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Bankrupt in America: A History of Debtors, Their Creditors and the Law in the Twentieth Century

Author(s):Hansen, Mary Eschelbach
Hansen, Bradley A.
Reviewer(s):Rodgers, Mary Tone

Published by EH.Net (June 2020)

Mary Eschelbach Hansen and Bradley A. Hansen, Bankrupt in America: A History of Debtors, Their Creditors and the Law in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. vii + 222 pp. $55 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-226-67956-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Mary Tone Rodgers, Center for Finance and Risk Management, State University of New York at Oswego

 

As this review is being written and as we progress from the initial shock of the COVID-19 pandemic to a phase in which personal bankruptcy filings have begun to soar, it is opportune that Bankrupt in America has been released. It provides a century-long perspective from which to understand present day events and it explains why bankruptcy rates rise and fall over time.

The authors succeed at justifying their argument that the primary driver of American consumer bankruptcy rate over the past century has been the increased supply of consumer credit by mustering two complementary approaches to economic research, statistical and documentary. They convincingly explain spurts and lulls in the bankruptcy rate as functions of the supply of consumer credit and other economic conditions, that have been amplified by changes in the law or in states’ collection methods through their identification of interactive regression variables with multiplicative effects, rather than relying on standard regression variables with only additive effects. With that groundbreaking result, Mary Hansen and Bradley Hansen reconcile the decades-long puzzle surrounding the findings of two opposing camps of bankruptcy researchers, one group finding explanations from credit supply and economic variables contrasted with the other group finding explanations from variables related to laws and collection methods. Without Hansen and Hansen’s work, the contradiction in findings between the two groups might not have been resolved.

Before turning to other important contributions this book makes, a review of the chapter content and of the data sources is in order. After an Introductory chapter, the next five are structured as a chronology of bankruptcy rates and laws from 1898 to 2005, bookended by the introduction of the 1898 Act to Establish a Uniform System of Bankruptcy, the first enduring federal bankruptcy law, and by the more recent 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA). A seventh chapter offers Conclusions and an Epilogue. Each chapter starts with a concise, vividly written vignette about a consumer making the choice to use the bankruptcy law. Then an analysis follows of how the bankruptcy rate in the time period covered by the chapter was affected by social, economic and legal variables. Finally, each chapter ends with a detailed appendix of the statistical analysis of those three types of variables. Hansen and Hansen uncover four facts about bankruptcy rates: it was once rare, but now it is common; most early users of bankruptcy law were businesses, but now are consumers; the bankruptcy rate varies dramatically between places; and growth in bankruptcy has not been steady.

Extensive primary and secondary data sources are used to cover over one hundred years of history, but the most striking data sets are the ones created by the authors with their teams of assistants and co-authors: 1) United States District Court Boundary Shapefiles (1900-2000) and 2) United States Bankruptcy Statistics by District, 1899-2007. The data to construct the bankruptcy rate are sourced from Department of Justice and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and from population count data. The data about individual bankruptcy cases are taken from a sample of personal bankruptcies in Missouri (1898-1945 from the Eastern and Western Districts of Federal Court of Missouri) and in Maryland (1940-2000 from the Maryland District Court at Baltimore). The Missouri and Maryland data are part of an effort by the authors to construct a nationally representative sample of case files for the entire twentieth century. Both the digitized data and the authors’ codebooks are archived at the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research.

By framing the analysis over such a long span of history, the authors make contributions to scholarship that authors who study a shorter time span cannot make. Without such a long time span, the authors could not confidently conclude that path-dependency provides the best explanation for the development of bankruptcy in America. They note the non-economic factors that helped shape the law at critical junctures, specifically the roles played by Jay Torrey in the 1890’s, Walter Chandler in the 1930’s and Leonor Sullivan in the 1960’s. Previous law and how people were using it influenced the people who made changes to the law, meaning a path-dependent process was underway. Researchers with a shorter time frame of investigation could miss the outsized influence played by a few individuals who changed the path of bankruptcy law.

A second benefit of framing the analysis over such a long period of time is that the authors observe that the competing social narratives around bankruptcy have remained essentially the same for a century, pitting the pro-creditor story of how discharge provisions in bankruptcy law encourage opportunistic consumer default against the pro-debtor story of how predatory lenders harshly garnish defaulting consumers’ wages. The authors’ insight is that the alternating success of each narrative lies in the belief system of the audience to whom it has been pitched, not in an evolution of the narratives: when Republicans held power, the pro-creditor narrative succeeded in changing the law (the Original Act of 1898), but when Democrats held power, the pro-debtor narrative won the day (Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978).

The economic historian will likely find the explication and application of the complementary methods of cliometric analysis and new institutional analysis refreshing in Chapter One. While the authors argue that path dependency explains the course of much institutional change in the history of bankruptcy, they go a step further and identify the precise source of path dependence by complementary cliometric analysis: bankruptcy rates are most thoroughly explained when overlays of the effects of institutional change amplify the underlying effect of increases in the supply of credit.

My favorite line of the book, “[this is] how we do history,” (p. 13), may also resonate with other economic and financial historians. When Hansen and Hansen acknowledge they have their own way of “doing history,” they imply that there is more than one way of doing it! As researchers, we each find the blend of research methods best suited to address each research question, knowing the blend can evolve over time.

As COVID-19 alters economic and financial conditions, this book prepares us to anticipate emergence of the century-old tug-of-war between the pro-creditor and pro-lender narratives. The authors alert us that it may be the predisposition of the politicians in power to believe one of the narratives that could carry the day regarding changes to the bankruptcy laws related to COVID-19, should any be made.

 

Mary Tone Rodgers, D.PS, CFA, is the Marcia Belmar Willock Professor of Finance and Director of the Gordon Lenz Center for Finance and Risk Management at the State University of New York at Oswego. She has published several articles in financial history, including “Post-financial Crisis Changes in Financial System Structure: An Examination of the JP Morgan & Co. Syndicates after the 1907 Panic” (with James E. Payne) in Review of Financial Economics (2020). She continues to research J. Pierpont Morgan’s role as lender of last resort in the pre-Federal Reserve period with Jon R. Moen.

Copyright (c) 2020 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 (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (June 2020). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Enterprising America: Businesses, Banks, and Credit Markets in Historical Perspective

Editor(s):Collins, William J.
Margo, Robert A.
Reviewer(s):Craig, Lee A.

Published by EH.Net (May 2018)

William J. Collins and Robert A. Margo, editors, Enterprising America: Businesses, Banks, and Credit Markets in Historical Perspective. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. viii + 287 pp. $110 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-226-26162-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Lee A. Craig, Department of Economics, North Carolina State University.

