sources like coal and the other fossil fuels to generate steam power. Having intensively developed the organic economy depending upon natural energy flows like wind, water and fire, Japanese were quite prepared to master inorganic production after the Black Ships of the Americans forced Japan to jettison its long-standing autarky.

From Balanced to Dualistic Growth, 1887-1938: Infrastructure and Manufacturing Expand

Fukoku Kyohei

After the Tokugawa government collapsed in 1868, a new Meiji government committed to the twin policies of fukoku kyohei (wealthy country/strong military) took up the challenge of renegotiating its treaties with the Western powers. It created infrastructure that facilitated industrialization. It built a modern navy and army that could keep the Western powers at bay and establish a protective buffer zone in North East Asia that eventually formed the basis for a burgeoning Japanese empire in Asia and the Pacific.

Central government reforms in education, finance and transportation

Jettisoning the confederation style government of the Tokugawa era, the new leaders of the new Meiji government fashioned a unitary state with powerful ministries consolidating authority in the capital, Tokyo. The freshly minted Ministry of Education promoted compulsory primary schooling for the masses and elite university education aimed at deepening engineering and scientific knowledge. The Ministry of Finance created the Bank of Japan in 1882, laying the foundations for a private banking system backed up a lender of last resort. The government began building a steam railroad trunk line girding the four major islands, encouraging private companies to participate in the project. In particular, the national government committed itself to constructing a Tokaido line connecting the Tokyo/Yokohama region to the Osaka/Kobe conurbation along the Pacific coastline of the main island of Honshu, and to creating deepwater harbors at Yokohama and Kobe that could accommodate deep-hulled steamships.

Not surprisingly, the merchants in Osaka, the merchant capital of Tokugawa Japan, already well versed in proto-industrial production, turned to harnessing steam and coal, investing heavily in integrated spinning and weaving steam-driven textile mills during the 1880s.

Diffusion of best-practice agriculture

At the same time, the abolition of the three hundred or so feudal fiefs that were the backbone of confederation style-Tokugawa rule and their consolidation into politically weak prefectures, under a strong national government that virtually monopolized taxation authority, gave a strong push to the diffusion of best practice agricultural technique. The nationwide diffusion of seed varieties developed in the Southwest fiefs of Tokugawa Japan spearheaded a substantial improvement in agricultural productivity especially in the Northeast. Simultaneously, expansion of agriculture using traditional Japanese technology agriculture and manufacturing using imported Western technology resulted.

Balanced growth

Growth at the close of the nineteenth century was balanced in the sense that traditional and modern technology using sectors grew at roughly equal rates, and labor — especially young girls recruited out of farm households to labor in the steam using textile mills — flowed back and forth between rural and urban Japan at wages that were roughly equal in industrial and agricultural pursuits.

Geographic economies of scale in the Tokaido belt

Concentration of industrial production first in Osaka and subsequently throughout the Tokaido belt fostered powerful geographic scale economies (the ability to reduce per unit costs as output levels increase), reducing the costs of securing energy, raw materials and access to global markets for enterprises located in the great harbor metropolises stretching from the massive Osaka/Kobe complex northward to the teeming Tokyo/Yokohama conurbation. Between 1904 and 1911, electrification mainly due to the proliferation of intercity electrical railroads created economies of scale in the nascent industrial belt facing outward onto the Pacific. The consolidation of two huge hydroelectric power grids during the 1920s — one servicing Tokyo/Yokohama, the other Osaka and Kobe — further solidified the comparative advantage of the Tokaido industrial belt in factory production. Finally, the widening and paving during the 1920s of roads that could handle buses and trucks was also pioneered by the great metropolises of the Tokaido, which further bolstered their relative advantage in per capita infrastructure.

Organizational economies of scale — zaibatsu

In addition to geographic scale economies, organizational scale economies also became increasingly important in the late nineteenth centuries. The formation of the zaibatsu (“financial cliques”), which gradually evolved into diversified industrial combines tied together through central holding companies, is a case in point. By the 1910s these had evolved into highly diversified combines, binding together enterprises in banking and insurance, trading companies, mining concerns, textiles, iron and steel plants, and machinery manufactures. By channeling profits from older industries into new lines of activity like electrical machinery manufacturing, the zaibatsu form of organization generated scale economies in finance, trade and manufacturing, drastically reducing information-gathering and transactions costs. By attracting relatively scare managerial and entrepreneurial talent, the zaibatsu format economized on human resources.


The push into electrical machinery production during the 1920s had a revolutionary impact on manufacturing. Effective exploitation of steam power required the use of large central steam engines simultaneously driving a large number of machines — power looms and mules in a spinning/weaving plant for instance – throughout a factory. Small enterprises did not mechanize in the steam era. But with electrification the “unit drive” system of mechanization spread. Each machine could be powered up independently of one another. Mechanization spread rapidly to the smallest factory.

Emergence of the dualistic economy

With the drive into heavy industries — chemicals, iron and steel, machinery — the demand for skilled labor that would flexibly respond to rapid changes in technique soared. Large firms in these industries began offering premium wages and guarantees of employment in good times and bad as a way of motivating and holding onto valuable workers. A dualistic economy emerged during the 1910s. Small firms, light industry and agriculture offered relatively low wages. Large enterprises in the heavy industries offered much more favorable remuneration, extending paternalistic benefits like company housing and company welfare programs to their “internal labor markets.” As a result a widening gulf opened up between the great metropolitan centers of the Tokaido and rural Japan. Income per head was far higher in the great industrial centers than in the hinterland.

Clashing urban/rural and landlord/tenant interests

The economic strains of emergent dualism were amplified by the slowing down of technological progress in the agricultural sector, which had exhaustively reaped the benefits due to regional diffusion from the Southwest to the Northeast of best practice Tokugawa rice cultivation. Landlords — around 45% of the cultivable rice paddy land in Japan was held in some form of tenancy at the beginning of the twentieth century — who had played a crucial role in promoting the diffusion of traditional best practice techniques now lost interest in rural affairs and turned their attention to industrial activities. Tenants also found their interests disregarded by the national authorities in Tokyo, who were increasingly focused on supplying cheap foodstuffs to the burgeoning industrial belt by promoting agricultural production within the empire that it was assembling through military victories. Japan secured Taiwan from China in 1895, and formally brought Korea under its imperial rule in 1910 upon the heels of its successful war against Russia in 1904-05. Tenant unions reacted to this callous disrespect of their needs through violence. Landlord/tenant disputes broke out in the early 1920s, and continued to plague Japan politically throughout the 1930s, calls for land reform and bureaucratic proposals for reform being rejected by a Diet (Japan’s legislature) politically dominated by landlords.

Japan’s military expansion

Japan’s thrust to imperial expansion was inflamed by the growing instability of the geopolitical and international trade regime of the later 1920s and early 1930s. The relative decline of the United Kingdom as an economic power doomed a gold standard regime tied to the British pound. The United States was becoming a potential contender to the United Kingdom as the backer of a gold standard regime but its long history of high tariffs and isolationism deterred it from taking over leadership in promoting global trade openness. Germany and the Soviet Union were increasingly becoming industrial and military giants on the Eurasian land mass committed to ideologies hostile to the liberal democracy championed by the United Kingdom and the United States. It was against this international backdrop that Japan began aggressively staking out its claim to being the dominant military power in East Asia and the Pacific, thereby bringing it into conflict with the United States and the United Kingdom in the Asian and Pacific theaters after the world slipped into global warfare in 1939.

Reform and Reconstruction in a New International Economic Order, Japan after World War II

Postwar occupation: economic and institutional restructuring

Surrendering to the United States and its allies in 1945, Japan’s economy and infrastructure was revamped under the S.C.A.P (Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers) Occupation lasting through 1951. As Nakamura (1995) points out, a variety of Occupation-sponsored reforms transformed the institutional environment conditioning economic performance in Japan. The major zaibatsu were liquidated by the Holding Company Liquidation Commission set up under the Occupation (they were revamped as keiretsu corporate groups mainly tied together through cross-shareholding of stock in the aftermath of the Occupation); land reform wiped out landlordism and gave a strong push to agricultural productivity through mechanization of rice cultivation; and collective bargaining, largely illegal under the Peace Preservation Act that was used to suppress union organizing during the interwar period, was given the imprimatur of constitutional legality. Finally, education was opened up, partly through making middle school compulsory, partly through the creation of national universities in each of Japan’s forty-six prefectures.

Improvement in the social capability for economic growth

In short, from a domestic point of view, the social capability for importing and adapting foreign technology was improved with the reforms in education and the fillip to competition given by the dissolution of the zaibatsu. Resolving tension between rural and urban Japan through land reform and the establishment of a rice price support program — that guaranteed farmers incomes comparable to blue collar industrial workers — also contributed to the social capacity to absorb foreign technology by suppressing the political divisions between metropolitan and hinterland Japan that plagued the nation during the interwar years.

Japan and the postwar international order

The revamped international economic order contributed to the social capability of importing and adapting foreign technology. The instability of the 1920s and 1930s was replaced with replaced with a relatively predictable bipolar world in which the United States and the Soviet Union opposed each other in both geopolitical and ideological arenas. The United States became an architect of multilateral architecture designed to encourage trade through its sponsorship of the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the predecessor to the World Trade Organization). Under the logic of building military alliances to contain Eurasian Communism, the United States brought Japan under its “nuclear umbrella” with a bilateral security treaty. American companies were encouraged to license technology to Japanese companies in the new international environment. Japan redirected its trade away from the areas that had been incorporated into the Japanese Empire before 1945, and towards the huge and expanding American market.

Miracle Growth: Soaring Domestic Investment and Export Growth, 1953-1970

Its infrastructure revitalized through the Occupation period reforms, its capacity to import and export enhanced by the new international economic order, and its access to American technology bolstered through its security pact with the United States, Japan experienced the dramatic “Miracle Growth” between 1953 and the early 1970s whose sources have been cogently analyzed by Denison and Chung (1976). Especially striking in the Miracle Growth period was the remarkable increase in the rate of domestic fixed capital formation, the rise in the investment proportion being matched by a rising savings rate whose secular increase — especially that of private household savings – has been well documented and analyzed by Horioka (1991). While Japan continued to close the gap in income per capita between itself and the United States after the early 1970s, most scholars believe that large Japanese manufacturing enterprises had by and large become internationally competitive by the early 1970s. In this sense it can be said that Japan had completed its nine decade long convergence to international competitiveness through industrialization by the early 1970s.


There is little doubt that the social capacity to import and adapt foreign technology was vastly improved in the aftermath of the Pacific War. Creating social consensus with Land Reform and agricultural subsidies reduced political divisiveness, extending compulsory education and breaking up the zaibatsu had a positive impact. Fashioning the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (M.I.T.I.) that took responsibility for overseeing industrial policy is also viewed as facilitating Japan’s social capability. There is no doubt that M.I.T.I. drove down the cost of securing foreign technology. By intervening between Japanese firms and foreign companies, it acted as a single buyer of technology, playing off competing American and European enterprises in order to reduce the royalties Japanese concerns had to pay on technology licenses. By keeping domestic patent periods short, M.I.T.I. encouraged rapid diffusion of technology. And in some cases — the experience of International Business Machines (I.B.M.), enjoying a virtual monopoly in global mainframe computer markets during the 1950s and early 1960s, is a classical case — M.I.T.I. made it a condition of entry into the Japanese market (through the creation of a subsidiary Japan I.B.M. in the case of I.B.M.) that foreign companies share many of their technological secrets with potential Japanese competitors.

How important industrial policy was for Miracle Growth remains controversial, however. The view of Johnson (1982), who hails industrial policy as a pillar of the Japanese Development State (government promoting economic growth through state policies) has been criticized and revised by subsequent scholars. The book by Uriu (1996) is a case in point.

Internal labor markets, just-in-time inventory and quality control circles

Furthering the internalization of labor markets — the premium wages and long-term employment guarantees largely restricted to white collar workers were extended to blue collar workers with the legalization of unions and collective bargaining after 1945 — also raised the social capability of adapting foreign technology. Internalizing labor created a highly flexible labor force in post-1950 Japan. As a result, Japanese workers embraced many of the key ideas of Just-in-Time inventory control and Quality Control circles in assembly industries, learning how to do rapid machine setups as part and parcel of an effort to produce components “just-in-time” and without defect. Ironically, the concepts of just-in-time and quality control were originally developed in the United States, just-in-time methods being pioneered by supermarkets and quality control by efficiency experts like W. Edwards Deming. Yet it was in Japan that these concepts were relentlessly pursued to revolutionize assembly line industries during the 1950s and 1960s.

