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Hours of Work in U.S. History

Robert Whaples, Wake Forest University

In the 1800s, many Americans worked seventy hours or more per week and the length of the workweek became an important political issue. Since then the workweek’s length has decreased considerably. This article presents estimates of the length of the historical workweek in the U.S., describes the history of the shorter-hours “movement,” and examines the forces that drove the workweek’s decline over time.

Estimates of the Length of the Workweek

Measuring the length of the workweek (or workday or workyear) is a difficult task, full of ambiguities concerning what constitutes work and who is to be considered a worker. Estimating the length of the historical workweek is even more troublesome. Before the Civil War most Americans were employed in agriculture and most of these were self-employed. Like self-employed workers in other fields, they saw no reason to record the amount of time they spent working. Often the distinction between work time and leisure time was blurry. Therefore, estimates of the length of the typical workweek before the mid-1800s are very imprecise.

The Colonial Period

Based on the amount of work performed — for example, crops raised per worker — Carr (1992) concludes that in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake region, “for at least six months of the year, an eight to ten-hour day of hard labor was necessary.” This does not account for other required tasks, which probably took about three hours per day. This workday was considerably longer than for English laborers, who at the time probably averaged closer to six hours of heavy labor each day.

The Nineteenth Century

Some observers believe that most American workers adopted the practice of working from “first light to dark” — filling all their free hours with work — throughout the colonial period and into the nineteenth century. Others are skeptical of such claims and argue that work hours increased during the nineteenth century — especially its first half. Gallman (1975) calculates “changes in implicit hours of work per agricultural worker” and estimates that hours increased 11 to 18 percent from 1800 to 1850. Fogel and Engerman (1977) argue that agricultural hours in the North increased before the Civil War due to the shift into time-intensive dairy and livestock. Weiss and Craig (1993) find evidence suggesting that agricultural workers also increased their hours of work between 1860 and 1870. Finally, Margo (2000) estimates that “on an economy-wide basis, it is probable that annual hours of work rose over the (nineteenth) century, by around 10 percent.” He credits this rise to the shift out of agriculture, a decline in the seasonality of labor demand and reductions in annual periods of nonemployment. On the other hand, it is clear that working hours declined substantially for one important group. Ransom and Sutch (1977) and Ng and Virts (1989) estimate that annual labor hours per capita fell 26 to 35 percent among African-Americans with the end of slavery.

Manufacturing Hours before 1890

Our most reliable estimates of the workweek come from manufacturing, since most employers required that manufacturing workers remain at work during precisely specified hours. The Census of Manufactures began to collect this information in 1880 but earlier estimates are available. Much of what is known about average work hours in the nineteenth century comes from two surveys of manufacturing hours taken by the federal government. The first survey, known as the Weeks Report, was prepared by Joseph Weeks as part of the Census of 1880. The second was prepared in 1893 by Commissioner of Labor Carroll D. Wright, for the Senate Committee on Finance, chaired by Nelson Aldrich. It is commonly called the Aldrich Report. Both of these sources, however, have been criticized as flawed due to problems such as sample selection bias (firms whose records survived may not have been typical) and unrepresentative regional and industrial coverage. In addition, the two series differ in their estimates of the average length of the workweek by as much as four hours. These estimates are reported in Table 1. Despite the previously mentioned problems, it seems reasonable to accept two important conclusions based on these data — the length of the typical manufacturing workweek in the 1800s was very long by modern standards and it declined significantly between 1830 and 1890.

Table 1
Estimated Average Weekly Hours Worked in Manufacturing, 1830-1890

Year Weeks Report Aldrich Report
1830 69.1
1840 67.1 68.4
1850 65.5 69.0
1860 62.0 66.0
1870 61.1 63.0
1880 60.7 61.8
1890 60.0

Sources: U.S. Department of Interior (1883), U.S. Senate (1893)
Note: Atack and Bateman (1992), using data from census manuscripts, estimate average weekly hours to be 60.1 in 1880 — very close to Weeks’ contemporary estimate. They also find that the summer workweek was about 1.5 hours longer than the winter workweek.

Hours of Work during the Twentieth Century

Because of changing definitions and data sources there does not exist a consistent series of workweek estimates covering the entire twentieth century. Table 2 presents six sets of estimates of weekly hours. Despite differences among the series, there is a fairly consistent pattern, with weekly hours falling considerably during the first third of the century and much more slowly thereafter. In particular, hours fell strongly during the years surrounding World War I, so that by 1919 the eight-hour day (with six workdays per week) had been won. Hours fell sharply at the beginning of the Great Depression, especially in manufacturing, then rebounded somewhat and peaked during World War II. After World War II, the length of the workweek stabilized around forty hours. Owen’s nonstudent-male series shows little trend after World War II, but the other series show a slow, but steady, decline in the length of the average workweek. Greis’s two series are based on the average length of the workyear and adjust for paid vacations, holidays and other time-off. The last column is based on information reported by individuals in the decennial censuses and in the Current Population Survey of 1988. It may be the most accurate and representative series, as it is based entirely on the responses of individuals rather than employers.

