Published by EH.NET (July 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 One: Population. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xxviii + 807 pp. $825 (for the five-volume set), ISBN: 0-521-85389-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Trevon D. Logan, Department of Economics, Ohio State University.

When I was in graduate school, Ken Wachter once said that you could define the size of the demographic profession by counting everyone who had a Coale-Demeny life table in their office. If that is true, counting those with a copy of the Historical Statistics of the United States in their office could define the group of quantitative American historians in years past. It has been more than twenty-five years since a version was published, and there is one question that everyone seems to have about the new millennial edition: Was it worth the wait? This question is not merely a straw man. In the years since the bicentennial edition of Historical Statistics, the size and (more importantly) the quality of historical data have improved many times over. Even more, contemporary quantitative historians now have the ability, more so than in the past, to answer microeconomic questions with individual level historical data. The question “was it worth the wait?” speaks not only to the quality of the newest edition, but also its relevance to contemporary quantitative historical scholarship. As this review will show, however, the answer for this volume is an unequivocal, enthusiastic “yes.” Since no review of such a large work can hope to completely convey its contents, below I will sketch out the volume by chapter and follow with a general assessment of the work as a whole.

The introduction to the volume begins with basic definitions of population and methods for measuring and accounting for the growth of the population. It also covers broad changes in American demography from 1790 to the present as a means of foreshadowing the chapters that follow. The introduction then moves to a rather detailed discussion of race and ethnicity, moving from definitions and historical change in the concepts to the differences in demographic measures by racial and ethnic categories and a discussion of gender. This seems to be somewhat misplaced, but there is no other chapter in the volume where it will fit — the volume does not include separate chapters for race and gender, but rather integrates them into other features of the population. While I agree with this integrated approach, the discussion of race and gender is well integrated enough into the successive chapters that the discussion in the introduction is somewhat unnecessary. Overall, the introduction highlights the scope and size of the project, and also details the contents that follow.

The first chapter, on population characteristics, begins with a caveat about the reliability of Census counts of the population. It then moves to an excellent overview of the topics covered by the Census over time (such as education, urbanity, and household structure). One feature to highlight is the fact that population estimates for years between the decennial Census from 1790 to 1900 now use the method of change approach, and not linear interpolation. After detailing regional differences in population growth, the chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the Hispanic ethnicity designation. The tables that follow form the majority of the volume, and will most likely be the most utilized information in the volume. The tables include population size, density, marital status, rural and urban location by age, sex and race and summaries of the foreign-born population. The tables also contain state-by-state counts of age structure by sex and race, population density, and the foreign born. These tables form a treasure trove for those looking for summary population measures both aggregated and disaggregated (by state) over time.

The second chapter (which, like the first, is written by Michael Haines of Colgate University) deals with vital statistics of fertility, mortality, and nuptiality?. It is related to the first in that it gives the demographic information while the first chapter largely deals with population counts. The chapter begins by discussing how the American demographic transition was distinct from the transitions of Europe in that fertility declines in the United States predated mortality declines. Moving beyond description, there is a discussion of some of the theories of America’s unique fertility regime such as Sundstrom and David’s, Ransom and Sutch’s and the land availability hypotheses. Next, the chapter records how Census records can be used to construct some measures of fertility (such as children per woman), but that they are not as useful for tracking mortality. This leads to a discussion of estimates of mortality in the past, the general trend of declining American mortality since the end of the nineteenth century, and the development of the system of vital registrations — which allows for better estimates of mortality and for estimates of cause of death. Haines is very good at pointing out what we can and cannot say about fertility and mortality in the past, and his honest discussion serves as a warning to those who would wish to view the data that follow as gospel. The tables in this chapter include fertility, marriage, divorce, birth rates, and death rates by race; fertility ratios; and life expectancy by race and sex. There is an extensive collection of tables relating to infant mortality (including neonatal mortality, maternal mortality, and the fetal death rate by race). This is followed by cause of death tables, which highlight the conquest of mortality due to infectious disease in the twentieth century. The size and quality of the information on mortality are especially noteworthy given the caveat in the introductory note. Of special interest to demographers, the tables also include information on cohort survival (lx) necessary to construct life tables by race and sex over time.