Ultimate causes of the Japanese economic “miracle”

Miracle Growth was the completion of a protracted historical process involving enhancing human capital, massive accumulation of physical capital including infrastructure and private manufacturing capacity, the importation and adaptation of foreign technology, and the creation of scale economies, which took decades and decades to realize. Dubbed a miracle, it is best seen as the reaping of a bountiful harvest whose seeds were painstakingly planted in the six decades between 1880 and 1938. In the course of the nine decades between the 1880s and 1970, Japan amassed and lost a sprawling empire, reorienting its trade and geopolitical stance through the twists and turns of history. While the ultimate sources of growth can be ferreted out through some form of statistical accounting, the specific way these sources were marshaled in practice is inseparable from the history of Japan itself and of the global environment within which it has realized its industrial destiny.

Appendix: Sources of Growth Accounting and Quantitative Aspects of Japan’s Modern Economic Development

One of the attractions of studying Japan’s post-1880 economic development is the abundance of quantitative data documenting Japan’s growth. Estimates of Japanese income and output by sector, capital stock and labor force extend back to the 1880s, a period when Japanese income per capita was low. Consequently statistical probing of Japan’s long-run growth from relative poverty to abundance is possible.

The remainder of this appendix is devoted to introducing the reader to the vast literature on quantitative analysis of Japan’s economic development from the 1880s until 1970, a nine decade period during which Japanese income per capita converged towards income per capita levels in Western Europe. As the reader will see, this discussion confirms the importance of factors discussed at the outset of this article.

Our initial touchstone is the excellent “sources of growth” accounting analysis carried out by Denison and Chung (1976) on Japan’s growth between 1953 and 1971. Attributing growth in national income in growth of inputs, the factors of production — capital and labor — and growth in output per unit of the two inputs combined (total factor productivity) along the following lines:

G(Y) = { a G(K) + [1-a] G(L) } + G (A)

where G(Y) is the (annual) growth of national output, g(K) is the growth rate of capital services, G(L) is the growth rate of labor services, a is capital’s share in national income (the share of income accruing to owners of capital), and G(A) is the growth of total factor productivity, is a standard approach used to approximate the sources of growth of income.

Using a variant of this type of decomposition that takes into account improvements in the quality of capital and labor, estimates of scale economies and adjustments for structural change (shifting labor out of agriculture helps explain why total factor productivity grows), Denison and Chung (1976) generate a useful set of estimates for Japan’s Miracle Growth era.

Operating with this “sources of growth” approach and proceeding under a variety of plausible assumptions, Denison and Chung (1976) estimate that of Japan’s average annual real national income growth of 8.77 % over 1953-71, input growth accounted for 3.95% (accounting for 45% of total growth) and growth in output per unit of input contributed 4.82% (accounting for 55% of total growth). To be sure, the precise assumptions and techniques they use can be criticized. The precise numerical results they arrive at can be argued over. Still, their general point — that Japan’s growth was the result of improvements in the quality of factor inputs — health and education for workers, for instance — and improvements in the way these inputs are utilized in production — due to technological and organizational change, reallocation of resources from agriculture to non-agriculture, and scale economies, is defensible.

With this in mind consider Table 1.

Table 1: Industrialization and Economic Growth in Japan, 1880-1970:
Selected Quantitative Characteristics

Panel A: Income and Structure of National Output

Real Income per Capita [a] Share of National Output (of Net Domestic Product) and Relative Labor Productivity (Ratio of Output per Worker in Agriculture to Output per Worker in the N Sector) [b]
Years Absolute Relative to U.S. level Year Agriculture Manufacturing & Mining



Construction & Facilitating Sectors [b]

Relative Labor Productivity


1881-90 893 26.7% 1887 42.5% 13.6% 20.0% 68.3
1891-1900 1,049 28.5 1904 37.8 17.4 25.8 44.3
1900-10 1,195 25.3 1911 35.5 20.3 31.1 37.6
1911-20 1,479 27.9 1919 29.9 26.2 38.3 32.5
1921-30 1,812 29.1 1930 20.0 25.8 43.3 27.4
1930-38 2,197 37.7 1938 18.5 35.3 51.7 20.8
1951-60 2,842 26.2 1953 22.0 26.3 39.7 22.6
1961-70 6,434 47.3 1969 8.7 30.5 45.9 19.1

Panel B: Domestic and External Sources of Aggregate Supply and Demand Growth: Manufacturing and Mining (Ma), Gross Domestic Fixed Capital Formation (GDFCF), and Trade (TR)

Percentage Contribution to Growth due to: Trade Openness and Trade Growth [c]
Years Ma to Output Growth GDFCF to Effective

Demand Growth

Years Openness Growth in Trade
1888-1900 19.3% 17.9% 1885-89 6.9% 11.4%
1900-10 29.2 30.5 1890-1913 16.4 8.0
1910-20 26.5 27.9 1919-29 32.4 4.6
1920-30 42.4 7.5 1930-38 43.3 8.1
1930-38 50.5 45.3 1954-59 19.3 12.0
1955-60 28.1 35.0 1960-69 18.5 10.3
1960-70 33.5 38.5

Panel C: Infrastructure and Human Development

Human Development Index (HDI) [d] Electricity Generation and National Broadcasting (NHK) per 100 Persons [e]
Year Educational Attainment Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) Overall HDI


Year Electricity NHK Radio Subscribers
1900 0.57 155 0.57 1914 0.28 n.a.
1910 0.69 161 0.61 1920 0.68 n.a.
1920 0.71 166 0.64 1930 2.46 1.2
1930 0.73 124 0.65 1938 4.51 7.8
1950 0.81 63 0.69 1950 5.54 11.0
1960 0.87 34 0.75 1960 12.28 12.6
1970 0.95 14 0.83 1970 34.46 21.9

Notes: [a] Maddison (2000) provides estimates of real income that take into account the purchasing power of national currencies.

[b] Ohkawa (1979) gives estimates for the “N” sector that is defined as manufacturing and mining (Ma) plus construction plus facilitating industry (transport, communications and utilities). It should be noted that the concept of an “N” sector is not standard in the field of economics.

[c] The estimates of trade are obtained by adding merchandise imports to merchandise exports. Trade openness is estimated by taking the ratio of total (merchandise) trade to national output, the latter defined as Gross Domestic Product (G.D.P.). The trade figures include trade with Japan’s empire (Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria, etc.); the income figures for Japan exclude income generated in the empire.

[d] The Human Development Index is a composite variable formed by adding together indices for educational attainment, for health (using life expectancy that is inversely related to the level of the infant mortality rate, the IMR), and for real per capita income. For a detailed discussion of this index see United Nations Development Programme (2000).

[e] Electrical generation is measured in million kilowatts generated and supplied. For 1970, the figures on NHK subscribers are for television subscribers. The symbol n.a. = not available.

Sources: The figures in this table are taken from various pages and tables in Japan Statistical Association (1987), Maddison (2000), Minami (1994), and Ohkawa (1979).

Flowing from this table are a number of points that bear lessons of the Denison and Chung (1976) decomposition. One cluster of points bears upon the timing of Japan’s income per capita growth and the relationship of manufacturing expansion to income growth. Another highlights improvements in the quality of the labor input. Yet another points to the overriding importance of domestic investment in manufacturing and the lesser significance of trade demand. A fourth group suggests that infrastructure has been important to economic growth and industrial expansion in Japan, as exemplified by the figures on electricity generating capacity and the mass diffusion of communications in the form of radio and television broadcasting.

Several parts of Table 1 point to industrialization, defined as an increase in the proportion of output (and labor force) attributable to manufacturing and mining, as the driving force in explaining Japan’s income per capita growth. Notable in Panels A and B of the table is that the gap between Japanese and American income per capita closed most decisively during the 1910s, the 1930s, and the 1960s, precisely the periods when manufacturing expansion was the most vigorous.

Equally noteworthy of the spurts of the 1910s, 1930s and the 1960s is the overriding importance of gross domestic fixed capital formation, that is investment, for growth in demand. By contrast, trade seems much less important to growth in demand during these critical decades, a point emphasized by both Minami (1994) and by Ohkawa and Rosovsky (1973). The notion that Japanese growth was “export led” during the nine decades between 1880 and 1970 when Japan caught up technologically with the leading Western nations is not defensible. Rather, domestic capital investment seems to be the driving force behind aggregate demand expansion. The periods of especially intense capital formation were also the periods when manufacturing production soared. Capital formation in manufacturing, or in infrastructure supporting manufacturing expansion, is the main agent pushing long-run income per capita growth.

Why? As Ohkawa and Rosovsky (1973) argue, spurts in manufacturing capital formation were associated with the import and adaptation of foreign technology, especially from the United States These investment spurts were also associated with shifts of labor force out of agriculture and into manufacturing, construction and facilitating sectors where labor productivity was far higher than it was in labor-intensive farming centered around labor-intensive rice cultivation. The logic of productivity gain due to more efficient allocation of labor resources is apparent from the right hand column of Panel A in Table 1.

Finally, Panel C of Table 1 suggests that infrastructure investment that facilitated health and educational attainment (combined public and private expenditure on sanitation, schools and research laboratories), and public/private investment in physical infrastructure including dams and hydroelectric power grids helped fuel the expansion of manufacturing by improving human capital and by reducing the costs of transportation, communications and energy supply faced by private factories. Mosk (2001) argues that investments in human-capital-enhancing (medicine, public health and education), financial (banking) and physical infrastructure (harbors, roads, power grids, railroads and communications) laid the groundwork for industrial expansions. Indeed, the “social capability for importing and adapting foreign technology” emphasized by Ohkawa and Rosovsky (1973) can be largely explained by an infrastructure-driven growth hypothesis like that given by Mosk (2001).

In sum, Denison and Chung (1976) argue that a combination of input factor improvement and growth in output per combined factor inputs account for Japan’s most rapid spurt of economic growth. Table 1 suggests that labor quality improved because health was enhanced and educational attainment increased; that investment in manufacturing was important not only because it increased capital stock itself but also because it reduced dependence on agriculture and went hand in glove with improvements in knowledge; and that the social capacity to absorb and adapt Western technology that fueled improvements in knowledge was associated with infrastructure investment.


Denison, Edward and William Chung. “Economic Growth and Its Sources.” In Asia’s Next Giant: How the Japanese Economy Works, edited by Hugh Patrick and Henry Rosovsky, 63-151. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1976.

Horioka, Charles Y. “Future Trends in Japan’s Savings Rate and the Implications Thereof for Japan’s External Imbalance.” Japan and the World Economy 3 (1991): 307-330.

Japan Statistical Association. Historical Statistics of Japan [Five Volumes]. Tokyo: Japan Statistical Association, 1987.

Johnson, Chalmers. MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982.

Maddison, Angus. Monitoring the World Economy, 1820-1992. Paris: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2000.

Minami, Ryoshin. Economic Development of Japan: A Quantitative Study. [Second edition]. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1994.

Mitchell, Brian. International Historical Statistics: Africa and Asia. New York: New York University Press, 1982.

Mosk, Carl. Japanese Industrial History: Technology, Urbanization, and Economic Growth. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2001.

Nakamura, Takafusa. The Postwar Japanese Economy: Its Development and Structure, 1937-1994. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1995.

Ohkawa, Kazushi. “Production Structure.” In Patterns of Japanese Economic Development: A Quantitative Appraisal, edited by Kazushi Ohkawa and Miyohei Shinohara with Larry Meissner, 34-58. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

Ohkawa, Kazushi and Henry Rosovsky. Japanese Economic Growth: Trend Acceleration in the Twentieth Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1973.

Smith, Thomas. Native Sources of Japanese Industrialization, 1750-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Uriu, Robert. Troubled Industries: Confronting Economic Challenge in Japan. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.