Table 2
Estimated Average Weekly Hours Worked, 1900-1988

Year Census of Manu-facturing JonesManu-

facturing

OwenNonstudent Males GreisManu-

facturing

GreisAll Workers Census/CPS All Workers
1900 59.6* 55.0 58.5
1904 57.9 53.6 57.1
1909 56.8 (57.3) 53.1 55.7
1914 55.1 (55.5) 50.1 54.0
1919 50.8 (51.2) 46.1 50.0
1924 51.1* 48.8 48.8
1929 50.6 48.0 48.7
1934 34.4 40.6
1940 37.6 42.5 43.3
1944 44.2 46.9
1947 39.2 42.4 43.4 44.7
1950 38.7 41.1 42.7
1953 38.6 41.5 43.2 44.0
1958 37.8* 40.9 42.0 43.4
1960 41.0 40.9
1963 41.6 43.2 43.2
1968 41.7 41.2 42.0
1970 41.1 40.3
1973 40.6 41.0
1978 41.3* 39.7 39.1
1980 39.8
1988 39.2

Sources: Whaples (1990a), Jones (1963), Owen (1976, 1988), and Greis (1984). The last column is based on the author’s calculations using Coleman and Pencavel’s data from Table 4 (below).
* = these estimates are from one year earlier than the year listed.
(The figures in parentheses in the first column are unofficial estimates but are probably more precise, as they better estimate the hours of workers in industries with very long workweeks.)

Hours in Other Industrial Sectors

Table 3 compares the length of the workweek in manufacturing to that in other industries for which there is available information. (Unfortunately, data from the agricultural and service sectors are unavailable until late in this period.) The figures in Table 3 show that the length of the workweek was generally shorter in the other industries — sometimes considerably shorter. For example, in 1910 anthracite coalminers’ workweeks were about forty percent shorter than the average workweek among manufacturing workers. All of the series show an overall downward trend.

Table 3
Estimated Average Weekly Hours Worked, Other Industries

Year Manufacturing Construction Railroads Bituminous Coal Anthracite Coal
1850s about 66 about 66
1870s about 62 about 60
1890 60.0 51.3
1900 59.6 50.3 52.3 42.8 35.8
1910 57.3 45.2 51.5 38.9 43.3
1920 51.2 43.8 46.8 39.3 43.2
1930 50.6 42.9 33.3 37.0
1940 37.6 42.5 27.8 27.2
1955 38.5 37.1 32.4 31.4

Sources: Douglas (1930), Jones (1963), Licht (1983), and Tables 1 and 2.
Note: The manufacturing figures for the 1850s and 1870s are approximations based on averaging numbers from the Weeks and Aldrich reports from Table 1. The early estimates for the railroad industry are also approximations.

Recent Trends by Race and Gender

Some analysts, such as Schor (1992) have argued that the workweek increased substantially in the last half of the twentieth century. Few economists accept this conclusion, arguing that it is based on the use of faulty data (public opinion surveys) and unexplained methods of “correcting” more reliable sources. Schor’s conclusions are contradicted by numerous studies. Table 4 presents Coleman and Pencavel’s (1993a, 1993b) estimates of the average workweek of employed people — disaggregated by race and gender. For all four groups the average length of the workweek has dropped since 1950. Although median weekly hours were virtually constant for men, the upper tail of the hours distribution fell for those with little schooling and rose for the well-educated. In addition, Coleman and Pencavel also find that work hours declined for young and older men (especially black men), but changed little for white men in their prime working years. Women with relatively little schooling were working fewer hours in the 1980s than in 1940, while the reverse is true of well-educated women.

Table 4
Estimated Average Weekly Hours Worked, by Race and Gender, 1940-1988

Year White Men Black Men White Women Black Women
1940 44.1 44.5 40.6 42.2
1950 43.4 42.8 41.0 40.3
1960 43.3 40.4 36.8 34.7
1970 43.1 40.2 36.1 35.9
1980 42.9 39.6 35.9 36.5
1988 42.4 39.6 35.5 37.2

Source: Coleman and Pencavel (1993a, 1993b)

Broader Trends in Time Use, 1880 to 2040

In 1880 a typical male household head had very little leisure time — only about 1.8 hours per day over the course of a year. However, as Fogel’s (2000) estimates in Table 5 show, between 1880 and 1995 the amount of work per day fell nearly in half, allowing leisure time to more than triple. Because of the decline in the length of the workweek and the declining portion of a lifetime that is spent in paid work (due largely to lengthening periods of education and retirement) the fraction of the typical American’s lifetime devoted to work has become remarkably small. Based on these trends Fogel estimates that four decades from now less than one-fourth of our discretionary time (time not needed for sleep, meals, and hygiene) will be devoted to paid work — over three-fourths will be available for doing what we wish.

Table 5
Division of the Day for the Average Male Household Head over the Course of a Year, 1880 and 1995

Activity 1880 1995
Sleep 8 8
Meals and hygiene 2 2
Chores 2 2
Travel to and from work 1 1
Work 8.5 4.7
Illness .7 .5
Left over for leisure activities 1.8 5.8

Source: Fogel (2000)

Table 6
Estimated Trend in the Lifetime Distribution of Discretionary Time, 1880-2040

Activity 1880 1995 2040
Lifetime Discretionary Hours 225,900 298,500 321,900
Lifetime Work Hours 182,100 122,400 75,900
Lifetime Leisure Hours 43,800 176,100 246,000

Source: Fogel (2000)
Notes: Discretionary hours exclude hours used for sleep, meals and hygiene. Work hours include paid work, travel to and from work, and household chores.

Postwar International Comparisons

While hours of work have decreased slowly in the U.S. since the end of World War II, they have decreased more rapidly in Western Europe. Greis (1984) calculates that annual hours worked per employee fell from 1908 to 1704 in the U.S. between 1950 and 1979, a 10.7 percent decrease. This compares to a 21.8 percent decrease across a group of twelve Western European countries, where the average fell from 2170 hours to 1698 hours between 1950 and 1979. Perhaps the most precise way of measuring work hours is to have individuals fill out diaries on their day-to-day and hour-to-hour time use. Table 7 presents an international comparison of average work hours both inside and outside of the workplace, by adult men and women — averaging those who are employed with those who are not. (Juster and Stafford (1991) caution, however, that making these comparisons requires a good deal of guesswork.) These numbers show a significant drop in total work per week in the U.S. between 1965 and 1981. They also show that total work by men and women is very similar, although it is divided differently. Total work hours in the U.S. were fairly similar to those in Japan, but greater than in Denmark, while less than in the USSR.