 
This volume of essays, the product of a well-deserved conference celebrating the career of Jeremy Atack, covers a lot ground in nineteenth-century U.S. economic history. I learned something useful from every chapter, and, importantly, a few of them led me to unlearn some things I knew that, it turns out, are incorrect. The volume would be a good companion (for good students) in an upper-level undergraduate course.

The volume is organized into three sections. Following the editors’ introduction, the first section is entitled “Business Organization and Internal Governance.” In the first chapter, Naomi Lamoreaux reviews the legislative history of incorporation in Pennsylvania. She documents a messy process that produced the state’s general incorporation laws, which, frequently, were not all that general. The legislative process exposed tradeoffs between efficiency and other objectives. Running controlled experiments to test the merits of alternative arrangements was never a possibility, and efficiency was not necessarily the primary objective of the key players. In the big picture, this highly-micro story matters, because when economists analyze long-run growth rates across countries, they often find that common-law countries outperform civil-code countries. The complexity of Lamoreaux’s tale of common-law Pennsylvania suggests that we should not be too sanguine about such results. A variable, or two, might be missing from the relevant equations.

Since the seminal work of Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means, the advent of the modern corporate enterprise has been dated from “the turn of the twentieth century” (p. 8 and p. 73). Eric Hilt pushes that date back a bit in the volume’s second chapter. Employing a data set that matches the 1875 Massachusetts’ manufacturing census with firm-level data on ownership, he reveals and analyzes some of the key characteristics of the state’s corporations. He finds that rates of incorporation were high in industries in which average firm size was large. He also finds that, controlling for size, firms with large investments in fixed assets, such as steam engines, and those more likely to employ unskilled labor displayed higher rates of incorporation. In addition, the largest textile firms were “widely held” even by today’s standards, and, again controlling for size, the steam/unskilled labor combination was associated with more concentrated ownership. Overall, Hilt concludes that, at least in Massachusetts, “modern” corporate enterprises could be found by 1875.

In the third chapter, Howard Bodenhorn and Eugene White report on the evolution of bank boards in New York between 1840 and 1950. They focus on two key features: Timing the separation of ownership and control (essentially, Hilts’s question), and the trend in the number of directors on bank boards. With respect to the first question, like Hilt, they find that the “fraction of shares held by directors was smaller in larger banks” (p. 109), but they also find that, in the nineteenth century, bank directors owned, by any reasonable standard, a lot of stock in the banks they directed. As for average board size, they find that, over time, boards got smaller. The authors speculate that this trend might have been a response to regulatory changes, or changes in the business of banking, or both.

The second section of the volume is entitled “Bank Behavior and Credit Markets.” The first chapter in this section, by Jeremy Atack, Matthew Jaremski, and Peter Rousseau (henceforth AJR), documents and analyzes the positive correlation between local railroad access and local bank performance in the antebellum United States. AJR argue that access to a railroad may have contributed to a bank’s success in at least three ways: (1) Railroads enhanced overall economic activity by increasing bank liquidity and the returns on bank loans. (2) Railroad access increased the demand for a bank’s notes, while decreasing the discount on those notes. (3) The railroad may have created an inverted version of the “lemons problem;” specifically, the outside scrutiny that came with railroad access led to the self-selection of good bankers locating near a railroad. AJR’s econometric results also suggest that banks in existence before the railroad came to town improved their behavior following its arrival. Either way, the lemons, i.e. the wildcat banks, would have been more likely to locate in the hinterlands.

In the other chapter in this section, Mary Eschelbach Hansen sheds new light on an old topic: Bankruptcies during the Great Depression. Using a dataset that contains information on thousands of debts associated with 789 bankruptcies in Mississippi, between 1929 and 1936, Hansen analyzes the sources of credit employed by both consumers and businesses. She notes that much of the previous work on credit networks has “been biased toward banks and manufacturers” (pp. 194-95). She finds that, while the majority of the cases in her sample involved businesses rather than consumers, the modal reported type of business was “merchant,” and the majority of debts (roughly 60 percent) were owed to commercial rather than financial lenders. Loans for inventory seem to have played a particularly important role in the Mississippi economy.

The third, and final, section of the volume contains two chapters and is entitled “Scale Economies in Nineteenth-Century Production.” The first, by Robert Margo, addresses an issue familiar to anyone who has handled firm-level data from the era: How does one address the “entrepreneurial labor input?” In short the problem is that by omitting the labor of the owner-operator-entrepreneur, which census of manufacturing data tend to do, the denominator in output-per-worker measures is too small and thus productivity estimates are biased upwards. Space constraints prohibit a detailed explanation of Margo’s analysis, but the bottom line is that the findings of his chapter “can be seen as half empty (negative) and half full (positive)” (p. 240). On the negative side, the U.S. Census of Manufacturing data are flawed, and, without arcane adjustments, they probably cannot answer some of the key questions economic historians typically ask of them. On the positive side, the “rise of big business” narrative so common to nineteenth-century U.S. economic history misses a major point: Small firms were arguably quite productive, and there’s an important story to be told about that phenomenon.

The final chapter of this section, and the volume, is by Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode. They address a specific question: Is it accurate to describe antebellum cotton plantations as “factories in the field?” To address this question, the authors employ several large data sets from the manufacturing censuses and the censuses of agriculture, for both northern and southern farms, to compare the operations of firms and farms from the era. After a detailed analysis of the relevant economic concepts, such as scale of operation and capital-labor ratios, Olmstead and Rhode conclude that the metaphor fits in some areas (e.g. professional managers overseeing large workforces), but, overall, the expression “factories in the field” is probably best thought of as a rhetorical device used by earlier authors to connote a degree of “modernity and efficiency” (p. 272) that obscures more about U.S. slave agriculture than it reveals.

 
Lee A. Craig is Alumni Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Economics at North Carolina State University. His most recent work in economic history is “The Impact of Mechanical Refrigeration on Market Integration: The U.S. Egg Market, 1890-1911,” with Matthew T. Holt, in Explorations in Economic History.

Copyright (c) 2018 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 (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (May 2018). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Business History
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

The History of Bankruptcy: Economic, Social and Cultural Implications in Early Modern Europe

Editor(s):Safley, Thomas Max
Reviewer(s):Hansen, Bradley A.

Published by EH.Net (June 2014)

Thomas Max Safley, editor, The History of Bankruptcy: Economic, Social and Cultural Implications in Early Modern Europe. New York: Routledge, 2013. xi + 250 pp. $130 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-68730-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Bradley A. Hansen, Department of Economics, University of Mary Washington.