United Nations Development Programme. Human Development Report, 2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Citation: Mosk, Carl. “Japan, Industrialization and Economic Growth”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. January 18, 2004. URL

The Roots of American Industrialization, 1790-1860

David R. Meyer, Brown University

The Puzzle of Industrialization

In a society which is predominantly agricultural, how is it possible for industrialization to gain a foothold? One view is that the demand of farm households for manufactures spurs industrialization, but such an outcome is not guaranteed. What if farm households can meet their own food requirements, and they choose to supply some of their needs for manufactures by engaging in small-scale craft production in the home? They might supplement this production with limited purchases of goods from local craftworkers and purchases of luxuries from other countries. This local economy would be relatively self-sufficient, and there is no apparent impetus to alter it significantly through industrialization, that is, the growth of workshop and factory production for larger markets. Others would claim that limited gains might come from specialization, once demand passed some small threshold. Finally, it has been argued that if the farmers are impoverished, some of them would be available for manufacturing and this would provide an incentive to industrialize. However, this argument begs the question as to who would purchase the manufactures. One possibility is that non-farm rural dwellers, such as trade people, innkeepers, and professionals, as well as a small urban population, might provide an impetus to limited industrialization.

The problem with the “impoverished agriculture” theory

The industrialization of the eastern United States from 1790 to 1860 raises similar conundrums. For a long time, scholars thought that the agriculture was mostly poor quality. Thus, the farm labor force left agriculture for workshops, such as those which produced shoes, or for factories, such as the cotton textile mills of New England. These manufactures provided employment for women and children, who otherwise had limited productive possibilities because the farms were not economical. Yet, the market for manufactures remained mostly in the East prior to 1860. Consequently, it is unclear who would have purchased the products to support the growth of manufactures before 1820, as well as to undergird the large-scale industrialization of the East during the two decades following 1840. Even if the impoverished-agriculture explanation of the East’s industrialization is rejected, we are still left with the curiosity that as late as 1840, about eighty percent of the population lived in rural areas, though some of them were in nonfarm occupations.

In brief, the puzzle of eastern industrialization between 1790 and 1860 can be resolved – the East had a prosperous agriculture. Farmers supplied low-cost agricultural products to rural and urban dwellers, and this population demanded manufactures, which were supplied by vigorous local and subregional manufacturing sectors. Some entrepreneurs shifted into production for larger market areas, and this transformation occurred especially in sectors such as shoes, selected light manufactures produced in Connecticut (such as buttons, tinware, and wooden clocks), and cotton textiles. Transportation improvements exerted little impact on these agricultural and industrial developments, primarily because the lowly wagon served effectively as a transport medium and much of the East’s most prosperous areas were accessible to cheap waterway transportation. The metropolises of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and, to a lesser extent, Baltimore, and the satellites of each (together, each metropolis and its satellites is called a metropolitan industrial complex), became leading manufacturing centers, and other industrial centers emerged in prosperous agricultural areas distant from these complexes. The East industrialized first, and, subsequently, the Midwest began an agricultural and industrial growth process which was underway by the 1840s. Together, the East and the Midwest constituted the American Manufacturing Belt, which was formed by the 1870s, whereas the South failed to industrialize commensurately.

Synergy between Agriculture and Manufacturing

The solution to the puzzle of how industrialization can occur in a predominantly agricultural economy recognizes the possibility of synergy between agriculture and manufacturing. During the first three decades following 1790, prosperous agricultural areas emerged in the eastern United States. Initially, these areas were concentrated near the small metropolises of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and in river valleys such as the Connecticut Valley in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys in New York, the Delaware Valley bordering Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and the Susquehanna Valley in eastern Pennsylvania. These agricultural areas had access to cheap, convenient transport which could be used to reach markets; the farms supplied the growing urban populations in the cities and some of the products were exported. Furthermore, the farmers supplied the nearby, growing non-farm populations in the villages and small towns who provided goods and services to farmers. These non-farm consumers included retailers, small mill owners, teamsters, craftspeople, and professionals (clergy, physicians, and lawyers).

Across every decade from 1800 to 1860, the number of farm laborers grew, thus testifying to the robustness of eastern agriculture (see Table 1). And, this increase occurred in the face of an expanding manufacturing sector, as increasing numbers of rural dwellers left the farms to work in the factories, especially after 1840. Even New England, the region which presumably was the epitome of declining agriculture, witnessed a rise in the number of farm laborers all the way up to 1840, and, as of 1860, the drop off from the peak was small. Massachusetts and Connecticut, which had vigorous small workshops and increasing numbers of small factories before 1840, followed by a surge in manufacturing after 1840, matched the trajectory of farm laborers in New England as a whole. The numbers in these two states peaked in 1840 and fell off only modestly over the next twenty years. The Middle Atlantic region witnessed an uninterrupted rise in the number of farm laborers over the sixty-year period. New York and Pennsylvania, the largest states, followed slightly different paths. In New York, the number of farm laborers peaked around 1840 and then stabilized near that level for the next two decades, whereas in Pennsylvania the number of farm laborers rose in an uninterrupted fashion.

Table 1
Number of Farm Laborers by Region and Selected States, 1800-1860

Year 1800 1810 1820 1830 1840 1850 1860
New England 228,100 257,700 303,400 353,800 389,100 367,400 348,100
Massachusetts 73,200 72,500 73,400 78,500 87,900 80,800 77,700
Connecticut 50,400 49,300 51,500 55,900 57,000 51,400 51,800
Middle Atlantic 375,700 471,400 571,700 715,000 852,800 910,400 966,600
New York 111,800 170,100 256,000 356,300 456,000 437,100 449,100
Pennsylvania 112,600 141,000 164,900 195,200 239,000 296,300 329,000
East 831,900 986,800 1,178,500 1,422,600 1,631,000 1,645,200 1,662,800

Source: Thomas Weiss, “U.S. Labor Force Estimates and Economic Growth, 1800-1860,”American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John Joseph Wallis (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), table 1A.9, p. 51.

The farmers, retailers, professionals, and others in these prosperous agricultural areas accumulated capital which became available for other economic sectors, and manufacturing was one of the most important to receive this capital. Entrepreneurs who owned small workshops and factories obtained capital to turn out a wide range of goods such as boards, boxes, utensils, building hardware, furniture, and wagons, which were in demand in the agricultural areas. And, some of these workshops and factories enlarged their market areas to a subregion as they gained production efficiencies; but, this did not account for all industrial development. Selected manufactures such as shoes, tinware, buttons, and cotton textiles were widely demanded by urban and rural residents of prosperous agricultural areas and by residents of the large cities. These products were high value relative to their weight; thus, the cost to ship them long distances was low. Astute entrepreneurs devised production methods and marketing approaches to sell these goods in large market areas, including New England and the Middle Atlantic regions of the East.

Manufactures Which Were Produced for Large Market Areas

Shoes and Tinware

Small workshops turned out shoes. Massachusetts entrepreneurs devised an integrated shoe production complex based on a division of labor among shops, and they established a marketing arm of wholesalers, principally in Boston, who sold the shoes throughout New England, to the Middle Atlantic, and to the South (particularly, to slave plantations). Businesses in Connecticut drew on the extensive capital accumulated by the well-to-do rural and urban dwellers of that state and moved into tinware, plated ware, buttons, and wooden clocks. These products, like shoes, also were manufactured in small workshops, but a division of labor among shops was less important than the organization of production within shops. Firms producing each good tended to agglomerate in a small subregion of the state. These clusters arose because entrepreneurs shared information about production techniques and specialized skills which they developed, and this knowledge was communicated as workers moved among shops. Initially, a marketing system of peddlers emerged in the tinware sector, and they sold the goods, first throughout Connecticut, and then they extended their travels to the rest of New England and to the Middle Atlantic. Workshops which made other types of light, high-value goods soon took advantage of the peddler distribution system to enlarge their market areas. At first, these peddlers operated part-time during the year, but as the supply of goods increased and market demand grew, peddlers operated for longer periods of the year and they traveled farther.

Cotton Textiles

Cotton textile manufacturing was an industry built on low-wage, especially female, labor; presumably, this industry offered opportunities in areas where farmers were unsuccessful. Yet, similar to the other manufactures which enlarged their market areas to the entire East before 1820, cotton textile production emerged in prosperous agricultural areas. That is not surprising, because this industry required substantial capital, technical skills, and, initially, nearby markets. These requirements were met in rich farming areas, which also could draw on wealthy merchants in large cities who contributed capital and provided sale outlets beyond nearby markets as output grew. The production processes in cotton textile manufacturing, however, diverged from the approaches to making shoes and small metal and wooden products. From the start, production processes included textile machinery, which initially consisted of spinning machines to make yarn, and later (after 1815), weaving machines and other mechanical equipment were added. Highly skilled mechanics were required to build the machines and to maintain them. The greater capital requirements for cotton mills, compared to shoes and small goods’ manufactures in Connecticut, meant that merchant wholesalers and wealthy retailers, professionals, mill owners, and others, were important underwriters of the factories.

Starting in the 1790s, New England, and, especially, Rhode Island, housed the leaders in early cotton textile manufacturing. Providence merchants funded some of the first successful cotton spinning mills, and they drew on the talents of Samuel Slater, an immigrant British machinist. He trained many of the first important textile mechanics, and investors in various parts of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York hired them to build mills. Between 1815 and 1820, power-loom weaving began to be commercially feasible, and this effort was led by firms in Rhode Island and, especially, in Massachusetts. Boston merchants, starting with the Boston Manufacturing Company at Waltham, devised a business plan which targeted large-scale, integrated cotton textile manufacturing, with a marketing/sales arm housed in a separate firm. They enlarged their effort significantly after 1820, and much of the impetus to the growth of the cotton textile industry came from the success entrepreneurs had in lowering the cost of production.

The Impact of Transportation Improvements

Following 1820, government and private sources invested substantial sums in canals, and after 1835, railroad investment increased rapidly. Canals required huge volumes of low-value commodities in order to pay operating expenses, cover interest on the bonds which were issued for construction, and retire the bonds at maturity. These conditions were only met in the richest agricultural and resource (lumbering and coal mining, for example) areas traversed by the Erie and Champlain Canals in New York and the coal canals in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The vast majority of the other canals failed to yield benefits for agriculture and industry, and most were costly debacles. Early railroads mainly carried passengers, especially within fifty to one hundred miles of the largest cities – Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Industrial products were not carried in large volumes until after 1850; consequently, railroads built before that time had little impact on industrialization in the East.

Canals and railroads had minor impacts on agricultural and industrial development because the lowly wagon provided withering competition. Wagons offered flexible, direct connections between origins and destinations, without the need to transship goods, as was the case with canals and railroads; these modes required wagons at their end points. Within a distance of about fifty miles, the cost of wagon transport was competitive with alternative transport modes, so long as the commodities were high value relative to their weight. And, infrequent transport of these goods could occur over distances of as much as one hundred miles. This applied to many manufactures, and agricultural commodities could be raised to high value by processing prior to shipment. Thus, wheat was turned into flour, corn and other grains were fed to cattle and pigs and these were processed into beef and pork prior to shipment, and milk was converted into butter and cheese. Most of the richest agricultural and industrial areas of the East were less than one hundred miles from the largest cities or these areas were near low-cost waterway transport along rivers, bays, and the Atlantic Coast. Therefore, canals and railroads in these areas had difficulty competing for freight, and outside these areas the limited production generated little demand for long distant transport services.

Agricultural Prosperity Continues

After 1820, eastern farmers seized the increasing market opportunities in the prosperous rural areas as nonfarm processing expanded and village and small town populations demanded greater amounts of farm products. The large number of farmers who were concentrated around the rapidly growing metropolises (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore) and near urban agglomerations such as Albany-Troy, New York, developed increasing specialization in urban market goods such as fluid milk, fresh vegetables, fruit, butter, and hay (for horse transport). Farmers farther away responded to competition by shifting into products which could be transported long distances to market, including wheat into flour, cattle which walked to market, or pigs which were converted into pork. During the winter these farms sent butter, and cheese was a specialty which could be lucrative for long periods of the year when temperatures were cool.