Table 7
Weekly Work Time in Four Countries, Based on Time Diaries, 1960s-1980s

Activity US USSR (Pskov)
Men Women Men Women
1965 1981 1965 1981 1965 1981 1965 1981
Total Work 63.1 57.8 60.9 54.4 64.4 65.7 75.3 66.3
Market Work 51.6 44.0 18.9 23.9 54.6 53.8 43.8 39.3
Commuting 4.8 3.5 1.6 2.0 4.9 5.2 3.7 3.4
Housework 11.5 13.8 41.8 30.5 9.8 11.9 31.5 27.0
Activity Japan Denmark
Men Women Men Women
1965 1985 1965 1985 1964 1987 1964 1987
Total Work 60.5 55.5 64.7 55.6 45.4 46.2 43.4 43.9
Market Work 57.7 52.0 33.2 24.6 41.7 33.4 13.3 20.8
Commuting 3.6 4.5 1.0 1.2 n.a n.a n.a n.a
Housework 2.8 3.5 31.5 31.0 3.7 12.8 30.1 23.1

Source: Juster and Stafford (1991)

The Shorter Hours “Movement” in the U.S.

The Colonial Period

Captain John Smith, after mapping New England’s coast, came away convinced that three days’ work per week would satisfy any settler. Far from becoming a land of leisure, however, the abundant resources of British America and the ideology of its settlers, brought forth high levels of work. Many colonial Americans held the opinion that prosperity could be taken as a sign of God’s pleasure with the individual, viewed work as inherently good and saw idleness as the devil’s workshop. Rodgers (1978) argues that this work ethic spread and eventually reigned supreme in colonial America. The ethic was consistent with the American experience, since high returns to effort meant that hard work often yielded significant increases in wealth. In Virginia, authorities also transplanted the Statue of Artificers, which obliged all Englishmen (except the gentry) to engage in productive activity from sunrise to sunset. Likewise, a 1670 Massachusetts law demanded a minimum ten-hour workday, but it is unlikely that these laws had any impact on the behavior of most free workers.

The Revolutionary War Period

Roediger and Foner (1989) contend that the Revolutionary War era brought a series of changes that undermined support for sun-to-sun work. The era’s republican ideology emphasized that workers needed free time, away from work, to participate in democracy. Simultaneously, the development of merchant capitalism meant that there were, for the first time, a significant number of wageworkers. Roediger and Foner argue that reducing labor costs was crucial to the profitability of these workers’ employers, who reduced costs by squeezing more work from their employees — reducing time for meals, drink and rest and sometimes even rigging the workplace’s official clock. Incensed by their employers’ practice of paying a flat daily wage during the long summer shift and resorting to piece rates during short winter days, Philadelphia’s carpenters mounted America’s first ten-hour-day strike in May 1791. (The strike was unsuccessful.)

1820s: The Shorter Hours Movement Begins

Changes in the organization of work, with the continued rise of merchant capitalists, the transition from the artisanal shop to the early factory, and an intensified work pace had become widespread by about 1825. These changes produced the first extensive, aggressive movement among workers for shorter hours, as the ten-hour movement blossomed in New York City, Philadelphia and Boston. Rallying around the ten-hour banner, workers formed the first city-central labor union in the U.S., the first labor newspaper, and the first workingmen’s political party — all in Philadelphia — in the late 1820s.

Early Debates over Shorter Hours

Although the length of the workday is largely an economic decision arrived at by the interaction of the supply and demand for labor, advocates of shorter hours and foes of shorter hours have often argued the issue on moral grounds. In the early 1800s, advocates argued that shorter work hours improved workers’ health, allowed them time for self-improvement and relieved unemployment. Detractors countered that workers would abuse leisure time (especially in saloons) and that long, dedicated hours of work were the path to success, which should not be blocked for the great number of ambitious workers.

1840s: Early Agitation for Government Intervention

When Samuel Slater built the first textile mills in the U.S., “workers labored from sun up to sun down in summer and during the darkness of both morning and evening in the winter. These hours ? only attracted attention when they exceeded the common working day of twelve hours,” according to Ware (1931). During the 1830s, an increased work pace, tighter supervision, and the addition of about fifteen minutes to the work day (partly due to the introduction of artificial lighting during winter months), plus the growth of a core of more permanent industrial workers, fueled a campaign for a shorter workweek among mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, whose workweek averaged about 74 hours. This agitation was led by Sarah Bagley and the New England Female Labor Reform Association, which, beginning in 1845, petitioned the state legislature to intervene in the determination of hours. The petitions were followed by America’s first-ever examination of labor conditions by a governmental investigating committee. The Massachusetts legislature proved to be very unsympathetic to the workers’ demands, but similar complaints led to the passage of laws in New Hampshire (1847) and Pennsylvania (1848), declaring ten hours to be the legal length of the working day. However, these laws also specified that a contract freely entered into by employee and employer could set any length for the workweek. Hence, these laws had little impact. Legislation passed by the federal government had a more direct, though limited effect. On March 31, 1840, President Martin Van Buren issued an executive order mandating a ten-hour day for all federal employees engaged in manual work.