The papers in this volume demonstrate that bankruptcy provides an avenue to explore cultural, as well as economic, dimensions of early modern Europe. The book makes available the work of several scholars that had not been previously available in English. The papers are grouped into three categories: social context, business practice, and institutional change. The categorization is a largely matter of emphasis since most of the papers contain information about each of these areas. In general, the authors take two different approaches to bankruptcy. The first approach uses evidence from bankruptcy cases to provide a window into business practices in early modern Europe. The second approach explores how the methods of resolving bankruptcy cases evolved over time.

Many of the papers in the book use the failures of particular merchants to examine business practices, while others examine large numbers of failures. Mark Häberlein examines the failure of the Sulzer brothers in late sixteenth century Augsburg, with particular emphasis on the ways in which bankruptcy was connected to issues of honor, kinship and gender. He notes, for instance, that bankrupt merchants “had to take their seats among the women during weddings and funerals.” Similar to Haberlein, Mina Ishizu uses the records from the failure of John Leigh, to examine British finance of Atlantic trade, and Dana Stefanova examines how one Viennese bank dealt with the failures of two businesses. Several papers examine the failures of public, or at least semi-public, firms. Paulo Avallone examines public banks in Naples, Mauro Carboni and Massimo Fornasari examine the Monte de pieta in Bologna, and Andre Wakefield examines the failure of Celle’s Zuchthaus.  Thomas Brennan examines court records of over 750 defaults in Champagne between 1769 and 1772, mapping the network of debtors and creditors to explore the development of markets in the region. Similarly, Natacha Coquery examines the bankruptcy records of 120 Parisian shopkeepers during the eighteenth century, and Klas Nyberg and Häkan Jakobsson use merchant bankruptcy cases to reconstruct financial networks in eighteenth century Stockholm.

The remaining papers examine the evolution of institutions, both formal and informal, for dealing with bankruptcy. Paul Fischer compares German legal texts from 1447 and 1749 to document changes in bankruptcy law in the early modern period, noting the decreased emphasis on “shame and infamy” and increased emphasis on efficient administration.  John MacLeod provides a detailed review of changes in laws governing fraudulent transfers by debtors in seventeenth century Scotland. Dave De ruysscher chronicles the changes in the ways that Antwerp merchants dealt with bankruptcy between 1490 and 1540; he finds that Antwerp was an early mover in the shift away from a focus on punishing debtors toward a focus on efficient handling of insolvency. Jerome Sgard provides a comparative analysis of bankruptcy and debt renegotiation in France and England. He finds that, although English bankruptcy law, unlike French bankruptcy law, did not provide mechanisms for renegotiation, English merchants used other legal procedures to facilitate private renegotiation.

The wide variety of the approaches, in terms of geography, time period, and central questions, is both the strength and the weakness of the book. Anyone interested in any aspect of bankruptcy, business practices, institutional change or early modern Europe will be able to find one or more papers they should read. On the other hand, even the scholar most interested in bankruptcy in early modern Europe may not be interested in every chapter.  The papers on the Italian banks and the German Zuchthaus, for instance, are in many ways more concerned with issues of public finance and administration than with business insolvency.

A wide variety of perspectives are represented in the book. Methodologically, however, the approach is fairly uniform.  There is some quantification, but explicit economic theory and statistical analysis are not employed. The methods employed are appropriate for the questions that are asked, but the book raises questions that will probably require more explicit use of theory and statistical analysis. To what extent were the credit networks of bankrupt firms representative of all firms? What consequences did differences in institutions, from one country to another or over time, have for economic performance? To what extent, were different institutional arrangements associated with different rates of business formation, default, or economic growth?

Although Sgard’s paper is the only one that is explicitly comparative, there are several recurring themes throughout the essays. Credit transactions were an essential part of commercial life. Merchants were embedded in dense networks of credit, in which they typically acted as both borrowers and lenders. Credit transactions and insolvency were not just economic issues, narrowly construed, but involved issues of kinship, religion, honor and gender. Changing economic conditions led to changes in the institutions, both public and private, that governed the resolution of insolvency.  In general, the institutions that governed the resolution of insolvency became less focused on the punishment and more focused on efficiency, especially resolving collective action problems among creditors. This book should provide an essential starting point for the comparative historical analysis of one of the central features of capitalism. In addition, it suggests the rich sources that the records of economic failure can provide for historians to answer a wide array of questions.

Bradley A. Hansen is the author (with Mary Eschelbach Hansen) of “Crisis and Bankruptcy: The Mediating Role of State Law, 1922-1932,” Journal of Economic History (2012); “Religion, Social Capital and Business Bankruptcy in the United States, 1921-1932,” Business History (2008), and “The Role of Path Dependence in the Development of U.S. Bankruptcy Law, 1880-1938,” Journal of Institutional Economics (2007).

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

Subject(s):Business History
Markets and Institutions
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century