These changes swept across the East, and, after 1840, farmers increasingly adjusted their production to compete with cheap wheat, cattle, and pork arriving over the Erie Canal from the Midwest. Wheat growing became less profitable, and specialized agriculture expanded, such as potatoes, barley, and hops in central New York and cigar tobacco in the Connecticut Valley. Farmers near the largest cities intensified their specialization in urban market products, and as the railroads expanded, fluid milk was shipped longer distances to these cities. Farmers in less accessible areas and on poor agricultural land which was infertile or too hilly, became less competitive. If these farmers and their children stayed, their incomes declined relative to others in the East, but if they moved to the Midwest or to the burgeoning industrial cities of the East, they had the chance of participating in the rising prosperity.

Metropolitan Industrial Complexes

The metropolises of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and, to a lesser extent, Baltimore, led the industrial expansion after 1820, because they were the greatest concentrated markets, they had the most capital, and their wholesalers provided access to subregional and regional markets outside the metropolises. By 1840, each of them was surrounded by industrial satellites – manufacturing centers in close proximity to, and economically integrated with, the metropolis. Together, these metropolises and their satellites formed metropolitan industrial complexes, which accounted for almost one-quarter of the nation’s manufacturing (see Table 2). For example, metropolises and satellites included Boston and Lowell, New York and Paterson (New Jersey), Philadelphia and Reading (Pennsylvania), and Baltimore and Wilmington (Delaware), which also was a satellite of Philadelphia. Among the four leading metropolises, New York and Philadelphia housed, by far, the largest share of the nation’s manufacturing workers, and their satellites had large numbers of industrial workers. Yet, Boston’s satellites contained the greatest concentration of industrial workers in the nation, with almost seven percent of the national total. The New York, Philadelphia, and Boston metropolitan industrial complexes each had approximately the same share of the nation’s manufacturing workers. These complexes housed a disproportionate share of the nation’s commerce-serving manufactures such as printing-publishing and paper and of local, regional, and national market manufactures such as glass, drugs and paints, textiles, musical instruments, furniture, hardware, and machinery.

Table 2
Manufacturing Employment in the Metropolitan Industrial Complexes
of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore
as a Percentage of National Manufacturing Employment in 1840

Metropolis Satellites Complex
New York 4.1% 3.4% 7.4%
Philadelphia 3.9 2.9 6.7
Boston 0.5 6.6 7.1
Baltimore 2.0 0.2 2.3
Four Complexes 10.5 13.1 23.5

Note: Metropolitan county is defined as the metropolis for each complex and “outside” comprises nearby counties; those included in each complex were the following. New York: metropolis (New York, Kings, Queens, Richmond); outside (Connecticut: Fairfield; New York: Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Orange; New Jersey: Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Morris, Passaic, Somerset). Philadelphia: metropolis (Philadelphia); outside (Pennsylvania: Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery; New Jersey: Burlington, Gloucester, Mercer; Delaware: New Castle). Boston: metropolis (Suffolk); outside (Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth). Baltimore: metropolis (Baltimore); outside (Anne Arundel, Harford).

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Compendium of the Sixth Census, 1840 (Washington, D.C.: Blair and Rives, 1841).

Also, by 1840, prosperous agricultural areas farther from these complexes, such as the Connecticut Valley in New England, the Hudson Valley, the Erie Canal Corridor across New York state, and southeastern Pennsylvania, housed significant amounts of manufacturing in urban places. At the intersection of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, the Albany-Troy agglomeration contained one of the largest concentrations of manufacturing outside the metropolitan complexes. And, industrial towns such as Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo were strung along the Erie Canal Corridor. Many of the manufactures (such as furniture, wagons, and machinery) served subregional markets in the areas of prosperous agriculture, but some places also developed specialization in manufactures (textiles and hardware) for larger regional and interregional market areas (the East as a whole). The Connecticut Valley, for example, housed many firms which produced cotton textiles, hardware, and cutlery.

Manufactures for Eastern and National Markets


In several industrial sectors whose firms had expanded before 1820 to regional, and even, multiregional markets, in the East, firms intensified their penetration of eastern markets and reached to markets in the rapidly growing Midwest between 1820 and 1860. In eastern Massachusetts, a production complex of shoe firms innovated methods of organizing output within and among firms, and they developed a wide array of specialized tools and components to increase productivity and to lower manufacturing costs. In addition, a formidable wholesaling, marketing, and distribution complex, headed by Boston wholesalers, pushed the ever-growing volume of shoes into sales channels which reached throughout the nation. Machinery did not come into use until the 1850s, and, by 1860, Massachusetts accounted for half of the value of the nation’s shoe production.

Cotton Textiles

In contrast, machinery constituted an important factor of production which drove down the price of cotton textile goods, substantially enlarging the quantity consumers demanded. Before 1820, most of the machinery innovations improved the spinning process for making yarn, and in the five years following 1815, innovations in mechanized weaving generated an initial substantial drop in the cost of production as the first integrated spinning-weaving mills emerged. During the next decade and a half the price of cotton goods collapsed by over fifty percent as large integrated spinning-weaving mills became the norm for the production of most cotton goods. Therefore, by the mid-1830s vast volumes of cotton goods were pouring out of textile mills, and a sophisticated set of specialized wholesaling firms, mostly concentrated in Boston, and secondarily, in New York and Philadelphia, channeled these items into the national market.

Prior to 1820, the cotton textile industry was organized into three cores. The Providence core dominated and the Boston core occupied second place; both of these were based mostly on mechanized spinning. A third core in the city of Philadelphia was based on hand spinning and weaving. Within about fifteen years after 1820, the Boston core soared to a commanding position in cotton textile production as a group of Boston merchants and their allies relentlessly replicated their business plan at various sites in New England, including at Lowell, Chicopee, and Taunton in Massachusetts, at Nashua, Manchester, and Dover in New Hampshire, and at Saco in Maine. The Providence core continued to grow, but its investors did not seem to fully grasp the strategic, multi-faceted business plan which the Boston merchants implemented. Similarly, investors in an emerging core within about fifty to seventy-five miles of New York City in the Hudson Valley and northern New Jersey likewise did not seem to fully understand the Boston merchants’ plan, and these New York City area firms never reached the scale of the firms of the Boston Core. The Philadelphia core enlarged to nearby areas southwest of the city and in Delaware, but these firms stayed small, and the Philadelphia firms created a small-scale, flexible production system which turned out specialized goods, not the mass-market commodity textiles of the other cores.

Capital Investment in Cotton Textiles

The distribution of capital investment in cotton textiles across the regions and states of the East between 1820 and 1860 capture the changing prominence of the cores of cotton textile production (see Table 3). The New England and the Middle Atlantic regions contained approximately similar shares (almost half each) of the nation’s capital investment. However, during the 1820s the cotton textile industry restructured to a form which was maintained for the next three decades. New England’s share of capital investment surged to about seventy percent, and it maintained that share until 1860, whereas the Middle Atlantic region’s share fell to around twenty percent by 1840 and remained near that until 1860. The rest of the nation, primarily the South, reached about ten percent of total capital investment around 1840 and continued at that level for the next two decades. Massachusetts became the leading cotton textile state by 1831 and Rhode Island, the early leader, gradually slipped to a level of about ten percent by the 1850s; New Hampshire and Pennsylvania housed approximately similar shares as Rhode Island by that time.

Table 3
Capital Invested in Cotton Textiles
by Region and State as a Percentage of the Nation

Region/state 1820 1831 1840 1850 1860
New England 49.6% 69.8% 68.4% 72.3% 70.3%
Maine 1.6 1.9 2.7 4.5 6.1
New Hampshire 5.6 13.1 10.8 14.7 12.8
Vermont 1.0 0.7 0.2 0.3 0.3
Massachusetts 14.3 31.7 34.1 38.2 34.2
Connecticut 11.6 7.0 6.2 5.7 6.7
Rhode Island 15.4 15.4 14.3 9.0 10.2
Middle Atlantic 46.2 29.5 22.7 17.3 19.0
New York 18.8 9.0 9.6 5.6 5.5
New Jersey 4.7 5.0 3.4 2.0 1.3
Pennsylvania 6.3 9.3 6.5 6.1 9.3
Delaware 4.0 0.9 0.6 0.6 0.6
Maryland 12.4 5.3 2.6 3.0 2.3
Rest of nation 4.3 0.7 9.0 10.4 10.7
Nation 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%
Total capital (thousands) $10,783 $40,613 $51,102 $74,501 $98,585

Sources: David J. Jeremy, Transatlantic Industrial Revolution: The Diffusion of Textile Technologies Between Britain and America, 1790-1830s (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), appendix D, table D.1, p. 276; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Compendium of the Sixth Census, 1840 (Washington, D.C.: Blair and Rives, 1841); U.S. Bureau of the Census, Report on the Manufactures of the United States at the Tenth Census, 1880 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1883).

Connecticut’s Industries

In Connecticut, industrialists built on their successful production and sales prior to 1820 and expanded into a wider array of products which they sold in the East and South, and, after 1840, they acquired more sales in the Midwest. This success was not based on a mythical “Yankee ingenuity,” which, typically, has been framed in terms of character. Instead, this ingenuity rested on fundamental assets: a highly educated population linked through wide-ranging social networks which communicated information about technology, labor opportunities, and markets; and the abundant supplies of capital in the state supported the entrepreneurs. The peddler distribution system provided efficient sales channels into the mid-1830s, but, after that, firms took advantage of more traditional wholesaling channels. In some sectors, such as the brass industry, firms followed the example of the large Boston-core textile firms, and the brass companies founded their own wholesale distribution agencies in Boston and New York City. The achievements of Connecticut’s firms were evident by 1850. As a share of the nation’s value of production, they accounted for virtually all of the clocks, pins, and suspenders, close to half of the buttons and rubber goods, and about one-third of the brass foundry products, Britannia and plated ware, and hardware.

Difficulty of Duplicating Eastern Methods in the Midwest

The East industrialized first, based on a prosperous agricultural and industrialization process, as some of its entrepreneurs shifted into the national market manufactures of shoes, cotton textiles, and diverse goods turned out in Connecticut. These industrialists made this shift prior to 1820, and they enhanced their dominance of these products during the subsequent two decades. Manufacturers in the Midwest did not have sufficient intraregional markets to begin producing these goods before 1840; therefore, they could not compete in these national market manufactures. Eastern firms had developed technologies and organizations of production and created sales channels which could not be readily duplicated, and these light, high-value goods were transported cheaply to the Midwest. When midwestern industrialists faced choices about which manufactures to enter, the eastern light, high-value goods were being sold in the Midwest at prices which were so low that it was too risky for midwestern firms to attempt to compete. Instead, these firms moved into a wide range of local and regional market manufactures which also existed in the East, but which cost too much to transport to the Midwest. These goods included lumber and food products (e.g., flour and whiskey), bricks, chemicals, machinery, and wagons.

The American Manufacturing Belt

The Midwest Joins the American Manufacturing Belt after 1860

Between 1840 and 1860, Midwestern manufacturers made strides in building an industrial infrastructure, and they were positioned to join with the East to constitute the American Manufacturing Belt, the great concentration of manufacturing which would sprawl from the East Coast to the edge of the Great Plains. This Belt became mostly set within a decade or so after 1860, because technologies and organizations of production and of sales channels had lowered costs across a wide array of manufactures, and improvements in transportation (such as an integrated railroad system) and communication (such as the telegraph) reduced distribution costs. Thus, increasing shares of industrial production were sold in interregional markets.

Lack of Industrialization in the South

Although the South had prosperous farms, it failed to build a deep and broad industrial infrastructure prior to 1860, because much of its economy rested on a slave agricultural system. In this economy, investments were heavily concentrated in slaves rather than in an urban and industrial infrastructure. Local and regional demand remained low across much of the South, because slaves were not able to freely express their consumption demands and population densities remained low, except in a few agricultural areas. Thus, the market thresholds for many manufactures were not met, and, if thresholds were met, the demand was insufficient to support more than a few factories. By the 1870s, when the South had recovered from the Civil War and its economy was reconstructed, eastern and midwestern industrialists had built strong positions in many manufactures. And, as new industries emerged, the northern manufacturers had the technological and organizational infrastructure and distribution channels to capture dominance in the new industries.

In a similar fashion, the Great Plains, the Southwest, and the West were settled too late for their industrialists to be major producers of national market goods. Manufacturers in these regions focused on local and regional market manufactures. Some low wage industries (such as textiles) began to move to the South in significant numbers after 1900, and the emergence of industries based on high technology after 1950 led to new manufacturing concentrations which rested on different technologies. Nonetheless, the American Manufacturing Belt housed the majority of the nation’s industry until the middle of the twentieth century.