1860s: Grand Eight Hours Leagues

As the length of the workweek gradually declined, political agitation for shorter hours seems to have waned for the next two decades. However, immediately after the Civil War reductions in the length of the workweek reemerged as an important issue for organized labor. The new goal was an eight-hour day. Roediger (1986) argues that many of the new ideas about shorter hours grew out of the abolitionists’ critique of slavery — that long hours, like slavery, stunted aggregate demand in the economy. The leading proponent of this idea, Ira Steward, argued that decreasing the length of the workweek would raise the standard of living of workers by raising their desired consumption levels as their leisure expanded, and by ending unemployment. The hub of the newly launched movement was Boston and Grand Eight Hours Leagues sprang up around the country in 1865 and 1866. The leaders of the movement called the meeting of the first national organization to unite workers of different trades, the National Labor Union, which met in Baltimore in 1867. In response to this movement, eight states adopted general eight-hour laws, but again the laws allowed employer and employee to mutually consent to workdays longer than the “legal day.” Many critics saw these laws and this agitation as a hoax, because few workers actually desired to work only eight hours per day at their original hourly pay rate. The passage of the state laws did foment action by workers — especially in Chicago where parades, a general strike, rioting and martial law ensued. In only a few places did work hours fall after the passage of these laws. Many become disillusioned with the idea of using the government to promote shorter hours and by the late 1860s, efforts to push for a universal eight-hour day had been put on the back burner.

The First Enforceable Hours Laws

Despite this lull in shorter-hours agitation, in 1874, Massachusetts passed the nation’s first enforceable ten-hour law. It covered only female workers and became fully effective by 1879. This legislation was fairly late by European standards. Britain had passed its first effective Factory Act, setting maximum hours for almost half of its very young textile workers, in 1833.

1886: Year of Dashed Hopes

In the early 1880s organized labor in the U.S. was fairly weak. In 1884, the short-lived Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) fired a “shot in the dark.” During its final meeting, before dissolving, the Federation “ordained” May 1, 1886 as the date on which workers would cease working beyond eight hours per day. Meanwhile, the Knights of Labor, which had begun as a secret fraternal society and evolved a labor union, began to gain strength. It appears that many nonunionized workers, especially the unskilled, came to see in the Knights a chance to obtain a better deal from their employers, perhaps even to obtain the eight-hour day. FOTLU’s call for workers to simply walk off the job after eight hours beginning on May 1, plus the activities of socialist and anarchist labor organizers and politicians, and the apparent strength of the Knights combined to attract members in record numbers. The Knights mushroomed and its new membership demanded that their local leaders support them in attaining the eight-hour day. Many smelled victory in the air — the movement to win the eight-hour day became frenzied and the goal became “almost a religious crusade” (Grob, 1961).

The Knights’ leader, Terence Powderly, thought that the push for a May 1 general strike for eight-hours was “rash, short-sighted and lacking in system” and “must prove abortive” (Powderly, 1890). He offered no effective alternative plan but instead tried to block the mass action, issuing a “secret circular” condemning the use of strikes. Powderly reasoned that low incomes forced workmen to accept long hours. Workers didn’t want shorter hours unless their daily pay was maintained, but employers were unwilling and/or unable to offer this. Powderly’s rival, labor leader Samuel Gompers, agreed that “the movement of ’86 did not have the advantage of favorable conditions” (Gompers, 1925). Nelson (1986) points to divisions among workers, which probably had much to do with the failure in 1886 of the drive for the eight-hour day. Some insisted on eight hours with ten hours’ pay, but others were willing to accept eight hours with eight hours’ pay,

Haymarket Square Bombing

The eight-hour push of 1886 was, in Norman Ware’s words, “a flop” (Ware, 1929). Lack of will and organization among workers was undoubtedly important, but its collapse was aided by violence that marred strikes and political rallies in Chicago and Milwaukee. The 1886 drive for eight-hours literally blew up in organized labor’s face. At Haymarket Square in Chicago an anarchist bomb killed fifteen policemen during an eight-hour rally, and in Milwaukee’s Bay View suburb nine strikers were killed as police tried to disperse roving pickets. The public backlash and fear of revolution damned the eight-hour organizers along with the radicals and dampened the drive toward eight hours — although it is estimated that the strikes of May 1886 shortened the workweek for about 200,000 industrial workers, especially in New York City and Cincinnati.

The AFL’s Strategy

After the demise of the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) became the strongest labor union in the U.S. It held shorter hours as a high priority. The inside cover of its Proceedings carried two slogans in large type: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will” and “Whether you work by the piece or work by the day, decreasing the hours increases the pay.” (The latter slogan was coined by Ira Steward’s wife, Mary.) In the aftermath of 1886, the American Federation of Labor adopted a new strategy of selecting each year one industry in which it would attempt to win the eight-hour day, after laying solid plans, organizing, and building up a strike fund war chest by taxing nonstriking unions. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners was selected first and May 1, 1890 was set as a day of national strikes. It is estimated that nearly 100,000 workers gained the eight-hour day as a result of these strikes in 1890. However, other unions turned down the opportunity to follow the carpenters’ example and the tactic was abandoned. Instead, the length of the workweek continued to erode during this period, sometimes as the result of a successful local strike, more often as the result of broader economic forces.

The Spread of Hours Legislation

Massachusetts’ first hours law in 1874 set sixty hours per week as the legal maximum for women, in 1892 this was cut to 58, in 1908 to 56, and in 1911 to 54. By 1900, 26 percent of states had maximum hours laws covering women, children and, in some, adult men (generally only those in hazardous industries). The percentage of states with maximum hours laws climbed to 58 percent in 1910, 76 percent in 1920, and 84 percent in 1930. Steinberg (1982) calculates that the percent of employees covered climbed from 4 percent nationally in 1900, to 7 percent in 1910, and 12 percent in 1920 and 1930. In addition, these laws became more restrictive with the average legal standard falling from a maximum of 59.3 hours per week in 1900 to 56.7 in 1920. According to her calculations, in 1900 about 16 percent of the workers covered by these laws were adult men, 49 percent were adult women and the rest were minors.