Reviewers

A’Hearn, Brian
Aaronson, Susan Ariel
Abrahamson, Eric John
Acs, Zoltan J.
Adams, John
Adams, Sean Patrick
Adamson, Michael R.
Adkins, Brian
Aerts, Erik
Afton, Bethanie
Agnello, Richard
Ahiakpor, James C.W.
Aimaq, Jasmine
Alborn, Timothy
Aldrich, Mark
Alexander, Nicholas
Allen, Michael
Allen, Samuel
Allgoewer, Elisabeth
Alston, Julian M.
Alston, Lee J.
Altman, Morris
Amato, Anthony J.
Amsden, Alice
Andersson, Lars Fredrik
Andrews, David
Andrews, David M.
Ankli, Robert
Armstrong, Lawrin
Atack, Jeremy
Austen, Ralph A.
Backhouse, Roger E.
Baida, Peter
Bailey, Martha J.
Bakker, Gerben
Balabkins, Nicholas W.
Ball, Alan
Bannerman, Gordon
Baofu, Peter
Baranoff, Dalit
Barber, William J.
Barbezat, Daniel
Barnes, Bernadine
Barnett, Vincent
Baskes, Jeremy
Bateman, Bradley W.
Baten, Joerg
Bates, Toby G.
Battilossi, Stefano
Baumol, William
Baylor, Christopher A.
Bean, Jonathan J.
Beatty, Edward
Beaulier, Scott A.
Beck, Bill
Becker, William H.
Beechert, Edward D.
Beito, David T.
Benjamin, Daniel K.
Benneworth, Paul
Berdell, John
Berkowitz, Edward
Bernstein, David
Bessen, James
Black, Lawrence
Blackford, Mansel G.
Blobaum, Robert E.
Blomberg, S. Brock
Boal, William
Bodenhorn, Howard
Boerner, Lars M.
Boettke, Peter J.
Bogart, Dan
Bogue, Alan G.
Bogue, Allan G.
Boianovsky, Mauro
Boko, Sylvain H.
Boland, Lawrence
Booth, Alan
Booth, Anne
Botticini, Maristella
Boumans, Marcel
Bowden, Susan
Boyce, Gordon
Boyd, Lawrence W.
Boyd, Lawrence W.,Jr.
Boyer, George R.
Boylan, Anne M.
Brewer, Anthony
Brezis, Elise S.
Briggs, Vernon M.,Jr.
Brinkley, Garland
Broadberry, Stephen
Broadberry, Stephen N.
Brown, Ian
Brown, John C.
Brown, John Howard
Brown, John K.
Brown, Jonathan
Brownlee, W. Elliot
Brownlow, Graham
Bruce, Kyle
Bruni, Luigino
Brush, Pippa
Bruton, Henry J.
Bucheli, Marcelo
Bud-Frierman, Lisa
Bugos, Glenn
Bun, Kwan Man
Burdekin, Richard C. K.
Burdekin, Richard C.K.
Bures, Allen L.
Burg, Robert W.
Burhop, Carsten
Burnard, Trevor
Burnette, Joyce
Burt, Roger
Butler, John Sibley
Buxton, Ian
Cain, Louis P.
Cain, Peter J.
Caldari, Katia
Calder, Lendol G.
Caldwell, Bruce
Calomiris, Charles W.
Capie, Forrest
Carden, Art
Carlson, Leonard
Carlson, Paul
Carlton, David L.
Carreras, Albert
Carter, Susan B.
Carvajal, Paul
Castaneda, Christopher J.
Caunce, Stephen
Ceron-Anaya, Hugo
Cerón-Anaya, Hugo
Cha, Myung Soo
Chabot, Benjamin
Chapra, M. Umer
Chaudhuri, K. N.
Childs, William R.
Chiswick, Barry R.
Chiswick, Carmel U.
Churella, Albert J.
Clapson, Mark
Clark, Gregory
Clingingsmith, David
Coates, David
Cochran, David
Codignola, Luca
Coelho, Philip R. P.
Coelho, Philip R.P.
Cohen, Avi J.
Cohen, Benjamin J.
Cohn, Raymond L.
Colli, Andrea
Collins, Robert
Collins, William J.
Cosgel, Metin
Costa, Dora L.
Couch, Jim
Couch, Jim F.
Court, Russell Ives
Cowen, David J.
Crafts, Nick
Craig, Lee A.
Crites, Byron
Crothers, A. Glenn
Croxson, Bronwyn
Cruz, Laura
Cuff, Robert
Cuff, Timothy
Cárdenas, Enrique
Dailey, Maceo
Dalrymple, Scott
Danbom, David
Danbom, David B.
Danforth, Susan
Daniel, Clete
Davies, R. W.
Davis, George K.
Davis, John B.
Davis, Joseph H.
Davis, Lance
Dawson, John W.
Dawson, Virginia P.
De Long, J. Bradford
DeGennaro, Ramon P.
DePolt, Richard
Deutscht, Tracey
Dewey, Peter
Diamond, Arthur M. ,Jr.
Diamond, Arthur M.,Jr.
Dicke, Tom
Dighe, Ranjit S.
Dimand, Robert W.
Dinan, John
Dintenfass, Michael
Doetsch, Ethan
Dormois, Jean-Pierre
Doti, Lynne Pierson
Drabble, John
Drelichman, Mauricio
Drukker, J.W.
Duarte, Pedro Garcia
Dubofsky, Melvyn
Dudley, Leonard
Duggan, Ed
Dunn, James A.,Jr.
Dunn-Haley, Karen
Dupont, Brandon
Dwyer, Gerald P.,Jr.
Dye, Alan
Eakin, Marshall C.
Easterlin, Richard A.
Eckes, Alfred E.
Edelstein, Michael
Ekelund, Robert B.,Jr.
Eloranta, Jari
Eltis, David
Emery, George
Emery, J. C. Herbert
Emmett, Ross B.
Endres, A.M.
Engen, Darel
Engen, Darel Tai
Engerman, Stanley
Engerman, Stanley L.
Faria, João Ricardo
Fauri, Francesca
Fayazmanesh, Sasan
Fear, Jeffrey
Federico, Giovanni
Feldenkirchen, Wilfried
Fender, Ann Harper
Ferderer, J. Peter
Ferderer, Pete
Ferguson, Thomas
Ferrarini, Tawni Hunt
Field, Alex
Field, Alexander J.
Fischbaum, Marvin
Fishback, Price
Fishback, Price V.
Fishlow, Albert
Flaherty, Jane
Flandreau, Marc
Flesher, Dale L.
Floor, Willem
Flynn, David T.
Fohlin, Caroline
Fones-Wolf, Elizabeth
Fones-Wolf, Ken
Foreman-Peck, James
Forget, Evelyn L.
Forster, Ben
Foster, Mark S.
Fox, Jon
Francois, Marie
Frank, Mark W.
Frankl, Jennifer
Franko, Patrice
Frantz, Roger
Freedman, Craig
Frey, Donald
Frey, Donald E.
Friedman, Gerald
Frost, Marcia J.
Fuller, Elaine
Gabel, David
Galambos, Louis
Galbi, Douglas
Galenson, David W.
Ganster, Paul
Gardner, Bruce
Garrison, Roger W.
Gekas, Sakis
Gemery, Henry A.
Gerber, James
Gerber, Larry G.
Gerriets, Marilyn
Giedeman, Daniel
Gillingham, John
Gilmartin, David
Giocoli, Nicola
Giraldez, Arturo
Gispen, Kees
Glasner, David
Godley, Andrew
Godley, Andrew C.
Goffe, Bill
Goldfarb, Brent
Goldin, Claudia
Goldin, Milton
Goldstone, Jack A.
Goodhart, C.A.E.
Goodwin, Craufurd
Gordon, Colin
Gordon, Daniel V.
Gorman, Hugh
Gottschang, Thomas R.
Grafe, Regina
Grant, H. Roger
Grant, Randy R.
Grantham, George
Gratton, Brian
Graves, Michael W.
Gray, Jane
Greasley, David
Green, David R.
Green, Jennifer R.
Gregg, Matthew T.
Gregg, Samuel
Gregory, Paul R.
Gregory, Timothy E.
Greif, Avner
Griffiths, David
Gross, Nachum
Grubb, Farley
Grytten, Ola Honningdal
Gudmestad, Robert
Guinnane, Timothy W.