Chapters 3 and 4 detail migration, both internal (chapter 3) and external (chapter 4). Joseph Ferrie of Northwestern University begins chapter 3 by noting that movements in internal population are an important aspect of American history. While the calculation of internal migration is straightforward theoretically, there are a number of data problems that complicate its empirical measurement. As such, the chapter is the most focused on data and methodology in the volume, but is also careful to highlight general trends. The tables that follow include migration by type and also changes in farm population over time. Our inability to measure internal migration accurately in the past does limit the interpretation of the data Ferrie provides. Chapter 4, by Bob Barde of UC-Berkeley and Susan Carter and Richard Sutch of UC-Riverside, starts with a technical definition of immigration and then moves to a discussion of the unique features of American immigration (the number immigrants, the number of nations involved, the lack of an American Diaspora). The chapter then details the American immigration experience, breaking the historical experience into three periods (1815-1920, 1920-1965, and 1965-present) which coincides with changes in immigration policy. It also covers the related (but distinct) topic of naturalization. As a reading, this chapter is a great introduction to both the history and politics of immigration in the United States. The tables that follow give immigration and emigration by country of departure; immigration by sex, race and age; admission numbers and demographics by immigration regime; and counts of persons naturalized.

The chapter on family and household composition, by Steven Ruggles of the University of Minnesota, is next. He begins by noting that previous editions of Historical Statistics did not contain any information about changes in families and households. He then details the problems of trying to look at trends over time as definitions of households and family have changed not only in the social psychology but also by government reporting standards. He also highlights some broad changes in household structure such as the decline in multigenerational households and the rise of single-parent, cohabiting, and single-person household. The ensuing tables give counts of households by race and sex of the household head; subfamilies; institution type; marital status of mothers with children by race; and the living arrangements of those aged 65 and over. Susan Carter’s chapter on cohort analysis is important to the extent that the previous chapters in the volume are period demographic measures? — that is, they are counts of persons and demographic phenomena at a point in time and therefore apply only to an imagined (synthetic) cohort. Cohort analysis is important since events experienced by cohorts can influence their lives and because period trends may not hold when subjected to cohort analysis, leading us to modify our interpretation of events and their consequences. Carter highlights these two facts in her chapter, and follows it with tables that show labor force participation, marriage, and education by age and sex by birth cohort.

The final chapter, by C. Matthew Snipp of Stanford University, is concerned with the demography of Native Americans. Snipp begins with coverage of the unique history that Native Americans have had in the United States, and also with the puzzle that, despite numerous documented interactions between the United States government and various tribes since colonial times, there is relatively little evidence about Native American demography. Snipp then lists the sources of information, taking great care to highlight the inherent caveats when dealing with the topic. The tables that follow are a unique resource, detailing the number of tribes; their size and populations by state; the demography of reservations, terminations of tribes; and the employment, occupations, and education of Native Americans.

In total, this volume of Historical Statistics is a triumph. The chapters provide first-rate introductions to their general area of focus, particularly helpful for researchers and students who are not specialists in either history or demography. Each chapter reading is informative without being burdensome. The voluminous tables are carefully documented and legible, and are disaggregated enough that one may look at interesting features by themselves. While researchers now seem to favor micro-based population research, this volume impresses upon me the importance of looking in the aggregate at underlying demographic trends. Demography is truly unique in that the individual measure directly relates to the population measure. As such, this volume complements the contemporary research agenda in quantitative history quite nicely by providing a background to core demographic measures. It is also quite useful for those whose research falls outside of these areas but who need measures for certain demographic phenomena at a point (and place) in time. The availability of the underlying data in electronic format gives a nod to the fact that the editors understand that the information in these volumes will form the backbone and background of many research projects. Given its numerous sources and size, this volume is a testament to the value of large-scale historical projects and also the value of interdisciplinary work. This work will not only be useful for quantitative American historians, but also for those in the social sciences and history in general who wish to put their research into historical and comparative perspective.

Trevon D. Logan is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ohio State University and a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Forthcoming publications include “Nutrition and Well-Being in the Late Nineteenth Century” in Journal of Economic History and “Food, Nutrition, and Substitution in the Late Nineteenth Century” in Explorations in Economic History.