Court Rulings

The banner years for maximum hours legislation were right around 1910. This may have been partly a reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling upholding female-hours legislation in the Muller vs. Oregon case (1908). The Court’s rulings were not always completely consistent during this period, however. In 1898 the Court upheld a maximum eight-hour day for workmen in the hazardous industries of mining and smelting in Utah in Holden vs. Hardy. In Lochner vs. New York (1905), it rejected as unconstitutional New York’s ten-hour day for bakers, which was also adopted (at least nominally) out of concerns for safety. The defendant showed that mortality rates in baking were only slightly above average, and lower than those for many unregulated occupations, arguing that this was special interest legislation, designed to favor unionized bakers. Several state courts, on the other hand, supported laws regulating the hours of men in only marginally hazardous work. By 1917, in Bunting vs. Oregon, the Supreme Court seemingly overturned the logic of the Lochner decision, supporting a state law that required overtime payment for all men working long hours. The general presumption during this period was that the courts would allow regulation of labor concerning women and children, who were thought to be incapable of bargaining on an equal footing with employers and in special need of protection. Men were allowed freedom of contract unless it could be proven that regulating their hours served a higher good for the population at large.

New Arguments about Shorter Hours

During the first decades of the twentieth century, arguments favoring shorter hours moved away from Steward’s line that shorter hours increased pay and reduced unemployment to arguments that shorter hours were good for employers because they made workers more productive. A new cadre of social scientists began to offer evidence that long hours produced health-threatening, productivity-reducing fatigue. This line of reasoning, advanced in the court brief of Louis Brandeis and Josephine Goldmark, was crucial in the Supreme Court’s decision to support state regulation of women’s hours in Muller vs. Oregon. Goldmark’s book, Fatigue and Efficiency (1912) was a landmark. In addition, data relating to hours and output among British and American war workers during World War I helped convince some that long hours could be counterproductive. Businessmen, however, frequently attacked the shorter hours movement as merely a ploy to raise wages, since workers were generally willing to work overtime at higher wage rates.

Federal Legislation in the 1910s

In 1912 the Federal Public Works Act was passed, which provided that every contract to which the U.S. government was a party must contain an eight-hour day clause. Three year later LaFollette’s Bill established maximum hours for maritime workers. These were preludes to the most important shorter-hours law enacted by Congress during this period — 1916’s Adamson Act, which was passed to counter a threatened nationwide strike, granted rail workers the basic eight hour day. (The law set eight hours as the basic workday and required higher overtime pay for longer hours.)

World War I and Its Aftermath

Labor markets became very tight during World War I as the demand for workers soared and the unemployment rate plunged. These forces put workers in a strong bargaining position, which they used to obtain shorter work schedules. The move to shorter hours was also pushed by the federal government, which gave unprecedented support to unionization. The federal government began to intervene in labor disputes for the first time, and the National War Labor Board “almost invariably awarded the basic eight-hour day when the question of hours was at issue” in labor disputes (Cahill, 1932). At the end of the war everyone wondered if organized labor would maintain its newfound power and the crucial test case was the steel industry. Blast furnace workers generally put in 84-hour workweeks. These abnormally long hours were the subject of much denunciation and a major issue in a strike that began in September 1919. The strike failed (and organized labor’s power receded during the 1920s), but four years later US Steel reduced its workday from twelve to eight hours. The move came after much arm-twisting by President Harding but its timing may be explained by immigration restrictions and the loss of immigrant workers who were willing to accept such long hours (Shiells, 1990).

The Move to a Five-day Workweek

During the 1920s agitation for shorter workdays largely disappeared, now that the workweek had fallen to about 50 hours. However, pressure arose to grant half-holidays on Saturday or Saturday off — especially in industries whose workers were predominantly Jewish. By 1927 at least 262 large establishments had adopted the five-day week, while only 32 had it by 1920. The most notable action was Henry Ford’s decision to adopt the five-day week in 1926. Ford employed more than half of the nation’s approximately 400,000 workers with five-day weeks. However, Ford’s motives were questioned by many employers who argued that productivity gains from reducing hours ceased beyond about forty-eight hours per week. Even the reformist American Labor Legislation Review greeted the call for a five-day workweek with lukewarm interest.

Changing Attitudes in the 1920s

Hunnicutt (1988) argues that during the 1920s businessmen and economists began to see shorter hours as a threat to future economic growth. With the development of advertising — the “gospel of consumption” — a new vision of progress was proposed to American workers. It replaced the goal of leisure time with a list of things to buy and business began to persuade workers that more work brought more tangible rewards. Many workers began to oppose further decreases in the length of the workweek. Hunnicutt concludes that a new work ethic arose as Americans threw off the psychology of scarcity for one of abundance.

Hours’ Reduction during the Great Depression

Then the Great Depression hit the American economy. By 1932 about half of American employers had shortened hours. Rather than slash workers’ real wages, employers opted to lay-off many workers (the unemployment rate hit 25 percent) and tried to protect the ones they kept on by the sharing of work among them. President Hoover’s Commission for Work Sharing pushed voluntary hours reductions and estimated that they had saved three to five million jobs. Major employers like Sears, GM, and Standard Oil scaled down their workweeks and Kellogg’s and the Akron tire industry pioneered the six-hour day. Amid these developments, the AFL called for a federally-mandated thirty-hour workweek.