Gunderson, Gerald
Gómez Galvarriato, Aurora
Haar, Laura
Haefeli, Evan
Haigh, Thomas
Halcoussis, Dennis
Hall, Joshua C.
Hall, Thomas E.
Hamilton, Gillian
Hammond, Claire
Hammond, J. Daniel
Hamouda, O.F.
Handberg, Roger
Hanes, Christopher
Hanley, Anne
Hansen, Bradley A.
Hansen, Mary Eschelbach
Hanson, John R.
Hanson, John R.,II
Harley, Knick
Harpham, Edward J.
Harris, Bernard
Harris, J. William
Harrison, Mark
Harvey, Gordon E.
Hatton, Tim
Hatton, Timothy J.
Haupert, Michael
Haupert, Michael J.
Haupert, Mike
Hausman, William J.
Hautcoeur, Pierre-Cyrille
Hawley, Ellis W.
Hayes, M. G.
Hayes, Patrick J.
Hayward, Oliver
Heckelman, Jac
Heinicke, Craig
Hejeebu, Santhi
Helliwell, John F.
Hemenway, Robin L. E.
Heston, Alan
Hewett, Roger
Higgins, David
Higgs, Robert
Hill, Peter J.
Hinde, Andrew
Hinz, Christienne L.
Hirschman, Charles
Hodgson, Geoffrey M.
Hoeveler, J. David
Hoffman, Philip T.
Hogendorn, Jan
Hohenberg, Paul M.
Hollander, Samuel
Honda, Gail
Honeyman, Katrina
Horesh, Niv
Horn, Gerd-Rainer
Hornstein, Jeffrey M.
Horowitz, David A.
Horowitz, Joel
Horwitz, Steven
Howard, Vicki
Howlett, Peter
Huberman, Michael
Hudspeth, Harvey G.
Hueckel, Glenn
Huffman, Joseph P.
Hughes, Lindsey
Hughes, Michael
Huijzendveld, Frans D.
Hultén, Staffan
Hummel, Jeffrey Rogers
Humphries, Jane
Huneke, William
Hussey, David
Hutchinson, William
Hutchinson, William K.
Inwood, Kris
Irons, Janet
Irwin, Douglas
Irwin, Douglas A.
Irwin, James R.
Jacobsen, Joyce P.
Jacoby, Daniel
Jaffe, James
Jaffe, James A.
James, Hamish
James, Harold
James, John A.
Jayadev, Arjun
Jenkins, Andrew
Jeremy, David
Jimerson, Randall C.
John, Richard R.
Johnsen, D. Bruce
Johnson, D. Gale
Johnson, Noel D.
Johnson, Ryan
Jones, Eric
Jones, Geoffrey
Jones, J. Steven
Jones, Laird
Jones, Norman
Jongman, Willem M.
Jonung, Lars
Jordan, Erin
Jovanovic, Franck
Kaiser, Brooks A.
Kamphoefner, Walter D.
Kanazawa, Mark
Karmel, James
Kasper, Sherry Davis
Kates, Steven
Kaukiainen, Yrjö
Kay, Alison C.
Keech, William
Keech, William R.
Keefer, Philip
Keehn, Richard H.
Keeling, Drew
Keen, Steve
Kenen, Peter B.
Kennedy, Michael V.
Kenzer, Robert C.
Kerr, K. Austin
Khan, B. Zorina
Khula, Bruce A.
Kiefer, Kay
Kiesling, Lynne
Kim, Sukkoo
Kimura, Mitsuhiko
Kindleberger, Charles P.
King, Julia A.
King, Steve
Kirby, Maurice
Kitsikopoulos, Harry
Kleer, Richard A.
Klemann, Hein A.M.
Knaap, Gerrit
Knodell, Jane
Knoedler, Janet T.
Kolenda, Stephen A.
Kontorovich, Vladimir
Koot, Christian J.
Kostal, Rande W.
Kraft, Jeff
Kragh, Martin
Kristjanson-Gural, David
Kulikoff, Allan
Kurtz, Royce
Kuziemko, Ilyana
Kwan, Man Bun
Köll, Elisabeth
La Croix, Sumner
Lai, Cheng-chung
Laird, Pamela W.
Lal, Deepak
Landes, David S.
Landry, Michael
Langdon, John
Langlois, Richard N.
Larson, Bruce
Laurent, Jerome K.
Law, Marc
Lawlor, Michael S.
Lazarev, Valery
Lazarev, Valéry
Lee, Chulhee
Lee, Ming-Hsuan
Leeson, Peter T.
Leonard, Carol
Lester, Richard
Levenstein, Margaret
Levenstein, Margaret C.
Levy, Barry
Levy, David M.
Lewis, Frank D.
Libecap, Gary
Libecap, Gary D.
Licht, Walter
Lichtenstein, Nelson
Liebowitz, Jonathan
Liebowitz, Jonathan J.
Liggio, Leonard P.
Lin, Rachel Chernos
Lindert, Peter H.
Lindo-Fuentes, Héctor
Lindstrom, Diane
Lipartito, Kenneth
Logan, Trevon D.
Lufrano, Richard
Lydon, Ghislaine
Lyons, Thomas
Ma, Debin
MacDonald, John A.
MacKinnon, Mary
MacLeod, Christine
Macesich, George
Madison, James H.
Maharajh, Rasigan
Main, Gloria L.
Majewski, John
Mak, James
Makasheva, Natalia A.
Makinen, Gail
Malone, Laurence J.
Maloney, Thomas N.
Mancall, Peter C.
Mandell, Nikki
Mann, Ralph
Manning, Jason
Margo, Robert A.
Marichal, Carlos
Marr, Bill
Marr, William
Martínez Fritscher, André
Mason, David L.
Mason, Joseph R.
Masschaele, James
Matthews, Jeffrey J.
Maurer, Noel
Mayhew, Anne
Mazzoleni, Roberto
McAvoy, Michael R.
McCalla, Douglas
McCannon, Bryan C.
McCants, Anne E. C.
McCants, Anne E.C.
McClenahan, William M.
McCraw, Thomas K.
McCusker, John J.
McElderry, Andrea
McGreevey, William
McGuire, Mary K.
McGuire, Robert A.
McInnis, Marvin
McNamara, Peter
McSwain, James B.
Meardon, Stephen
Meissner, Christopher M.
Melosi, Martin V.
Menard, Russell R.
Menes, Rebecca
Metcalf, Michael F.
Metzler, Mark
Meulen, Jacob Vander
Meyer, David R.
Michener, Ron
Michie, Ranald C.
Middleton, Roger
Mierzejewski, Alfred C.
Miller, Karen S.
Miller, Marla R.
Mills, Geofrey T.
Miranti, Paul
Mirás-Araujo, Jesús
Misevich, Philip
Mitch, David
Mitchener, Kris James
Miyajima, Hideaki
Moehling, Carolyn M.
Moeller, Astrid
Moen, Jon
Moen, Jon R.
Moggridge, D. E.
Mokyr, Joel
Mongiovi, Gary
Montes, Leonidas
Moreno, Paul
Morris, Clair E.
Morris, Cynthia Taft
Mosk, Carl
Moss, Laurence S.
Mullin, Debbie
Munger, Michael
Munro, John
Munro, John H.
Murphy, Sharon Ann
Murray, James M.
Murray, John
Murray, John E.
Musacchio, Aldo
Mushin, Jerry
Muzhani, Marin
Nafziger, Steven
Namorato, Michael V.
Nance, Susan
Naseem, Anwar
Nawiyanto, S.
Neal, Larry
Neill, Robin
Neill, Robin F.
Nelson, Daniel
Nelson, Heather
Nelson, Jon P.
Neufeld, John
Nickless, Pamela
Nickless, Pamela J.
Noell, Edd
Noll, Franklin
Nonnenmacher, Tomas
Nunn, Nathan
Nuvolari, Alessandro
Nye, John
Nye, John V.C.
O’Brien, Anthony P.
O’Brien, Anthony Patrick
O’Connor, Alice
O’Driscoll, Gerald P.,Jr.
O’Rourke, Kevin H.
Oakes, James
Oberly, James
Odell, Kerry
Ofek, Haim
Offer, Avner
Officer, Lawrence
Officer, Lawrence H.
Olds, Kelly
Olsen, Randall J.
Olson, Keith W.
Oosterlinck, Kim