This essay is based on David R. Meyer, The Roots of American Industrialization, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Additional Readings

Atack, Jeremy, and Fred Bateman. To Their Own Soil: Agriculture in the Antebellum North. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1987.

Baker, Andrew H., and Holly V. Izard. “New England Farmers and the Marketplace, 1780-1865: A Case Study.” Agricultural History 65 (1991): 29-52.

Barker, Theo, and Dorian Gerhold. The Rise and Rise of Road Transport, 1700-1990. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Bodenhorn, Howard. A History of Banking in Antebellum America: Financial Markets and Economic Development in an Era of Nation-Building. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Brown, Richard D. Knowledge is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700-1865. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Clark, Christopher. The Roots of Rural Capitalism: Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Dalzell, Robert F., Jr. Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Durrenberger, Joseph A. Turnpikes: A Study of the Toll Road Movement in the Middle Atlantic States and Maryland. Cos Cob, CT: John E. Edwards, 1968.

Field, Alexander J. “On the Unimportance of Machinery.” Explorations in Economic History 22 (1985): 378-401.

Fishlow, Albert. American Railroads and the Transformation of the Ante-Bellum Economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Fishlow, Albert. “Antebellum Interregional Trade Reconsidered.” American Economic Review 54 (1964): 352-64.

Goodrich, Carter, ed. Canals and American Economic Development. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Gross, Robert A. “Culture and Cultivation: Agriculture and Society in Thoreau’s Concord.” Journal of American History 69 (1982): 42-61.

Hoke, Donald R. Ingenious Yankees: The Rise of the American System of Manufactures in the Private Sector. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

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

Jeremy, David J. Transatlantic Industrial Revolution: The Diffusion of Textile Technologies between Britain and America, 1790-1830s. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.

Jones, Chester L. The Economic History of the Anthracite-Tidewater Canals. University of Pennsylvania Series on Political Economy and Public Law, no. 22. Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1908.

Karr, Ronald D. “The Transformation of Agriculture in Brookline, 1770-1885.” Historical Journal of Massachusetts 15 (1987): 33-49.

Lindstrom, Diane. Economic Development in the Philadelphia Region, 1810-1850. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

McClelland, Peter D. Sowing Modernity: America’s First Agricultural Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

McMurry, Sally. Transforming Rural Life: Dairying Families and Agricultural Change, 1820-1885. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

McNall, Neil A. An Agricultural History of the Genesee Valley, 1790-1860. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1952.

Majewski, John. A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia Before the Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Mancall, Peter C. Valley of Opportunity: Economic Culture along the Upper Susquehanna, 1700-1800. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Margo, Robert A. Wages and Labor Markets in the United States, 1820-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Meyer, David R. “The Division of Labor and the Market Areas of Manufacturing Firms.” Sociological Forum 3 (1988): 433-53.

Meyer, David R. “Emergence of the American Manufacturing Belt: An Interpretation.” Journal of Historical Geography 9 (1983): 145-74.

Meyer, David R. “The Industrial Retardation of Southern Cities, 1860-1880.” Explorations in Economic History 25 (1988): 366-86.

Meyer, David R. “Midwestern Industrialization and the American Manufacturing Belt in the Nineteenth Century.” Journal of Economic History 49 (1989): 921-37.

Ransom, Roger L. “Interregional Canals and Economic Specialization in the Antebellum United States.” Explorations in Entrepreneurial History 5, no. 1 (1967-68): 12-35.

Roberts, Christopher. The Middlesex Canal, 1793-1860. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1938.

Rothenberg, Winifred B. From Market-Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Scranton, Philip. Proprietary Capitalism: The Textile Manufacture at Philadelphia, 1800-1885. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Shlakman, Vera. “Economic History of a Factory Town: A Study of Chicopee, Massachusetts.” Smith College Studies in History 20, nos. 1-4 (1934-35): 1-264.

Sokoloff, Kenneth L. “Invention, Innovation, and Manufacturing Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Northeast.” In American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John J. Wallis, 345-78. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Sokoloff, Kenneth L. “Inventive Activity in Early Industrial America: Evidence from Patent Records, 1790-1846.” Journal of Economic History 48 (1988): 813-50.

Sokoloff, Kenneth L. “Productivity Growth in Manufacturing during Early Industrialization: Evidence from the American Northeast, 1820-1860.” In Long-Term Factors in American Economic Growth, edited by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman, 679-729. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Ware, Caroline F. The Early New England Cotton Manufacture: A Study in Industrial Beginnings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Weiss, Thomas. “Economic Growth before 1860: Revised Conjectures.” In American Economic Development in Historical Perspective, edited by Thomas Weiss and Donald Schaefer, 11-27. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Weiss, Thomas. “Long-Term Changes in U.S. Agricultural Output per Worker, 1800-1900.” Economic History Review 46 (1993): 324-41.

Weiss, Thomas. “U.S. Labor Force Estimates and Economic Growth, 1800-1860.” In American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John Joseph Wallis, 19-75. Chicago University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Wood, Frederic J. The Turnpikes of New England. Boston: Marshall Jones, 1919.

Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Zevin, Robert B. “The Growth of Cotton Textile Production after 1815.” In The Reinterpretation of American Economic History, edited by Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, 122-47. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Citation: Meyer, David. “American Industrialization”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL

The Economics of American Farm Unrest, 1865-1900

James I. Stewart, Reed College

American farmers have often expressed dissatisfaction with their lot but the decades after the Civil War were extraordinary in this regard. The period was one of persistent and acute political unrest. The specific concerns of farmers were varied, but at their core was what farmers perceived to be their deteriorating political and economic status.

The defining feature of farm unrest was the efforts of farmers to join together for mutual gain. Farmers formed cooperatives, interest groups, and political parties to protest their declining fortunes and to increase their political and economic power. The first such group to appear was The Grange or Patrons of Husbandry, founded in the 1860s to address farmers’ grievances against the railroads and desire for greater cooperation in business matters. The agrarian-dominated Greenback Party followed in the 1870s. Its main goal was to increase the amount of money in circulation and thus to lower the costs of credit to farmers. The Farmers’ Alliance appeared in the 1880s. Its members practiced cooperative marketing and lobbied the government for various kinds of business and banking regulation. In the 1890s, aggrieved farmers took their most ambitious steps yet, forming the independent People’s or Populist Party to challenge the dominance of the unsympathetic Republican and Democratic parties.

Although farmers in every region of the country had cause for agitation, unrest was probably greatest in the northern prairie and Plains states. A series of droughts there between 1870 and 1900 created recurring hardships, and Midwestern grain farmers faced growing price competition from producers abroad. Farmers in the South also revolted, but their protests were muted by racism. Black farmers were excluded from most farm groups, and many white farmers were reluctant to join the attack on established politics and business for fear of undermining the system of social control that kept blacks inferior to whites (Goodwyn, 1978).

The Debate about the Causes of Farm Unrest

For a long time, a debate raged about the causes of farm unrest. Historians could not reconcile the complaints of farmers with evidence about the agricultural terms of trade— the prices farmers received for their output, especially relative to the prices of other goods and services farmers purchased such as transportation, credit, and manufactures. Now, however, there appears to be some consensus. Before exploring the basis for this consensus, it will be useful to examine briefly the complaints of farmers. What were farmers so upset about? Why did they feel so threatened?

The Complaints of Farmers

The complaints of farmers are well documented (Buck, 1913; Hicks, 1931) and relatively uncontroversial. They concerned farmers’ declining incomes and fractious business relationships primarily. First, farmers claimed that farm prices were falling and, as a consequence, so were their incomes. They generally blamed low prices on over-production. Second, farmers alleged that monopolistic railroads and grain elevators charged unfair prices for their services. Government regulation was the farmers’ solution to the problem of monopoly. Third, there was a perceived shortage of credit and money. Farmers believed that interest rates were too high because of monopolistic lenders, and the money supply was inadequate, producing deflation. A falling price level increased the real burden of debt, as farmers repaid loans with dollars worth significantly more than those they had borrowed. Farmers demanded ceilings on interest rates, public boards to mediate foreclosure proceedings, and the U.S. Treasury to coin silver freely to increase the money supply. Finally, farmers complained about the political influence of the railroads, big business, and money lenders. These interests had undue influence over policy making in the state legislatures and U.S. Congress. In short, farmers felt their economic and political interests were being shortchanged by a gang of greedy railroads, creditors, and industrialists.

The Puzzle of Farm Unrest

Economic historians have subjected the complaints of farmers to rigorous statistical testing. Each claim has been found inconsistent to some extent with the available evidence about the terms of trade.

First, consider farmers’ complaints about prices. Farm prices were falling, along with the prices of most other goods during this period. This does not imply, however, that farm incomes were also falling. First, real prices (farm prices relative to the general price level) are a better measure of the value that farmers were receiving for their output. When real prices over the post-Civil War period are examined, there is an approximately horizontal trend (North, 1974). Moreover, even if real farm prices had been falling, farmers were not necessarily worse off (Fogel and Rutner, 1972). Rising farm productivity could have offset the negative effects of falling real prices on incomes. Finally, direct evidence about the incomes of farmers is scarce, but estimates suggest that farm incomes were not falling (Bowman, 1965). Some regions experienced periods of distress—Iowa and Illinois in the 1870s and Kansas and Nebraska in the 1890s, for instance—but there was no general agricultural depression. If anything, data on wages, land rents, and returns to capital suggest that land in the West was opened to settlement too slowly (Fogel and Rutner, 1972).

Next, consider farmers’ claims about interest rates and mortgage debt. It is true that interest rates on the frontier were high, averaging two to three percentage points more than those in the Northeast. Naturally, frontier farmers complained bitterly about paying so much for credit. Lenders, however, may have been well justified in the rates they charged. The susceptibility of the frontier to drought and the financial insecurity of many settlers created above average lending risks for which creditors had to be compensated (Bogue, 1955). For instance, borrowers often defaulted, leaving land worth only a fraction of the loan as security. This story casts doubt on the exploitation hypothesis. Furthermore, when the claims of farmers were subjected to rigorous statistical testing, there was little evidence to substantiate the monopoly hypothesis (Eichengreen, 1984). Instead, consistent with the unique features of the frontier mortgage market, high rates of interest appear to have been compensation for the inherent risks of lending to frontier farmers. Finally, regarding the burden on borrowers of a falling price level, deflation may have been not as onerous as farmers alleged. The typical mortgage had a short term, less than five years, implying that lenders and borrowers could often anticipate changes in the price level (North, 1974).

Last, consider farmers’ complaints about the railroads. These appear to have the most merit. Nevertheless, for a long time, most historians dismissed farmers’ grievances, assuming that the real cost to farmers of shipping their produce to market must have been steadily falling because of productivity improvements in the railroad sector. As Robert Higgs (1970) shows, however, gains in productivity in rail shipping did not necessarily translate into lower rates for farmers and thus higher farm gate prices. Real rates (railroad rates relative to the prices farmers received for their output) were highly variable between 1865 and 1900. More important, over the whole period, there was little decrease in rail rates relative to farm prices. Only in the 1890s did the terms of trade begin to improve in farmers’ favor. Employing different data, Aldrich (1985) finds a downward trend in railroad rates before 1880 but then no trend or an increasing trend thereafter.

The Causes of Farm Unrest

Many of the complaints of farmers are weakly supported or even contradicted by the available evidence, leaving questions about the true causes of farm unrest. If the monopoly power of the railroads and creditors was not responsible for farmers’ woes, what or who was?

Most economic historians now believe that agrarian unrest reflected the growing risks and uncertainties of agriculture after the Civil War. Uncertainty or risk can be thought of as an economic force that reduces welfare. Today, farmers use sophisticated production technologies and agricultural futures markets to reduce their exposure to environmental and economic uncertainty at little cost. In the late 1800s, the avoidance of risk was much more costly. As a result, increases in risk and uncertainty made farmers worse off. These uncertainties and risks appear to have been particularly severe for farmers on the frontier.