The Black-Connery 30-Hours Bill and the NIRA

The movement for shorter hours as a depression-fighting work-sharing measure built such a seemingly irresistible momentum that by 1933 observers predicting that the “30-hour week was within a month of becoming federal law” (Hunnicutt, 1988). During the period after the 1932 election but before Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration, Congressional hearings on thirty hours began, and less than one month into FDR’s first term, the Senate passed, 53 to 30, a thirty-hour bill authored by Hugo Black. The bill was sponsored in the House by William Connery. Roosevelt originally supported the Black-Connery proposals, but soon backed off, uneasy with a provision forbidding importation of goods produced by workers whose weeks were longer than thirty hours, and convinced by arguments of business that trying to legislate fewer hours might have disastrous results. Instead, FDR backed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). Hunnicutt argues that an implicit deal was struck in the NIRA. Labor leaders were persuaded by NIRA Section 7a’s provisions — which guaranteed union organization and collective bargaining — to support the NIRA rather than the Black-Connery Thirty-Hour Bill. Business, with the threat of thirty hours hanging over its head, fell raggedly into line. (Most historians cite other factors as the key to the NIRA’s passage. See Barbara Alexander’s article on the NIRA in this encyclopedia.) When specific industry codes were drawn up by the NIRA-created National Recovery Administration (NRA), shorter hours were deemphasized. Despite a plan by NRA Administrator Hugh Johnson to make blanket provisions for a thirty-five hour workweek in all industry codes, by late August 1933, the momentum toward the thirty-hour week had dissipated. About half of employees covered by NRA codes had their hours set at forty per week and nearly 40 percent had workweeks longer than forty hours.

The FSLA: Federal Overtime Law

Hunnicutt argues that the entire New Deal can be seen as an attempt to keep shorter-hours advocates at bay. After the Supreme Court struck down the NRA, Roosevelt responded to continued demands for thirty hours with the Works Progress Administration, the Wagner Act, Social Security, and, finally, the Fair Labor Standards Acts, which set a federal minimum wage and decreed that overtime beyond forty hours per week would be paid at one-and-a-half times the base rate in covered industries.

The Demise of the Shorter Hours’ Movement

As the Great Depression ended, average weekly work hours slowly climbed from their low reached in 1934. During World War II hours reached a level almost as high as at the end of World War I. With the postwar return of weekly work hours to the forty-hour level the shorter hours movement effectively ended. Occasionally organized labor’s leaders announced that they would renew the push for shorter hours, but they found that most workers didn’t desire a shorter workweek.

The Case of Kellogg’s

Offsetting isolated examples of hours reductions after World War II, there were noteworthy cases of backsliding. Hunnicutt (1996) has studied the case of Kellogg’s in great detail. In 1946, 87% of women and 71% of men working at Kellogg’s voted to return to the six-hour day, with the end of the war. Over the course of the next decade, however, the tide turned. By 1957 most departments had opted to switch to 8-hour shifts, so that only about one-quarter of the work force, mostly women, retained a six-hour shift. Finally, in 1985, the last department voted to adopt an 8-hour workday. Workers, especially male workers, began to favor additional money more than the extra two hours per day of free time. In interviews they explained that they needed the extra money to buy a wide range of consumer items and to keep up with the neighbors. Several men told about the friction that resulted when men spent too much time around the house: “The wives didn’t like the men underfoot all day.” “The wife always found something for me to do if I hung around.” “We got into a lot of fights.” During the 1950s, the threat of unemployment evaporated and the moral condemnation for being a “work hog” no longer made sense. In addition, the rise of quasi-fixed employment costs (such as health insurance) induced management to push workers toward a longer workday.

The Current Situation

As the twentieth century ended there was nothing resembling a shorter hours “movement.” The length of the workweek continues to fall for most groups — but at a glacial pace. Some Americans complain about a lack of free time but the vast majority seem content with an average workweek of roughly forty hours — channeling almost all of their growing wages into higher incomes rather than increased leisure time.

Causes of the Decline in the Length of the Workweek

Supply, Demand and Hours of Work

The length of the workweek, like other labor market outcomes, is determined by the interaction of the supply and demand for labor. Employers are torn by conflicting pressures. Holding everything else constant, they would like employees to work long hours because this means that they can utilize their equipment more fully and offset any fixed costs from hiring each worker (such as the cost of health insurance — common today, but not a consideration a century ago). On the other hand, longer hours can bring reduced productivity due to worker fatigue and can bring worker demands for higher hourly wages to compensate for putting in long hours. If they set the workweek too high, workers may quit and few workers will be willing to work for them at a competitive wage rate. Thus, workers implicitly choose among a variety of jobs — some offering shorter hours and lower earnings, others offering longer hours and higher earnings.

Economic Growth and the Long-Term Reduction of Work Hours

Historically employers and employees often agreed on very long workweeks because the economy was not very productive (by today’s standards) and people had to work long hours to earn enough money to feed, clothe and house their families. The long-term decline in the length of the workweek, in this view, has primarily been due to increased economic productivity, which has yielded higher wages for workers. Workers responded to this rise in potential income by “buying” more leisure time, as well as by buying more goods and services. In a recent survey, a sizeable majority of economic historians agreed with this view. Over eighty percent accepted the proposition that “the reduction in the length of the workweek in American manufacturing before the Great Depression was primarily due to economic growth and the increased wages it brought” (Whaples, 1995). Other broad forces probably played only a secondary role. For example, roughly two-thirds of economic historians surveyed rejected the proposition that the efforts of labor unions were the primary cause of the drop in work hours before the Great Depression.