Otoo, Sharon
Owen, Laura J.
Pack, Spencer J.
Paganelli, Maria Pia
Palairet, Michael
Pamuk, Sevket
Pamuk, Şevket
Pandya, Sachin S.
Parente, Stephen L.
Parker, Randall E.
Parkerson, Donald
Parthasarathi, Prasannan
Paterson, Donald G.
Patterson, Perry L.
Peart, Sandra
Peart, Sandra J.
Pemberton, Hugh
Perdue, Peter
Perelman, Michael
Perez, Stephen J.
Perkins, Edwin
Perkins, Edwin J.
Perlman, Mark
Perren, Richard
Persson, Karl Gunnar
Peskin, Lawrence A.
Phillips, Jim
Phillips, William H.
Pilbeam, Pam
Pincus, Jonathan
Poitras, Geoffrey
Pokorny, Michael
Pomeranz, Kenneth
Pomfret, Richard
Poole, Keith T.
Porter, Theodore M.
Prakash, Om
Pritchett, Jonathan
Pritchett, Jonathan B.
Pryor, Frederic L.
Quinn, Stephen
Ramirez, Carlos D.
Ramrattan, Lall B.
Ranieri, Ruggero
Ransom, Roger
Ransom, Roger L.
Rashid, Salim
Rauchway, Eric
Ray, Himanshu Prabha
Reagan, Patrick D.
Redenius, Scott A.
Redish, Angela
Redmount, Esther
Reed, Barbara Straus
Rei, Claudia
Reid, Joseph D.,Jr.
Reis, Jaime
Reiss, Julian
Rhode, Paul
Richards, Lawrence
Richardson, David
Richardson, Gary
Richardson, Mike
Riello, Giorgio
Rima, Ingrid H.
Ringrose, David
Ritschl, Albrecht
Robertson, Andrew
Robertson, Paul
Robertson, Paul L.
Rock, David
Rockoff, Hugh
Roehner, Bertrand M.
Rollings, Neil
Romani, Roberto
Ronning, Gerald
Ros, Jaime
Rose, Clare
Rosenbloom, Joshua L.
Rosenthal, Jean-Laurent
Rossi, John Paul
Rothenberg, Winifred B.
Rothenberg, Winifred Barr
Rousseau, Peter L.
Roy, Tirthankar
Rubin, Jared
Russell, Malcolm
Ryan, Paul
Ryden, David
Ryden, David B.
Saito, Osamu
Salvucci, Linda K.
Salvucci, Richard
Salvucci, Richard J.
Samuels, Warren J.
Sanderson, Michael
Santoni, Gary
Santoni, Gary J.
Santos, Joseph M.
Santos-Redondo, Manuel
Saunders, Dawn
Sautet, Frederic
Schachter, Hindy Lauer
Schaefer, Donald F.
Schaps, David M.
Schell, William ,Jr.
Schenk, Catherine
Schenk, Catherine R.
Scherner, Jonas
Schiffman, Daniel A.
Schiltz, Michael
Schneirov, Richard
Schramm, Jeff
Schuler, Kurt
Schulze, Max-Stephan
Schwab, Robert M.
Schwartz, Anna J.
Schweikart, Larry
Schwekendiek, Daniel
Scott, Carole E.
Scott, Peter
Scranton, Philip
Self, James K.
Selgin, George
Sent, Esther-Mirjam
Sexton, Terri A.
Shammas, Carole
Shanor, Charles A.
Sharpe, Pamela
Shearer, Ronald A.
Shepherd, James F.
Sheridan, George J.,Jr.
Sheriff, Abdul
Shiue, Carol H.
Short, Joanna
Shubik, Martin
Shughart, William F.,II
Shy, John
Sicilia, David B.
Sicotte, Richard
Sicsic, Pierre
Siklos, Pierre
Silva, Jonathan
Silver, Morris
Simons, Kenneth L.
Simpson, James
Singleton, John
Sivin, Nathan
Sjostrom, William
Skemp, Sheila L.
Smil, Vaclav
Smiley, Gene
Smith, Daniel Scott
Smith, Fred H.
Smith, John K.
Smitka, Michael
Snooks, Graeme D.
Snowden, Kenneth A.
Snyder, D. Jonathan
Snyder, Jonathan
Sokoloff, Kenneth L.
Sorensen, Todd
Southall, Roger
Spechler, Martin C.
Spoerer, Mark
Spolaore, Enrico
Squatriti, Paolo
St. Clair, David J.
Stabile, Donald
Stabile, Donald R.
Stallbaumer-Beishline, L. M.
Stanciu Haar, Laura N.
Stanger, Howard R.
Stead, David
Stebenne, David
Steckel, Richard H.
Steeples, Douglas
Steindl, Frank
Stewart, Larry
Stitt, James W.
Stobart, Jon
Subramanian, Lakshmi
Sullivan, Richard J.
Sullivan, Timothy E.
Sumida, Jon
Sundstrom, William A.
Surdam, David
Surdam, David G.
Sutherland, Heather
Suzuki, Masao
Swearingin, Steven D.
Sylla, Richard
Szenberg, Michael
Szostak, Rick
Tabak, Faruk
Tallman, Ellis W.
Tandy, David
Tarry, Scott E.
Tassava, Christopher
Tauger, Mark B.
Taylor, Alan M.
Taylor, Christiane Diehl
Taylor, Graham D.
Taylor, Ranald
TeBrake, William
Teagarden, Ernest
Tebeau, Mark
Teichgraeber, Richard F.
Temin, Peter
Thomasson, Melissa A.
Thomson, Ross
Thornton, Mark
Tiffany, Paul
Tilly, Richard
Tolliday, Steven
Tollison, Robert D.
Toma, Mark
Tomlinson, Jim
Toninelli, Pier Angelo
Toniolo, Gianni
Touwen, Jeroen
Traflet, Janice M.
Trescott, Paul B.
Triner, Gail D.
Troesken, Werner
Tulchin, Joseph S.
Tuttle, Carolyn
Tweedale, Geoffrey
Twomey, Michael J.
Tympas, Aristotle
Ugolini, Laura
Vedder, Richard
Vedder, Richard K.
Velde, François R.
Ventry, Dennis J.
Verdon, Nicola
Ville, Simon
Virts, Nancy
Vitell, Scott J.
Vivenza, Gloria
Volckart, Oliver
Voth, Hans-Joachim
Vries, Peer
Wahl, Jenny
Wahl, Jenny B.
Wale, Judith
Wallis, John J.
Wallis, John Joseph
Wallis, Patrick
Walsh, Lorena S.
Walsh, Margaret
Walvin, James
Wanamaker, Marianne
Ward, Marianne
Wardley, Peter
Waterman, A. M. C.
Weber, Cameron M.
Wegge, Simone A.
Weidenmier, Marc D.
Weiher, Kenneth
Weir, Robert E.
Weir, Ron
Weiss, Thomas
Wells, Wyatt
Wendt, Ian C.
West, Martin
Westerman, Thomas D.
Whaples, Robert
Whatley, Christopher A
Whatley, Warren C.
Wheatcroft, Stephen
Wheeler, Hoyt N.
Wheelock, David C.
White, Eugene N.
White, Michael V.
White, Nicholas J.
Whitehead, John C.
Whitman, T. Stephen
Wicker, Elmus
Wilkins, Mira
Will, Pierre-Étienne
Williamson, Samuel H.
Wilson, John
Wilson, John F.
Winpenny, Thomas
Winpenny, Thomas R.
Wishart, David M.
Woeste, Saker
Wolcott, Susan
Wolf, Nikolaus
Wolff, Robert
Wood, Geoffrey
Wood, John
Wood, John H.
Woodward, Ralph Lee
Worden, Nigel
Wright, Gavin
Wright, Robert E.
Wright, Tim
Wuthrich, Bryan
Wynne, Ben
Yeager, Mary A.
Young, Garry
Young, Jeffrey T.
Zalewski, David A.
Zamagni, Vera
Zeiler, Thomas W.
Zevin, Robert
Zieger, Robert H.
Ziliak, Stephen
Ziliak, Stephen T.
de Fátima Brandão, Maria
del Mar Rubio, M.
van der Beek, Karine
van der Eng, Pierre
Álvarez-Nogal, Carlos
Ó Gráda, Cormac

