Published by EH.Net (August 2017)

James W. Cortada, All the Facts: A History of Information in the United States since 1870. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xix + 636 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-046067-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Michael Haupert, Department of Economics, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.


“Big data” is all the rage these days. How to capture it, store it, analyze it, visualize it, and exploit it. But from whence do all these data originate, who compiles it, and how did it all begin? James Cortada takes on the Herculean task of writing not just about data, big or small, but the history of information in the United States. Information is a big topic, and big data is just one small part of it, garnering nine mentions in 600+ pages. Cortada rises to that challenge, covering just about everything you could conceive of regarding as information, and much you probably never thought of.

The central theme around which he builds his story is that information is a commodity, and its exchange is a function of literacy and education. Individual chapters deal with the various producers and consumers of information. The theme and organization make sense, and the approach works. But because the topic is so vast, there is no way that the breadth can be matched by the depth of the coverage. And Cortada does not disappoint when it comes to breadth. It’s all here. Sometimes a single sentence (the NBER, more on that later), sometimes a whole chapter (the internet). But no attempt is made to formulate an overall theory, or even address a specific one. Instead, he has chosen to touch on everything in an almost dizzying array of topics. By just scratching the surface, Cortada has uncovered a whole lot of what could prove to be fertile ground for future researchers. For example, where do we draw the boundary between efficiency and privacy? Is information a public or private good? And what about “alternative facts?” How do we differentiate between correct and incorrect information? Positive and normative information? Facts and beliefs? How has technology altered the balance between these, and at what cost? The general conclusion Cortada comes to is that information was and is “ubiquitous, pervasive, and integral in American life” (p 460). The specifics remain for future researchers to explore.

One could nitpick about the lack of coverage of one topic or another. For example, there is but a single sentence mentioning the creation of the NBER (p. 113) and no mention of the role of Edwin Gay, Wesley Mitchell, or Simon Kuznets, all of whom are widely recognized for their contributions to what economic historians would consider a very important source of information. But there is really so much included that it wouldn’t be fair to complain about what little is not.

Ultimately, this is the story of the growing importance of facts and their influence on the growth and development of the United Sates. The book consists of eleven chapters and an introduction laid out chronologically by topic. Chapters 1 and 3-5 cover the period from 1870 until World War II. Chapters 6-9 cover the remainder of the twentieth century. Each of these chapters covers a topic related to the role of business, government, and academia in the provision and consumption of data, and the impact of the ever-increasing amount of information on consumers. Chapter 2 covers the roots of early uses of information in America going back to the seventeenth century. The introduction is a general overview covering the definition of information (“a collection of facts in sufficient amounts to describe a situation, thing, place, person, or event” (p. 2)), how it relates to knowledge and skills, how information is used, by whom, and from whence it came. Chapter 10 addresses the internet and modern uses of information, and chapter 11, titled “How Americans Used Information to Shape Their Society,” serves as a conclusion. There are interesting sidebars throughout, including “What Farmers Had to Know by 1870” (p. 68), “Cooking Information the Betty Crocker Way” (p. 381), and “Roadside Signs along Route 66” (p. 408).

There are 92 pages of footnotes, but no bibliography. Instead, there is a bibliographic essay covering 35 pages. What it provides in thoroughness it lacks in usefulness. In this format it is difficult to track authors or topics, and even a single reference may require much page turning to find the complete citation. This is a disappointment because it makes it more difficult to use references to guide further research. The author himself would likely classify this as an information “restrainer” (p. 17).

Typical of the flow of the book is chapter five, “How Citizens Became Dependent on Information, 1870-1945,” in which Cortada argues that “one can see the influx and use of information in private lives by observing happenings in the kitchen, in childrearing, and in keeping home safe and socially appealing” (p. 192). He convincingly demonstrates how households were deluged with massive quantities of information, much of which involved cooking, cleaning, childrearing, and health. But one example he offers up — the tale of the National Association of Ice Industries (NAII) — raises a troubling issue at the same time. The NAII established the Household Refrigeration Bureau, whose mission it was to distribute “practical and accurate information on the application of refrigeration principles and appliances in the home” (p. 195). Through more than a dozen mass-distributed pamphlets published in the 1920s and 1930s, housewives were told that refrigeration was essential to preserve children’s health by protecting against food spoilage. But the NAII was hardly the only self-interested source of household information. On a variety of topics “experts” confused parents as they “debated different points of view in publications to which mothers and fathers had access. There were waves of advice” (p. 392). Or was it propaganda? And how well have we been able to differentiate between the two? Cortada gives Americans high marks in their ability to filter information, reasoning that “since so much information survived and people built upon it in the second half of the twentieth century, we can conclude Americans had learned to use it” (p. 413). If only we could be so sure.

Cortada concludes that “information has contributed to the overall success of the American economy since at least the 1870s” (p. 480). He makes no effort to measure or even verify that statement, which is typical of the broad view with which he has approached his subject. It is very much a big picture strategy: observe and comment. He thoroughly covers the topic of information, yet barely touches it at the same time. It is just too big to handle. He raises many interesting issues, but does not deal with any of them in detail. His book serves as a fascinating, exhaustive, and wide-ranging introduction to the concept of information. He made me think, and he has laid bare some fertile soil for future researchers to exploit.
Mike Haupert is co-editor (with Claude Diebolt) of the Handbook of Cliometrics (Springer, 2016), which will be will be available in an expanded second edition in 2019.

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