Winning the Eight-Hour Day in the Era of World War I

The swift reduction of the workweek in the period around World War I has been extensively analyzed by Whaples (1990b). His findings support the consensus that economic growth was the key to reduced work hours. Whaples links factors such as wages, labor legislation, union power, ethnicity, city size, leisure opportunities, age structure, wealth and homeownership, health, education, alternative employment opportunities, industrial concentration, seasonality of employment, and technological considerations to changes in the average workweek in 274 cities and 118 industries. He finds that the rapid economic expansion of the World War I period, which pushed up real wages by more than 18 percent between 1914 and 1919, explains about half of the drop in the length of the workweek. The reduction of immigration during the war was important, as it deprived employers of a group of workers who were willing to put in long hours, explaining about one-fifth of the hours decline. The rapid electrification of manufacturing seems also to have played an important role in reducing the workweek. Increased unionization explains about one-seventh of the reduction, and federal and state legislation and policies that mandated reduced workweeks also had a noticeable role.

Cross-sectional Patterns from 1919

In 1919 the average workweek varied tremendously, emphasizing the point that not all workers desired the same workweek. The workweek exceeded 69 hours in the iron blast furnace, cottonseed oil, and sugar beet industries, but fell below 45 hours in industries such as hats and caps, fur goods, and women’s clothing. Cities’ averages also differed dramatically. In a few Midwestern steel mill towns average workweeks exceeded 60 hours. In a wide range of low-wage Southern cities they reached the high 50s, but in high-wage Western ports, like Seattle, the workweek fell below 45 hours.

Whaples (1990a) finds that among the most important city-level determinants of the workweek during this period were the availability of a pool of agricultural workers, the capital-labor ratio, horsepower per worker, and the amount of employment in large establishments. Hours rose as each of these increased. Eastern European immigrants worked significantly longer than others, as did people in industries whose output varied considerably from season to season. High unionization and strike levels reduced hours to a small degree. The average female employee worked about six and a half fewer hours per week in 1919 than did the average male employee. In city-level comparisons, state maximum hours laws appear to have had little affect on average work hours, once the influences of other factors have been taken into account. One possibility is that these laws were passed only after economic forces lowered the length of the workweek. Overall, in cities where wages were one percent higher, hours were about -0.13 to -0.05 percent lower. Again, this suggests that during the era of declining hours, workers were willing to use higher wages to “buy” shorter hours.

Annotated Bibliography

Perhaps the most comprehensive survey of the shorter hours movement in the U.S. is David Roediger and Philip Foner’s Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day (1989). It contends that “the length of the working day has been the central issue for the American labor movement during its most vigorous periods of activity, uniting workers along lines of craft, gender, and ethnicity.” Critics argue that its central premise is flawed because workers have often been divided about the optimal length of the workweek. It explains the point of view of organized labor and recounts numerous historically important events and arguments, but does not attempt to examine in detail the broader economic forces that determined the length of the workweek. An earlier useful comprehensive work is Marion Cahill’s Shorter Hours: A Study of the Movement since the Civil War (1932).

Benjamin Hunnicutt’s Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work (1988) focuses on the period from 1920 to 1940 and traces the political, intellectual, and social “dialogues” that changed the American concept of progress from dreams of more leisure to an “obsession” with the importance of work and wage-earning. This work’s detailed analysis and insights are valuable, but it draws many of its inferences from what intellectuals said about shorter hours, rather than spending time on the actual decision makers — workers and employers. Hunnicutt’s Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day (1996), is important because it does exactly this — interviewing employees and examining the motives and decisions of a prominent employer. Unfortunately, it shows that one must carefully interpret what workers say on the subject, as they are prone to reinterpret their own pasts so that their choices can be more readily rationalized. (See EH.NET’s review: http://eh.net/book_reviews/kelloggs-six-hour-day/.)

Economists have given surprisingly little attention to the determinants of the workweek. The most comprehensive treatment is Robert Whaples’ “The Shortening of the American Work Week” (1990), which surveys estimates of the length of the workweek, the shorter hours movement, and economic theories about the length of the workweek. Its core is an extensive statistical examination of the determinants of the workweek in the period around World War I.

References

Atack, Jeremy and Fred Bateman. “How Long Was the Workday in 1880?” Journal of Economic History 52, no. 1 (1992): 129-160.

Cahill, Marion Cotter. Shorter Hours: A Study of the Movement since the Civil War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1932.

Carr, Lois Green. “Emigration and the Standard of Living: The Seventeenth Century Chesapeake.” Journal of Economic History 52, no. 2 (1992): 271-291.

Coleman, Mary T. and John Pencavel. “Changes in Work Hours of Male Employees, 1940-1988.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 46, no. 2 (1993a): 262-283.

Coleman, Mary T. and John Pencavel. “Trends in Market Work Behavior of Women since 1940.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 46, no. 4 (1993b): 653-676.

Douglas, Paul. Real Wages in the United States, 1890-1926. Boston: Houghton, 1930.

Fogel, Robert. The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Fogel, Robert and Stanley Engerman. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974.

Gallman, Robert. “The Agricultural Sector and the Pace of Economic Growth: U.S. Experience in the Nineteenth Century.” In Essays in Nineteenth-Century Economic History: The Old Northwest, edited by David Klingaman and Richard Vedder. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1975.

Goldmark, Josephine. Fatigue and Efficiency. New York: Charities Publication Committee, 1912.

Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor: An Autobiography. New York: Dutton, 1925.

Greis, Theresa Diss. The Decline of Annual Hours Worked in the United States, since 1947. Manpower and Human Resources Studies, no. 10, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, 1984.

Grob, Gerald. Workers and Utopia: A Study of Ideological Conflict in the American Labor Movement, 1865-1900. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1961.

Hunnicutt, Benjamin Kline. Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Hunnicutt, Benjamin Kline. Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Jones, Ethel. “New Estimates of Hours of Work per Week and Hourly Earnings, 1900-1957.” Review of Economics and Statistics 45, no. 4 (1963): 374-385.