Quantitative Economic History: The Good of Counting

Author(s):Rosenbloom, Joshua L.
Reviewer(s):Hansen, Mary Eschelbach

Published by EH.NET (September 2008)

Joshua L. Rosenbloom, editor, Quantitative Economic History: The Good of Counting. London: Routledge, 2008. xvii + 176 pp. $130 (hardback), ISBN: 978-0-415-77349-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Mary Eschelbach Hansen, Department of Economics, American University.

Quantitative Economic History is a compact volume dedicated to the prolific Thomas J. Weiss. Joshua Rosenbloom (Weiss? colleague at the University of Kansas), in cooperation with contributors from among Weiss? many students and collaborators, has certainly maximized the ratio of information to ink. The volume is a worthy celebration of Weiss? accomplishments.

Throughout his career, Weiss has scrutinized the details. He is, for example, the authority on the details of the inconsistencies in census enumeration that make the construction of historical series on the size of the labor force so messy. His efforts to straighten up our statistical house make our results more robust. Rosenbloom places the volume in this context, and the contributors make the case by following his example. Each of the seven papers is based upon a detailed accounting of historical fact. Each fact is carefully considered in relation to the concept purportedly being measured.

The topics in the volume are as far-flung across the landscape of economic history as Weiss? own work. The volume begins with two studies in demography. John Ermisch (University of Essex) contributes a history of non-marital births in England and Wales since 1845. He accounts for increases in the rate of non-marital births by considering the effect of macroeconomic conditions on marriage (lower real wages inhibit marriage, even for already-pregnant women) and social interaction effects of cohabitation (cohabitation facilitated a decline in the stigma costs of non-marital births). The accounting necessary to capture the effects of social interaction is based upon demographic histories constructed from interviews in Britain. Louis Cain (Loyola and Northwestern) and Elyce Rotella (Indiana) argue that the decline in urban mortality in the early twentieth century was ultimately the result of epidemics. Epidemics increased urbanites? demand for city leaders to do something about water-borne illness. At the same time, city leaders saw a dramatic decline in the cost of obtaining information about what, in fact, should be done. Statistics on investment in city-owned infrastructure complement a careful narrative accounting of flows of information.

In the next three essays, contributors examine nineteenth and early twentieth century change in three different sectors: manufacturing, transportation, and agriculture. Jeremy Atack (Vanderbilt) and Fred Bateman (Georgia) use samples from the manuscript censuses of manufactures, an extension of Weiss? work with Bateman. They show that firms with greater capitalization had lower average profits, but more predictable profits, than smaller firms. Michael R. Haines (Colgate) and Robert A. Margo (Boston University) try to capture the treatment effects of connecting counties to rail networks between 1850 and 1860. They use a data set that links the most recent compilation of individual and county-level census data to manuscripts of the census of social statistics, as well as to geographic data on rail access in counties. Lee A. Craig (North Carolina State) and Matthew Holt (Purdue) contribute an accounting of the benefits of mechanical refrigeration to farmers and consumers. They examine a long time series of corn and hog prices and demonstrate that refrigeration reduced the seasonal swings in prices long associated with poor harvests of corn.