What were the sources of risk? First, agriculture had become more commercial after the Civil War (Mayhew, 1972). Formerly self-sufficient farmers were now dependent on creditors, merchants, and railroads for their livelihoods. These relationships created opportunities for economic gain but also obligations, hardships, and risks that many farmers did not welcome. Second, world grain markets were becoming ever more integrated, creating competition in markets abroad once dominated by U.S. producers and greater price uncertainty (North, 1974). Third, agriculture was now occurring in the semi-arid region of the United States. In Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, farmers encountered unfamiliar and adverse growing conditions. Recurring but unpredictable droughts caused economic hardship for many Plains farmers. Their plights were made worse because of the greater price elasticity (responsiveness) of world agricultural supply (North, 1974). Drought-stricken farmers with diminished harvests could no longer count on higher domestic prices for their crops.

A growing body of research now supports the hypothesis that discontent was caused by increasing risks and uncertainties in U.S. agriculture. First, there are strong correlations between different measures of economic risk and uncertainty and the geographic distribution of unrest in fourteen northern states between 1866 and 1909 (McGuire, 1981; 1982). Farm unrest was closely tied to the variability in farm prices, yields, and incomes across the northern states. Second, unrest was highest in states with high rates of farm foreclosures (Stock, 1986). On the frontier, the typical farmer would have had a neighbor whose farm was seized by creditors and thus cause to worry about his own future financial security. Third, Populist agitation in Kansas in the 1890s coincided with unexpected variability in crop prices that resulted in lost profits and lower incomes (DeCanio, 1980). Finally, as mentioned already, high interest rates were not a sign of monopoly but rather compensation to creditors for the greater risks of frontier lending (Eichengreen, 1984).

The Historical Significance of Farm Unrest

Farm unrest had profound and lasting consequences for American economic development. Above all, it ushered in fundamental and lasting institutional change (Hughes, 1991; Libecap, 1992).

The change began in the 1870s. In response to the complaints of farmers, Midwestern state legislatures enacted a series of laws regulating the prices and practices of railroads, grain elevators, and warehouses. The “Grange” laws were a turning point because they reversed a longstanding trend of decreasing government regulation of the private sector. They also prompted a series of landmark court rulings affirming the regulatory prerogatives of government (Hughes, 1991). In Munn v. Illinois (1877), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the legality of the Granger laws, famously ruling that government had the legal right to regulate any commerce “affected with the public interest.”

Farmers also sought redress of their grievances at the federal level. In 1886, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Wabash, St. Louis, and Pacific Railway v. Illinois that only the federal government had the right to regulate commerce between the states. This meant the states could not regulate many matters of concern to farmers. In 1887, Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act, which gave the Interstate Commerce Commission regulatory oversight over long distance rail shipping. This legislation was followed by the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which prohibited monopolies and certain conspiracies, combinations, and restraints of trade. Midwestern cattle farmers urged the passage of an antitrust law, alleging that the notorious Chicago meat packers had conspired to keep cattle prices artificially low (Libecap, 1992). Both laws marked the beginning of growing federal involvement in private economic activity (Hughes, 1991; Ulen, 1987).

Not all agrarian proposals were acted upon, but even demands that fell on deaf ears in Congress and the state legislatures had lasting impacts (Hicks, 1931). For instance, many Alliance and Populist demands such as the graduated income tax and the direct election of U.S. Senators became law during the Progressive Era.

Historians disagree about the legacy of the late nineteenth century farm movements. Some view their contributions to U.S. institutional development positively (Hicks, 1931), while others do not (Hughes, 1991). Nonetheless, few would dispute their impact. In fact, it is possible to see much institutional change in the U.S. over the last century as the logical consequence of political and legal developments initiated by farmers during the late 1800s (Hughes, 1991).

The Sources of Cooperation in the Farm Protest Movement

Nineteenth century farmers were remarkably successful at joining together to increase their economic and political power. Nevertheless, one aspect of farm unrest that has largely been neglected by scholars is the sources of cooperation in promoting agrarian interests. According to Olson (1965), large lobbying or interest groups like the Grange and the Farmers’ Alliance should have been plagued by free-riding: the incentives for individuals not to contribute to the collective production of public goods—those goods for which it is impossible or very costly to exclude others from enjoying. A rational and self-interested farmer would not join a lobbying group because he could enjoy the benefits of its work without incurring any of the costs.

Judging by their political power, most farm interest groups were, however, able to curb free-riding. Stewart (2006) studies how the Dakota Farmers’ Alliance did this between 1885 and 1890. First, the Dakota Farmers’ Alliance provided valuable goods and services to its members that were not available to outsiders, creating economic incentives for membership. These goods and services included better terms of trade through cooperative marketing and the sharing of productivity-enhancing information about agriculture. Second, the structure of the Dakota Farmers’ Alliance as a federation of township chapters enabled the group to monitor and sanction free-riders. Within townships, Alliance members were able to pressure others to join the group. This strategy appears to have succeeded among German and Norwegian immigrants, who were much more likely than others to join the Dakota Farmers’ Alliance and whose probability of joining was increasing in the share of their nativity group in the township population. This is consistent with long-standing social norms of cooperation in Germany and Norway and economic theory about the use of social norms to elicit cooperation in collective action.


Aldrich, Mark. “A Note on Railroad Rates and the Populist Uprising.” Agricultural History 41 (1985): 835-52.

Bogue, Allan G. Money at Interest: The Farm Mortgage on the Middle Border. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1955.

Bowman, John. “An Economic Analysis of Midwestern Farm Values and Farm Land Income, 1860-1900.” Yale Economic Essays 5 (1965): 317-52.

Buck, Solon J. The Granger Movement: A Study of Agricultural Organization and Its Political, Economic, and Social Manifestations, 1870-1880. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1913.

DeCanio, Stephen J. “Economic Losses from Forecasting Error in Agriculture.” Journal of Political Economy 88 (1980): 234-57.

Eichengreen, Barry. “Mortgage Interest Rates in the Populist Era.” American Economic Review 74 (1984): 995-1015.

Fogel, Robert W. and Jack L. Rutner. “The Efficiency Effects of Federal Land Policy, 1850-1900: A Report of Some Provisional Findings.” In The Dimensions of Quantitative Research in History, edited by Wayne O. Aydelotte, Allan G. Bogue and Robert W. Fogel. Princeton, N.: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Hicks, John D. The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1931.

Higgs, Robert. “Railroad Rates and the Populist Uprising.” Agricultural History 44 (1970): 291-97.

Hughes, Jonathan T. The Government Habit Redux: Economic Controls from Colonial Times to the Present. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Libecap, Gary D. “The Rise of the Chicago Packers and the Origins of Meat Inspection and Antitrust.” Economic Inquiry 30 (1992): 242-62.

Mayhew, Anne. “A Reappraisal of the Causes of the Farm Protest Movement in the United States, 1870-1900.” Journal of Economic History 32 (1972): 464-75.

McGuire, Robert A. “Economic Causes of Late Nineteenth Century Agrarian Unrest: New Evidence.” Journal of Economic History 41 (1981): 835-52.

McGuire, Robert A. “Economic Causes of Late Nineteenth Century Agrarian Unrest: Reply.” Journal of Economic History 42 (1981): 697-99.

North, Douglass. Growth and Welfare in the American Past: A New Economic History. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974.

Olson, Mancur. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Stewart, James I. “Free-riding, Collective Action, and Farm Interest Group Membership.” Reed College Working Paper, 2006. Available at

Stock, James H. “Real Estate Mortgages, Foreclosures, and Midwestern Agrarian Unrest, 1865-1920.” Journal of Economic History 44 (1983): 89-105.

Ulen, Thomas C. “The Market for Regulation: The ICC from 1887 to 1920.” American Economic Review 70 (1980): 306-10.

Citation: Stewart, James. “The Economics of American Farm Unrest, 1865-1900″. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. February 10, 2008. URL

Economic Evolution and Revolution in Historical Time

Author(s):Rhode, Paul W.
Rosenbloom, Joshua L.
Weiman, David F.
Reviewer(s):Moehling, Carolyn M.

Published by EH.Net (January 2012)

Paul W. Rhode, Joshua L. Rosenbloom, and David F. Weiman, editors, Economic Evolution and Revolution in Historical Time. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. xx + 461 pp. $60 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8047-7185-6.

Carolyn M. Moehling, Department of Economics, Rutgers University.

A recent review in this series described festschrifts as ?an honored tradition? but ?also a somewhat antiquated and awkward form of scholarly communication.?? That awkwardness has been increasing in recent years.? More and more young scholars are being told that book chapters will receive little, if any, weight in tenure reviews, and many citation indices ? which are fast-becoming the ?summary statistics? of scholarly productivity ? ignore such contributions.? Given these trends, it is becoming more and more difficult to produce a collective volume that is relevant for current scholarship.? However, in the volume under review, Paul Rhode, Joshua Rosenbloom and David Weiman have proved that this can be done.? They do start with a tremendous advantage in that the scholar they honor, Gavin Wright, is one of the true greats in our profession.? Wright?s research is remarkable for both its scope and its diversity of method, and the editors have put together a volume that shares these qualities.? Several of the chapters are review essays which take a particular area of Wright?s research and place it in the context of the broader economic and historical literature.? These essays are more than just genuflections on the work of a beloved scholar and teacher; they discuss the challenges to Wright?s conclusions posed by other scholars and propose directions for future research.? Other chapters report the results of new or on-going research projects, many of which were inspired by Wright?s work.? For the most part, these essays make substantive and provocative contributions to the literature.? The editors achieve this feat by soliciting papers from well-established scholars who are no longer tormented by the ticking of the tenure clock.? The end result is a hefty volume of 17 chapters and over 400 pages.

Given space constraints, this review cannot adequately discuss the merits of each of the essays included in the volume.? The goal, instead, is to provide an overall sense of the volume by highlighting some of the more notable contributions.? Strong entries in the review essay category are the chapters by Karen Clay, Robert Fleck, and Joshua Rosenbloom and William Sundstrom.? Clay reviews Wright?s work on the role of natural resources on the development of the U.S. economy.? In a seminal paper published in the American Economic Review in 1990, Wright challenged conventional wisdom by claiming that the success of American manufacturing before 1940 was due to its intensive use of natural resources.? He went further to argue that this natural resource abundance was due less to the size of America’s geological endowment than to the ability to exploit that endowment.? Clay discusses the factors that led to this successful exploitation: federal and state geological surveys, the development of American mining and engineering colleges, and incentives for private agents to search for and extract natural resources.? Clay draws upon her own research with Wright on the Gold Rush to argue that these incentives existed even when the government could not effectively guarantee property rights.? Mining communities, building on cultural conceptions of fairness, created private-order institutions to secure such rights.? Clay then turns to the $64,000 question: why didn’t the U.S. suffer from the “resource curse?”? Clay believes that it was the strength of American political institutions and the high transportation costs of the period that made natural resources facilitate rather than hinder growth.? She then proposes a framework for future research to test this hypothesis.

Fleck situates Wright’s research on the New Deal and the transformation of the Southern economy in the broader political economy literature.? He provides a nice overview of the empirical studies of the politics of New Deal spending and re-interprets the findings to emphasize their more general implications for the interplay between policy and institutions.? Fleck goes on to connect this work to the very recent research on the role of institutions and economic development.? He focuses, in particular, on theoretical models of the extension of voting rights and how these models draw upon and complement Wright’s much earlier work on the South.

Rosenbloom and Sundstrom take on an even more ambitious agenda: using Wright’s concept of institutional regimes to provide a history of American labor markets from the colonial period to the present.? In this framework, political and economic institutions evolve to be complementary and mutually reinforcing, hence making them stable over long periods of time.? Only a shock or crisis precipitates change and then change can happen rapidly, as it did in Southern labor markets in response to the Civil War and then again in the mid-twentieth century.? The overarching theme of Rosenbloom and Sundstrom’s narrative is that changes in labor market outcomes cannot be interpreted simply in terms of shifts of supply and demand.? Instead, they must be examined in the context of the prevailing labor market institutions and how those institutions change and evolve over time.

Frank Levy and Peter Temin follow up on the theme of institutional regimes in their study of trends in income inequality in the second half of the twentieth century.? They argue that the declining position of the average worker reflects more than just the effects of globalization and skill-biased technological change.? They place the blame instead on the political and economic changes in the late 1970s and early 1980s that led to the erosion of organized labor’s bargaining power.? The institutional regime changed in a way that disadvantaged the average worker.

