Published by EH.Net (June 2019)

Francisco Vidal Luna and Herbert S. Klein, An Economic and Demographic History of São Paulo, 1850–1950. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018. xxv + 448 pp. $75 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-5036-0200-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Ian Read, International Studies, Soka University.

Of the twenty-two provinces that composed the enormous Brazilian Empire in 1850, São Paulo was not particularly unusual. It was thinly populated, with settlers and slaves near the coast and “barbarous” indigenous communities in the interior, all mostly subsistence farming, hunting, and gathering. The province had few wagon roads, no railroads, and no regular transoceanic ship line to its main port at Santos. Nevertheless, a potent vision of uniqueness, built on the heroics of its colonial frontiersmen and slave catchers (bandeirantes) and the promise of its fertile highlands, had already emerged among Paulistas. Temperate highlands, separated from a narrow strip of tropical coast by a steep escarpment, were recognized as perfect for European farmers as early as the sixteenth century. When the province’s president, Dr. Vicente Pires da Motta remarked in 1849 that São Paulo’s was “favored by Heaven” he shared a regional opinion that was reaffirmed when the highlands were mostly spared from cholera, smallpox and yellow fever. The president might have again called upon heaven if he had seen São Paulo one century later when it was the most populated, wealthy, and powerful state in Brazil. São Paulo’s transformation into the “locomotive” that pulled Brazil’s economy has captured international attention since the province (and Republican state after 1889) filled with coffee trees, slaves, and immigrants during the second half of the nineteenth century. With an economy larger than Argentina or the Netherlands today, scholars continue to wonder why.

An Economic and Demographic History of São Paulo is the second volume of what Francisco Vida Luna and Herbert S. Klein rightly call “the first full-scale survey of the economy and society of the state of São Paulo” (p. xvii). The authors summarize the book’s ten chapters with characteristic concision. “Chapters 1 and 2 describe the evolution of the agricultural economy and the construction of the provincial government under the empire. Chapters 3 and 4 deal with the same themes under the republic. Chapter 5 treats the crisis of coffee overproduction and how the state responded and discusses the Vargas revolution (in 1930) and the government that the Paulista elite had created. In Chapter 6 [they] examine the progressive integration of the state and its principal port of Santos into the world economy. Chapter 7 examines the growth of an industrial complex within the state, and the state’s evolving infrastructure and urbanization in discussed in Chapter 8. The changing population is described in Chapter 9” (p. xxiv), and the book ends with a brief concluding summary. A longtime collaboration between a Brazilian (Luna) and American (Klein) author has resulted in several broadly synthesizing monographs on Brazilian history. One of the book’s most original contributions uses primary historical sources to astutely analyze public finances. They offer convincing evidence that São Paulo experienced its railroad age and attracted so many immigrants after a new Republic regime created a more effective tax structure. Nevertheless, the state government usually spent more than it took in, and its obligations to foreign lenders could create a crisis. The book’s text is supported by an impressive apparatus: 99 tables, 49 graphs, and 11 maps. These figures are beautifully crafted and provide an encyclopedic amount of data for future research.

Luna and Klein provide an expert — if not a bit triumphant — overview of São Paulo’s economic and demographic growth. “Seen from a long-term perspective, as we adopt in this volume, the evolution of São Paulo from 1850 to 1950 is a story of extraordinary change comparable with only a few other areas of recent settlement in the world” (p. xviii). Therefore, “backward” (e.g., agriculture, industry, education, society) transformed into “modern” (e.g., docks, highways, electrical grids, capital goods sector) by men’s acumen, foreign laborers, and export revenue. But as Luna and Klein explained in another recent book, Brazil “remains a traditional capitalist society and one that grew out of slavery.” “Thus, class and race still define inequalities in access to the resources that society offers.”[1] One ends up with a sense that there could have been a deeper discussion of the relation of inequality to growth, especially because São Paulo provides a fascinating case study. The Paulista elite were famously insular and far more European and white than the people they ruled, and São Paulo shows that exclusion and inequality, buttressed by discrimination, need not come at the expense of growth.

Luna and Klein end their study in 1950 because they believe the groundwork for the transitions in commodity exports, industrialization, and urbanization had been achieved. Still, those acquainted with the official 1950 census of São Paulo, realize that the transition of the state of São Paulo had many shortcomings in terms of social progress. In 1950, fewer than three percent of employers were black (including mixed race pardos) but Afro-Brazilians composed more than eleven percent of the population. More than half of white people were literate, but less than one-third of blacks could read or write.[2] A UNESCO study, also approved in 1950, is not too different from the assessment of Brazilian society that Luna and Klein give elsewhere: “a slave regime” was too slow to become “a class regime” in São Paulo, even in the absence of Jim Crow legal segregation.[3] Considering the entanglements of race and class, economists have recently debated whether Brazil or São Paulo has experienced any decline in its rates of wealth inequality since 1850, and some new evidence suggests that it increased during this period.[4] Luna and Klein briefly mention enormous inequality in landholding (pp. 103-104, 113) at the beginning of their period and extreme divisions in industrial holdings toward the end (pp. 217-220), but the words “inequality” and “race” are not discussed at length and are absent from the book’s index. Since we have plenty of evidence that São Paulo grew and changed intensely, but always with the same winners and losers, we should learn more about the institutions and tax structures that permitted the barest level of redistribution into infrastructure, sanitation, and public education to maintain profits and the status quo of sometimes violent patrimonial relationships. In considering human development, historians of Brazil may need to bridge the gulf that separates two branches of literature. On the one hand, Barbara Weinstein’s The Color of Modernity: São Paulo and the Making of Race and Nation in Brazil (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015) and Celia Maria Marinho de Azevedo’s classic Onda negra, medo branco: o negro no imaginário das elites – século XIX (Rio de Janeiro, RJ: Paz e Terra, 1987) make disturbingly vivid the normative arrangements that elite families used for their preservation. On the other hand, John Williamson and Thomas Piketty’s research has found the inherent exclusion of inequality is not the unbreakable inheritance of a colonial Latin American past, but of socioeconomic machinations that continue to spin and grind.

1. Francisco Vidal Luna and Herbert S. Klein, The Economic and Social History of Brazil since 1889. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 311.
2. Conselho Nacional de Estatística, Estado de São Paulo, Censo Demografico. 1954, pgs.5, 20, 30.
3. Roger Bastide and Florestan Fernandes, Relações raciais entre negros e brancos em São Paulo: ensaio sociológico sôbre as origens, as manifestações e os efeitos do preconceito de côr no município de São Paulo, São Paulo: Ed. Anhembi, 1955, p. 59.
4. Luis Bértola, Cecilia Castelnovo, Javier Rodríguez, and Henry Willebald. 2009. “Income Distribution in the Latin American Southern Cone during the First Globalization Boom and Beyond,” International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 50, no. 5-6: 5-6.


Ian Read is the author of “Do Diseases Talk? Writing the Cultural and Epidemiological History of Disease in Latin America,” Latin American Perspectives and The Hierarchies of Slavery in Santos, Brazil, 1822-1888, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012.

Copyright (c) 2019 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 2019). All EH.Net reviews are archived at