The final two contributions return to labor-related issues. Rebecca Holmes, Price Fishback (Arizona) and Samuel Allen (VMI) attempt to measure differences between states in overall intensity of regulation of labor markets during the Progressive Era. They use federal reports of labor regulations enacted in the states and panel state-level economic data collected from a variety of sources. Simple specifications reveal that labor law intensity was positively correlated with labor productivity, but exploratory fixed-effects models do not indicate that the laws, by themselves, affected labor productivity in a meaningful way when other differences between states are considered. Joshua Rosenbloom and Gregory W. Stutes (Minnesota State-Moorhead) examine the usefulness of the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series for 1870 as a source for the measurement of inequality of wealth. They contribute to the literature on inequality and growth by exploiting the geographic dispersion within the 1870 sample.

It is, of course, possible to criticize the papers individually. The reader will want more concrete evidence that the best place to split Ermish?s long time series on non-marital births is World War II, even though the clearest discontinuity is in the late 1970s when unemployment associated with the oil crisis coincided with improvements in the availability of contraception and abortion. The reader may wonder how the municipally-owned water systems described by Cain and Rotella compared to private systems. The reader will want Atack and Bateman to discuss the limits of their data to address important questions about both the life cycle of firms and the life cycle of capital: Do small cap firms become larger cap firm through growth or through merger? To what extent are profits in large cap firms limited by the vintage of their capital? The economic geographer might object to the simplification of von Thunen?s prediction concerning the effect of railroad expansion on agriculture in the paper by Haines and Margo. Von Thunen would have expected the crop mix, not only the value of farm output, to respond to transportation improvement. The reader will wonder what quantitative evidence on the investment in refrigeration was rejected by Craig and Holt. The reader will hope that Holmes, Fishback, and Allen plan to ask whether regulatory climate affected industrial employment and the ratio of skilled to unskilled labor. And finally, the economic historian will want Rosenbloom and Stutes to provide more context for interpreting their estimate of inequality: how different does the U.S. in 1870 look from the U.S. later or from developing countries today?

Yet, no quibbles with individual contributors will reduce the usefulness of the volume. Because of its breadth, the volume will be opened and referenced often. Future students will open it expecting to extract the details. But if they read carefully, they will take away more than the details. They will learn how to scrutinize the details and improve upon them. Professor Weiss will continue to teach about the good of counting, albeit indirectly, through the works assembled in his honor.

Mary Eschelbach Hansen is Associate Professor of Economics at American University. Hansen, with co-author Brad Hansen, has been working towards a history of bankruptcy in the first half of the twentieth century. ?The Role of Path Dependence in the Development of U.S. Bankruptcy Law, 1880-1938? appeared in the Journal of Institutional Economics in 2007; ?Religion, Social Capital, and Business Bankruptcy, 1921-1932? will soon appear in Business History; more will follow.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Sowing Modernity: America’s First Agricultural Revolution

Author(s):McClelland, Peter D.
Reviewer(s):Hansen, Mary Eschelbach

Published by EH.NET (February 2000)

Peter D. McClelland,

Sowing Modernity: America’s First Agricultural Revolution. Ithaca:

Cornell University Press, 1997. xii + 348 pp. $45.00

(cloth), ISBN: 0-8014-3326-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Mary Eschelbach Hansen, Department of Economics,

American University, Washington, DC.

The Seeds of Agricultural Innovation

Sowing Modernity: America’s First Agricultural Revolution argues that

modern economic growth required discontinuities. The discontinuity that Peter

McClelland seeks is to be found

in everyday life: when did farmers begin to ask routinely, “Is there a better

way?” Professor McClelland finds the discontinuity, or revolution, in attitudes

in the years immediately following the War of 1812.

Not since Leo Rogin wrote his classic The

Introduction of Farm Machinery

(University of California Press, 1931) has an author packed so much information

about farm equipment into such a small space. Professor McClelland gives us a

reference work that should sit atop the desk of any serious scholar of

agriculture. The work goes well beyond tracing the time trend in the number of

new patents issued on farm equipment. McClelland traces the development of farm

equipment from antiquity through the Jacksonian era in order to demonstrate the

rapid rate

of innovation after 1812, which indicates to him that the search for a better

way began in earnest about that time.

The descriptive detail in Sowing Modernity is astounding. Of the

literature on Jethro Tull’s wheat drill, McClelland says: “Although every

history of the British agricultural revolution is sure to include a reference

to Tull’s machine, almost never does that literature make clear how it worked.”

(p. 70) A full page of text and two full-page illustrations do the job.

(Special congratulations are due to McClelland for convincing his publisher

that the purpose of the book could not be met without the many and detailed

illustrations.) Other innovations in equipment to plow, sow, cultivate, and

thresh receive equally detailed treatment. The

work is so thoroughly researched and uses such a wide variety of sources that

the 235 pages of text require 100 pages of notes and bibliography.

McClelland adopts the economist’s stance that farmers were rational, that is,

that farmers only deemed a new

way “better” if benefits were greater than costs. For some innovations an

estimate of costs and benefits is made with respect to initial outlay for

equipment and change in labor and animal requirements. Trends in prices of

output are rarely mentioned (excepting the discussion of reapers). This

omission does not distract from the descriptions of the innovations, but it

does lead the reader to wonder if there are regional stories to be told when

Professor McClelland extends the work, adding the “where” and

“why” questions to this volume’s answer to

“when.”

The reader would benefit from additional discussion of the sources used,

their merits and demerits, their limitations and biases. For example, might the

very existence of the agricultural papers be a lagged indicator of the

revolution in attitudes of farmers? That is, would there be a market for

information on innovation without the revolution in attitudes? If the

agricultural papers lag the revolution, Professor McClelland’s use of them to

date the revolution in attitudes might lead him to be a few years too late.

But these criticisms are minor compared to the contribution of the work.

Sowing Modernity gives economic historians an interface with the

disciplines of material culture and cultural history. The work should lead

other agricultural and economic historians to consider the 1812-1830 period

with greater interest.

Mary Eschelbach Hansen is author of numerous articles in agricultural history

including “Land Ownership, Farm Size, and Tenancy after the Civil War,”

Journal of Economic History (September 1998).

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century