Leonard Carlson’s chapter also focuses on how outcomes are shaped by institutions.? Carlson contrasts the experiences of the aboriginal peoples of North America and Australia.? As he notes, there are many parallels in the settlement and development of these two areas.? Yet, they dealt very differently with their native populations.? In Australia, settlers developed a new legal concept, “terra nullius,” which asserted that the land belonged to no one prior to the arrival of the English in 1788.? In North America, native peoples were viewed as having “aboriginal rights” to the lands they occupied.? The result was that in North America, settlers had to negotiate land sales or treaties with natives in order to claim the land whereas in Australia, they did not.? Carlson presents a compelling case that the differences in these initial institutions can help to explain the very different experiences of these two native populations all the way up to the present.

Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode return to the question of the productivity of slave agriculture.? Building on their previously published work, they argue that the expansion of cotton production into the New South and the increased labor productivity in cotton that generated, relied heavily on the continuing biological innovations in cotton varieties.? A nice feature of this essay is that Olmstead and Rhode provide a re-evaluation of the economics of slavery literature based on their new findings.?

Richard Sutch contributes a provocative essay linking the minimum wage to increases in education.? He argues that the minimum wage binds in the youth labor market.? Decreasing labor market opportunities for young workers could create what Sutch calls an educational cascade whereby teenagers stay in school longer both because of peer effects and the declining opportunity of schooling.? Using data from the Current Population Surveys and the decennial censuses, Sutch shows that birth cohorts which were in high school during periods in which the minimum wage was being increased, have higher than expected average years of schooling.? He proposes, therefore, that raising the minimum wage may be a way to lower high school dropout rates.

Stacey Jones offers an intriguing alternative explanation for the dramatic changes in women’s occupational choices starting in the 1960s: the declining demand for teachers.? The demographic changes in the 1960s led to a drop in the number of school children at the same time that the number of college-educated women was growing by leaps and bounds.? Educated women needed to find occupations outside of teaching, and as more and more of them did, they changed societal expectations about what was appropriate work for women.? Jones’ argument nicely complements the many recent studies that examine the effects of contraceptive technology on women’s career and educational choices.

The remaining chapters are remarkable for the variety of scope, data, and method.? George Grantham explores the history of science in Europe between 1650 and 1850.? Warren Whatley and Rob Gillezeau develop a theoretical model to consider how the effective demand for slaves in the New World affected the development of African economies.? Ta-Chen Wang compares the textile industries in Boston and Philadelphia in the early 1800s to examine how differences in state banking systems affected industrial development.? Jeremy Atack, Michael Haines, and Robert Margo present preliminary results from their large-scale research project on the impact of railroads on economic development.? Scott Redenius and David Weiman seek to explain the seasonality in financial markets in the South after the Civil War and then to examine its impact on the National Banking System.? Susan Wolcott studies rural credit markets in colonial India.? Susan Carter links the rise of Chinese restaurants in the U.S. to the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Finally, this volume contains a bonus chapter.? Wright himself provides an essay reflecting on the tradition of economic history research at Stanford.? This essay provides a rare glimpse at how a scholar and teacher evaluates his own body of work and those of his students and colleagues.

Carolyn M. Moehling is an Associate Professor of Economics at Rutgers University.? She is the author of ?The Political Economy of Saving Mothers and Babies: The Politics of State Participation in the Sheppard-Towner Program? (with Melissa A. Thomasson), Journal of Economic History (forthcoming).

Copyright (c) 2012 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 (January 2012). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Education and Human Resource Development
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Servitude and Slavery
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Labor and Employment History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Africa
Australia/New Zealand, incl. Pacific Islands
North America
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth

Author(s):Field, Alexander J.
Reviewer(s):Rhode, Paul

Published by EH.NET (December 2011)

Alexander J. Field, A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.? ix + 387 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-300-15109-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Paul Rhode, Department of Economics, University of Michigan.

Sometimes if you look at a familiar object in a slightly different way, it takes on an entirely new appearance.? Many examples of the phenomenon are offered by Alexander Field?s path-breaking book, A Great Leap Forward, which re-examines the history of productivity growth in the United States.? In his leading example, Field observes that if one uses 1941 as a breakpoint, instead of the more conventional year 1937, then the rate of total factor productivity (TFP) growth of the private non-farm economy (PNE) during the Great Depression period is the fastest of any period on record.? The core facts are simple — hours of labor in the PNE were roughly the same in 1941 as in 1929 and the capital stock was slightly smaller, yet output was 33 to 40 percent higher.? Labor productivity and total factor productivity grew rapidly despite high unemployment and weak income growth.? Indeed, the rates of productivity growth exceeded those in the 1920s or in the so-called Golden Age (1948-1973).

Field argues that growth of TFP in the 1930s was broadly based and not narrowly concentrated in manufacturing, as in the 1920s.? It was not due to changes in labor quality (pp. 36-40).? In annual data for the 1930s (as in the surrounding periods), TFP growth was pro-cyclical, rising as the unemployment rate fell (see chapter 7).? In addition, 1941 was chosen as a benchmark because it is the closest thing to a pre-war economic peak for use in comparison with 1929.? Field locates the sources of the 1930s productivity advance in the maturation of the private R&D system and the expansion of the surface road system.? Chapter 2 ends with a highly readable narrative of how the improvement of America?s roads in the 1920s and 1930s allowed commercial trucking to become a complement to the nation?s long-haul railroads, raising the productivity of the transportation and distribution sectors. He further shows that even if the public investments in the transportation system are included in the capital stock in the productivity calculations, the decade?s record TFP performance in the PNE sector still holds (pp. 62-65).

Field?s discovery that the long 1930s (1929-1941) were ?the most technologically progressive decade? in U.S. history raises questions about many other interpretations, including the roles of World War II advances and ?catching up? growth in the postwar period, the importance of General Purpose Technologies (GPT), and the protean qualities some assign to investment in capital equipment as opposed to structures. In the 1930s, none of the technologies singled out in the recent literature on GPTs was especially prominent.? And while the stock of capital equipment did increase on net (unlike that of structures), its growth was slow.? Drawing on these lessons from the 1930s, Field develops extended critiques in Chapters 8 and 9 respectively, of the validity of the De Long-Summers equipment hypothesis and the value of the GPT concept.? It might have been possible to shine similar light on the literature on intellectual property rights — patenting activity slumped in the 1930s in contrast to Field?s findings on TFP.?

In his main analysis, Field focuses on the private non-farm economy, which excludes the government sector, agriculture, and in many if not all cases, the implicit rental services flowing from owner-occupied housing.? This treatment of the agricultural sector is, from this reviewer?s perspective, unfortunate.? The sector was large, representing about one-tenth of national income and one-fifth of the labor force in 1929.? Statistics about its performance are readily available.? The 1930s were known as the beginning of the biological revolution in U.S. farming, as highlighted by the rapid adoption of hybrid corn.? So at first blush, adding agriculture should support his story.? But the decade?s low rate of reallocation of labor out of the farm jobs into more productive employment elsewhere would tend to work the other way.

At times, Field extends his analysis within and beyond the PNE sector.? The impact of shifting benchmark dates is evaluated. These shifts require making statistical adjustments and refinements to the existing series, which are explained with great care.? Field?s clear writing style allows the interested reader to follow the calculations in detail.? One consequence of these efforts to place the 1930s experience into context is that Field re-examines the nineteenth century record of productivity growth.? The standard account, offered by Moses Abramovitz and Paul David, is that rapid TFP growth was a twentieth-century phenomenon.? While Abramovitz and David report TFP grew only 0.5 percent per annum over the 1855-1905 period, Field uncovers a more impressive growth record over the 1871-1892 subperiod, one fitting Alfred Chandler?s well-known account of the rise of modern business enterprise and Vaclav Smil?s recent narrative of the diverse stream of great innovations of the Second Industrial Revolution.? In Field?s retelling of the U.S. economic history, periods of war — including the Civil War, World War I, and World War II — exhibit the weakest performances.

The final section of A Great Leap Forward draws on the lessons of the Great Depression to consider the causes and consequences of the Great Slump of today.? The chapters compare the sources of financial fragility in the 2007-2009 period with those of 1927-1933 and then trace the course of investment by type of capital over the interwar period, and contrast the uncontrolled land development of the 1920s and its overhang in the 1930s with the real estate boom and bust of the 2000s.? The section finally turns to timely question: do economic downturns have silver linings? Field shows during the 1930s, economic adversity shocked the railroad sector into making productivity-enhancing adjustments.? But such cases are hard to come by and Field is not optimistic that bad times ?pave the way to a better tomorrow? (p. 311).

The ?new growth narrative? offered in A Great Leap Forward allows readers to see the familiar in a different way.? It promises to become the standard, stimulating the next wave of reassessments of the American productivity record.

Paul Rhode is the author (with Alan L. Olmstead) of Creating Abundance: Biological Innovation and American Agricultural Development (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Copyright (c) 2011 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 (December 2011). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Futures: The Rise of the Speculator and the Origins of the World?s Biggest Markets

Author(s):Lambert, Emily
Reviewer(s):Santos, Joseph M.

Published by EH.NET (June 2011)

Emily Lambert, The Futures: The Rise of the Speculator and the Origins of the World?s Biggest Markets. New York: Basic Books, 2010. xiv + 226 pp. $27 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-465-01843-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joseph M. Santos, Department of Economics, South Dakota State University.

In The Futures, Emily Lambert, a senior writer for Forbes, highlights some of the personalities, commodities, and controversies that catalyzed and shaped the growth of futures trading in Chicago and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere.? The author describes how agricultural marketing evolved and then focuses on events surrounding the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange after the Second World War.? (The two exchanges merged in 2006 to form the CME Group.)

Many EH.Net subscribers are familiar with the broad history of events that inform this book.? In essence, commodity futures trading in North America was spurred by the Illinois-Michigan Canal (1848), the growth of Lake Michigan commerce that followed, and a confluence of innovations, including grain elevators, railroads, grain exchanges, and forward contracts.? The canal allowed farmers in the hinterlands along the Illinois River to ship grain to Lake Michigan dealers, who sent much of it to Chicago.? Elevators and the railroad facilitated high-volume grain storage and shipment, respectively.? Meanwhile commodity exchanges, spawned from boards of trade along Lakes Erie, Michigan, and St. Clair, established a system of staple grades, standards, and inspections that rendered grain fungible and so made possible organized trading in spot and forward markets (Baer and Saxon 1949, p. 10, Chandler 1977, p. 211).? The Board of Trade of the City of Chicago was established in 1848.? In March, 1863 it adopted its first rules and procedures for trading in forward contracts and in May, 1865 it transformed actively traded and largely homogeneous forward contracts into futures contracts (Hieronymus 1977, p. 76).? Futures trading ripened in the 1860s, by which time the Board was the premier organized grain exchange.? The Chicago Mercantile Exchange — then, the Chicago Produce Exchange — was established in 1874.? Since then, futures trading has grown enormously, while the public?s perception of its legitimacy and their calls to proscribe or, at the very least, more-heavily regulate it have waxed and waned.

Lambert writes to entertain as much as to inform a general audience.? As such, she loosely chronicles this history in several well-told stories about unfailingly colorful individuals who created, marketed, and/or manipulated contracts that derived from fifteen commodities and financial assets; Lambert devotes a chapter to each of these.? For example, in chapter one (titled, ?Grain?), the reader meets Joseph Leiter, who nearly cornered the Chicago wheat market in the early winter of 1897.? Leiter?s efforts failed when Philip Armour, determined to thwart the corner, hired ice-breaking ships and tugboats to ensure timely passage of wheat from Minnesota (through Duluth harbor and the Soo Canals) to Chicago.? The Leiter episode inspired Frank Norris?s classic, The Pit (1903), in which the protagonist, Curtis Jadwin, is ruined by his need to corner the Chicago wheat market.? In chapter four (titled, ?Onions?), the reader meets Vincent Kosuga and Sam Siegel, who cornered the Chicago onion market in the fall of 1955 –when the two owned 98 percent of the onions in Chicago — and, then, sold their positions en masse.? Onion prices and farm incomes collapsed.? Politicians including Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford argued to ban futures trading in onions; the Onion Futures Act of 1958 ultimately did.? The Chicago Mercantile Exchange responded with a new contract derived from a slab of uncured hog meat; yes, pork-belly futures are the unintended consequence of regulation.? And, in chapter seven (titled, ?Currencies?), the reader meets Leo Malamed, a lawyer who became a member of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 1954, and its chairman in 1969.? In 1972, the Mercantile Exchange introduced futures contracts on currencies — an innovation that failed to take flight at the New York Produce Exchange, where such contracts first appeared two years earlier.? The result was the Mercantile Exchange?s International Monetary Market (IMM) — so called because Malamed believed it ?sounded grand? and disassociated the new currency pits with those of, say, pork bellies (p. 79).? Milton Friedman famously endorsed the IMM; and Paul Samuelson famously criticized it.? In any case, the timing proved perfect: Bretton Woods ended in 1971, the dollar essentially floated freely thereafter, and trading in currency futures thickened tremendously.

