Published by EH.NET (June 2006)


Susan B. Carter, Scott Sigmund Gartner, Michael R. Haines, Alan L. Olmstead, Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright, editors, Historical Statistics of the United States, Volume Four: Economic Sectors. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xiv + 1123 pp. $825 (for the five-volume set), ISBN: 0-521-85389-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Department of Economics, University of Colorado.

This volume brought back memories from my graduate school days. As part of the field exam in economic history at the University of Washington overseen by Robert Higgs, Morris Morris, Douglass North, Robert Thomas and Kozo Yamamura, we had a set of required readings that more than took up a summer. Higgs required us to read several of the NBER volumes in Studies in Income and Wealth. He also strongly encouraged us to buy the Historical Statistics of the United States. Over the years I have consulted Historical Statistics countless times and this new edition is far more than a simple update of earlier Census editions. To give you a sense of its magnitude, this edition of Volume Four has 1,123 pages devoted to “Economic Sectors” compared to 272 pages in my older edition. This volume is an incredible public good and I congratulate the editors and contributors for the care with which they assembled the data. Moreover the introductions along with the essays for each chapter could be compiled into a “stand alone” book on the evolution of the American economy. As my mentors did to me, I will do to my students: I will have them read all of the essays in this volume.

As Richard Sutch notes in his introduction to this volume, the Office of Management and Budget in 1945 “standardized the classification of industries and collection and reporting of data with the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) system.” Each establishment or economic unit is classified into eleven broad divisions and then subsequently sub-divided, e.g. mining is one of eleven broad codes and then subdivided into metal mining (and others) and, within metal mining, as detailed as “metal cans.” Though the SIC system was replaced in 1997 to coordinate with other countries in North America, the data in this volume are organized along the lines of SIC codes still familiar to most of us. The editors have persuaded the experts in the profession to oversee each section and these experts in turn have brought on board others to write some sub-sections: Alan L. Olmstead — Agriculture with help from Julian M. Alston, Bruce L. Gardner, Philip G. Pardy, Paul W. Rhode, and Daniel A. Sumner; Gavin Wright — Natural Resource Industries; Kenneth A. Snowden — Construction, Housing and Mortgages; Jeremy Atack and Fred Bateman — Manufacturing; Daniel M.G. Raff — Distribution; Louis P. Cain — Transportation; Alexander J. Field – Communications; and Thomas Weiss- Services with help from Susan B. Carter on Utilities. Anyone familiar with economic history will recognize the editors as “naturals” to write essays as well as to oversee the assembly of the data.

The essays for each sector are not boring. As Alan Olmstead notes in Chapter Da. Agriculture: 4-7: “Underlying the data in this chapter is one of the epic stories in world history.” The movement out of agriculture in such a short span of time was phenomenal. The data when viewed in this context take on more life. Like Olmstead, Jeremy Atack and Fred Bateman set the stage nicely for the subsequent data, on manufacturing (Chapter Dd. Manufacturing: 4-575): “The industrial transformation was swift: the modest manufacturing sector of 1850 had evolved into a complex multiplant, multiproduct producer of manufactured goods by 1900.” After production, goods needed to be distributed. In 1930 Americans were scattered over three million square miles. Nearly half of the population was rural. As a result, Daniel Raff argues (Chapter De. Distribution: 4-705): “The scale of the problem of distribution is immediately apparent.” The size of the U.S. is impressive and moving goods and services across space is an incredible task. The distribution of good and services goes hand in glove with transportation as Louis Cain notes (Chapter Df. Transportation: 4-761): “Where people work and where they live, where goods are produced and where they are sold, are all determined in part by the transportation infrastructure.” With today’s internet mindset we think that modern communications only arrived in the 1990s, but Alexander Field (Chapter Dg. Communications: 4-977) reminds us that “There is a technological and historical context to these developments … the technological and regulatory issues we continue to deal with in the first decade of the twenty-first century did not arrive full-blown with the breakup of the Bell System or the explosive growth of the Internet.” The transition from a dominant agricultural country to a manufacturing powerhouse and now to an economy with a large service sector has raised some fears amongst social critics. Thomas Weiss aptly summarizes the concern of some critics (Chapter Dh. Services 4-1061): “the United States is becoming a nation of ‘hamburger flippers,’ who do not contribute much to the growth or vitality of the nation’s economy.” This volume may not make Oprah’s reading list, but as essays introducing mountains of useful data they are far more interesting than I expected. The stage-setting of the essays, the clarity of definitions of the data, the sources for the data and the index are superb. This volume will find a welcoming home on the shelves of all U.S. economic historians.

Lee J. Alston’s current research interests include political governance in the historical U.S. and present-day Brazil; and the determinants of tenancy in the historical U.S. and Latin America today. His two most recent publications are: Lee J. Alston and Bernardo Mueller, “Pork for Policy: Executive and Legislative Exchange in Brazil,” Journal of Law Economics and Organization 22, Number 1 (Spring 2006) 87-114; and Lee J. Alston, Jeffery A. Jenkins and Tomas Nonnenmacher, “Who Should Govern Congress? Access to Power and the Salary Grab of 1873,” Journal of Economic History (forthcoming, September 2006).