In other chapters, Lambert chronicles in similar fashion the evolution of futures contracts on soybeans, eggs, cattle, oil, carbon, and stock indices; interest-rate futures contracts on (Ginnie-Mae) mortgages, Treasury bonds, and Eurodollars; and options contracts on stocks.? Moreover, throughout the book, Lambert profiles Chicago?s trading culture, which she describes as entrepreneurial, risk loving, clubby, male dominated, reckless (to a point), selfish (in the pits), and dynamic — the cultural profile of a business that she concludes, ?balance[s] individual freedoms with an unlikely social responsibility? (p. 201).? Hence, like so many courts, legislatures, and economic historians before her, Lambert essentially maintains that futures markets improve welfare, though she does not substantiate this claim.? Moreover, Lambert infers from the recent financial crisis, to which futures exchanges were seemingly immune, a strong case for more exchange-based trading, complete with daily (mark-to-market) clearing mechanisms and other such rules of the game.

The Futures entertains readers with stories about the evolution of futures exchanges in Chicago, and it encourages them to consider the constructive role that these institutions have played in our financial system.? It is neither a primer nor a rigorous economic history.? Hence, the book will probably appeal most to readers who are familiar with the practical aspects of the business.? Newcomers to futures trading might wish for more detailed explanations about each of these contracts, including how traders value, settle, and clear them; and how hedgers use them to mitigate their exposure to market risk.? Meanwhile, economic historians might wish for more evidence, backed by a more extensive bibliography, to support and expand upon the interesting twists and turns that make up this very readable book.


Baer, J. B., and O. G. Saxon. (1949) Commodity Exchanges and Futures Trading: Principles and Operating Methods. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Boyle, J. E. (1920) Speculation and the Chicago Board of Trade. New York: The MacMillan Company.

Chandler, A. D. (1977) The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press.

Hieronymus, T. A. (1977) Economics of Futures Trading for Commercial and Personal Profit. New York: Commodity Research Bureau, Inc.

Rothstein, M. (1982) ?Frank Norris and Popular Perceptions of the Market,? Agricultural History, 56, 50-66.

Joseph M. Santos ( is Professor of Economics at South Dakota State University, where he teaches courses in macroeconomics and monetary policy.? His study of contemporary Canadian and U.S. monetary policy frameworks, ?What?s So Special about Inflation Targeting? A Comparative Analysis of Canadian and U.S. Monetary Policy? is forthcoming in the American Review of Canadian Studies.

Copyright (c) 2011 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 2011). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation

Author(s):Majewski, John
Reviewer(s):Delfino, Susanna

Published by EH.Net (March 2011)

John Majewski, Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. xiii + 240 pp. $40 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8078-3251-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Susanna Delfino, Department of European Research, University of Genoa, Italy.

?A Modern Economy without Modernization? — A Southern Paradox

Scholarship of the past few decades has amply documented that, from the late 1700s, capitalist-oriented entrepreneurial and business forces were at work in the southern states, and that their strength and visibility increased during the first half of the following century. Defining the contours of a univocal southern economic vision in the antebellum era has, however, proved extremely challenging, exposing all the ambiguities and inconsistencies immanent in the thinking of elite southerners, from political economists to politicians, from planters to manufacturers, and to businessmen in general. Even the staunchest agrarians, in fact, did not fail to appreciate the desirability of an albeit moderate industrial development. The seeming contradictions, which stemmed from their effort to reconcile economic development — including industrialization — with the preservation and protection of the institution of slavery, resulted in the shaping of a distinctively southern idea of economic modernity which rejected the tenets of modernization as commonly understood in the North and Europe as well by the mid-nineteenth century.[1]??? ??? ????????

John Majewski?s Modernizing a Slave Economy focuses on Virginia and South Carolina to explore the implications of such inconsistencies in the shaping of the secessionists ideology and, ultimately, in accounting for the failure of the Confederate experiment. Whereas a traditional historiography had identified the principles inspiring secession in the defense of thoroughly agrarian values, minimal government, and laissez-faire, Majewski shows that the secessionist ideology comprised instead visions of industrial expansion and economic independence that ought to be achieved largely through government activism. As a result, Majewski argues, the experience of a centralized and highly bureaucratic Confederate nation was not ?a radical disjuncture but a natural outgrowth of southern attitudes established during the antebellum period? (p. 7).

To demonstrate his thesis, Majewski adopts multiple and intertwined perspectives: from the environmental, to the economic, and to the political. Such an approach provides him with a broad compass of sensibilities that make the analysis well articulated and sophisticated at every turn.
The environmental argument constitutes the core around which Majewski?s analysis unfolds. Through it, he illustrates the distance separating reality from imagination in the economic vision of white southerners, as well as in northern perceptions and representations of the South?s economy. By showing that the extremely widespread use of shifting — as opposed to continuous — cultivation was determined by the highly acidic composition of much of the South?s soil, he both refutes the cultural explanation upheld by northerners to account for the seemingly backward state of southern agriculture and pinpoints the objective limits to regional economic development. In fact, by leaving vast stretches of land unimproved, shifting cultivation resulted in low population density. This, in turn, generated negative effects on the extent and depth of markets and on transportation costs: two essential factors for the development and expansion of the manufacturing sector. Slavery, of course, aggravated the situation but, as the case of Maryland well illustrates, was not the primary cause for either shifting cultivation or the South?s difficulties in triggering a self-sustaining process of industrial development. While only a relatively small number of enlightened southerners fully understood the real nature of the problem with southern agriculture, most believed that it could be solved through a vast reform program. However, because of the complexity and scope of the actions needed, this could only be pursued through the support of state governments. Investment was needed in the fields of research and education, and in the funding of local agricultural societies that might introduce farmers to a correct use of fertilizers and to the advantages of crop rotation. Steps forward were made during the last few antebellum decades, but the results obtained did not match the efforts lavished by agricultural reformers. Majewski rightly ascribes those meager results to the relatively low short-term return that the southern state governments anticipated from massive investment in agriculture as opposed to more ?visible? undertakings, such as railroad building, in the face of both intrastate and interstate rivalries.

The connection Majewski identifies between agricultural reformism, pleas for state intervention in the economy, and secessionism is crucial to his thesis that social conservatism and economic development coexisted in the secessionists? vision of an independent southern nation. Political independence, in fact, was only an empty word if not accompanied by certain economic requisites — a manufacturing base to free themselves from northern dependence, and the establishment of direct trade links with Europe. Toward the achievement of these goals, the modernization of agriculture was central. As Majewski effectively contends, the strong focus secessionists placed on agriculture has been wrongly understood as revealing their adhesion to a traditional, outmoded vision of the South?s future. Quite the contrary, it conveyed their awareness that the quest for southern political independence implied economic diversification, including industrialization. In their envisioning of an independent southern Confederacy, secessionists were, however, caught in the straits of a number of more or less apparent inconsistencies. For example, they criticized the activist government and the gospel of modernization embraced by northerners while at the same time placing these very assumptions at the core of their southern nationalism.

As Majewski points out, the advocacy of state-promoted economic policies dated back to the antebellum era. The example of railroads is revealing in this regard. Heavy spending in railroad construction by the southern state governments — and eminently by those of Virginia and South Carolina — stemmed from the belief that this sort of intervention could make up for the structural problems impairing a ?natural? development of the South?s economy. Due to the sparseness and scantiness of the population, the building of railroads could not be sustained — as in the North — by local communities; but if the lines were built thanks to massive public investment, their beneficial effects would reverberate on the economy as a whole, stimulating the growth of commerce and manufacturing, opening new prospects for international trade, and uniting the several parts of the South. Such a course of action, however, ?produced a boom in railroad construction without revolutionizing the southern economy,? thus failing ?to correct the region?s fundamental economic problems? (p. 104).

In their desire to reconcile the creation of a modern economy with the protection of slavery, secessionists made gross mistakes in evaluation. Their quite simplistic understanding of economic interest, for example, led them to believe that the Confederacy would have won both international and internal support, even from the slaves themselves. Reality would prove completely different. This is not, however, the only paradox that Majewski identifies in his analysis of the political economy embraced by secessionists in their envisioning of the future of an independent southern nation, vis-?-vis the region?s economic and social conditions. Advocacy of free trade had traditionally been one of the mainstays of southern economic thought within the national fold. However, an independent South required both a free trade international policy and an albeit moderate protectionist one, to shield its infant industry from northern and foreign competition. Confederate nationalism was therefore based on mixed ideas of economic liberalism and state regulation. Ultimately, the vast array of either domestic and international issues the Confederate government had to cope with often required measures of opposite sign, resulting in the adoption of contradictory and therefore largely ineffective policies that contributed to the collapse of the Confederate nation.

Secessionists emerge from the pages of Modernizing a Slave Economy in a completely new light as opposed to previous interpretations: modern men with a vision, rather than backward-looking traditionalists. Throughout the book, slavery comes forward as the core problem in determining the ambivalence and incongruities steeped in southern economic thought. Majewski?s work demonstrates, once and for all, that the defense of slavery was not deemed incompatible with the quest for economic modernity by even the most conservative members of the southern elites. More generally, it reiterates the need to definitely abandon rigid, dichotomous understandings of the economic, cultural, and political assumptions underlying unionism and secessionism, respectively. Modernizing a Slave Economy confirms that love for the Union and secessionism; unionism and the defense of slavery; secessionism and the envisioning of an economically modern South could and did coexist in the minds of antebellum and Civil War white southerners.?

This book is absolutely original in its placing the consequences of shifting cultivation at the basis of the South?s failure to achieve higher standards of economic modernization in the late antebellum decades. Through this example, and in contrast with previous interpretations, it effectively downplays the pre-eminence of the cultural factor in accounting for the South?s relative failure in catching up with the North in terms of industrial development before the Civil War.[2] Culture did matter, of course, but its impact was most revealed by the inconsistencies immanent in southern thought, which concurred to define the traits of a southern paradox still difficult to grasp in its complexity and entirety. By suggesting a different kind of continuity between antebellum and Civil War southern political economy as compared with traditional interpretations, John Majewski opens important directions in historical investigation and sets a new standard in the scholarly debate. The scope and complexity of the subject indeed deserve further research toward an increasingly sophisticated understanding of southern history in the slave era.

1. In his monumental work on the South?s intellectual life, Michael O?Brien discusses the economic thought of southerners, illustrating its traits of ambivalence and modernity as well. He shows that not even the most conservative among them failed to acknowledge that the encouragement of manufacturing was central to the South?s future. Michael O?Brien, Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860, 2 vols. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).? I have also argued for a fundamental convergence of opinion among southern political economists and political thinkers on the subject of manufacturing. Susanna Delfino, La fabbrica dei sogni: dilemmi economici nel sud degli Stati Uniti tra l?et? della Rivoluzione e la crisi di met? Ottocento (Milano: Selene Edizioni, 2008).

2. The argument that the cultural factor was the main constraint to southern industrial development is set forth by Fred Bateman and Thomas Weiss, A Deplorable Scarcity: The Failure of Industrialization in the Slave Economy (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1981).

Susanna Delfino is the author of La fabbrica dei sogni: dilemmi economici nel sud degli Stati Uniti tra l?et? della Rivoluzione e la crisi di met? Ottocento (Milano: Selene Edizioni, 2008).

Copyright (c) 2011 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 2011). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economic Planning and Policy
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century