Juster, F. Thomas and Frank P. Stafford. “The Allocation of Time: Empirical Findings, Behavioral Models, and Problems of Measurement.” Journal of Economic Literature 29, no. 2 (1991): 471-522.

Licht, Walter. Working for the Railroad: The Organization of Work in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Margo, Robert. “The Labor Force in the Nineteenth Century.” In The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Volume II, The Long Nineteenth Century, edited by Stanley Engerman and Robert Gallman, 207-243. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Nelson, Bruce. “‘We Can’t Get Them to Do Aggressive Work’: Chicago’s Anarchists and the Eight-Hour Movement.” International Labor and Working Class History 29 (1986).

Ng, Kenneth and Nancy Virts. “The Value of Freedom.” Journal of Economic History 49, no. 4 (1989): 958-965.

Owen, John. “Workweeks and Leisure: An Analysis of Trends, 1948-1975.” Monthly Labor Review 99 (1976).

Owen, John. “Work-time Reduction in the United States and Western Europe.” Monthly Labor Review 111 (1988).

Powderly, Terence. Thirty Years of Labor, 1859-1889. Columbus: Excelsior, 1890.

Ransom, Roger and Richard Sutch. One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Rodgers, Daniel. The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Roediger, David. “Ira Steward and the Antislavery Origins of American Eight-Hour Theory.” Labor History 27 (1986).

Roediger, David and Philip Foner. Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day. New York: Verso, 1989.

Schor, Juliet B. The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline in Leisure. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

Shiells, Martha Ellen, “Collective Choice of Working Conditions: Hours in British and U.S. Iron and Steel, 1890-1923.” Journal of Economic History 50, no. 2 (1990): 379-392.

Steinberg, Ronnie. Wages and Hours: Labor and Reform in Twentieth-Century America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1982.

United States, Department of Interior, Census Office. Report on the Statistics of Wages in Manufacturing Industries, by Joseph Weeks, 1880 Census, Vol. 20. Washington: GPO, 1883.

United States Senate. Senate Report 1394, Fifty-Second Congress, Second Session. “Wholesale Prices, Wages, and Transportation.” Washington: GPO, 1893.

Ware, Caroline. The Early New England Cotton Manufacture: A Study of Industrial Beginnings. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1931.

Ware, Norman. The Labor Movement in the United States, 1860-1895. New York: Appleton, 1929.

Weiss, Thomas and Lee Craig. “Agricultural Productivity Growth during the Decade of the Civil War.” Journal of Economic History 53, no. 3 (1993): 527-548.

Whaples, Robert. “The Shortening of the American Work Week: An Economic and Historical Analysis of Its Context, Causes, and Consequences.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1990a.

Whaples, Robert. “Winning the Eight-Hour Day, 1909-1919.” Journal of Economic History 50, no. 2 (1990b): 393-406.

Whaples, Robert. “Where Is There Consensus Among American Economic Historians? The Results of a Survey on Forty Propositions.” Journal of Economic History 55, no. 1 (1995): 139-154.

Citation: Whaples, Robert. “Hours of Work in U.S. History”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2001. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/hours-of-work-in-u-s-history/

The Glorious Revolution of 1688

Stephen Quinn, Texas Christian University

The Glorious Revolution was when William of Orange took the English throne from James II in 1688. The event brought a permanent realignment of power within the English constitution. The new co-monarchy of King William III and Queen Mary II accepted more constraints from Parliament than previous monarchs had, and the new constitution created the expectation that future monarchs would also remain constrained by Parliament. The new balance of power between parliament and crown made the promises of the English government more credible, and credibility allowed the government to reorganize its finances through a collection of changes called the Financial Revolution. A more contentious argument is that the constitutional changes made property rights more secure and thus promoted economic development.

Historical Overview

Tension between king and parliament ran deep throughout the seventeenth century. In the 1640s, the dispute turned into civil war. The loser, Charles I, was beheaded in 1649; his sons, Charles and James, fled to France; and the victorious Oliver Cromwell ruled England in the 1650s. Cromwell’s death in 1659 created a political vacuum, so Parliament invited Charles I’s sons back from exile, and the English monarchy was restored with the coronation of Charles II in 1660.

Tensions after the Restoration

The Restoration, however, did not settle the fundamental questions of power between king and Parliament. Indeed, exile had exposed Charles I’s sons to the strong monarchical methods of Louis XIV. Charles and James returned to Britain with expectations of an absolute monarchy justified by the Divine Right of Kings, so tensions continued during the reigns of Charles II (1660-1685) and his brother James II (1685-88). Table 1 lists many of the tensions and the positions favored by each side. The compromise struck during the Restoration was that Charles II would control his succession, that he would control his judiciary, and that he would have the power to collect traditional taxes. In exchange, Charles II would remain Protestant and the imposition of additional taxes would require Parliament’s approval.

Table 1

Issues Separating Crown and Parliament, 1660-1688

Issue King’s Favored Position Parliament’s Favored Position
Constitution Absolute Royal Power

(King above Law)

Constrained Royal Power

(King within Law)

Religion Catholic Protestant
Ally France Holland
Enemy Holland France
Inter-Branch Checks Royal right to control succession

(Parliamentary approval NOT required)

Parliament’s right to meet

(Royal summons NOT required)

Judiciary Subject to Royal Punishment Subject to Parliamentary Impeachment
Ordinary Revenue Royal authority sufficient to impose and collect traditional taxes. Parliamentary authority necessary to impose and collect traditional taxes.

traditional taxes traditional taxes.

Extraordinary Revenue Royal authority sufficient to impose and collect new taxes. Parliamentary authority necessary to impose and collect new taxes.
Appropriation Complete royal control over expenditures. Parliamentary audit or even appropriation.

In practice, authority over additional taxation was how Parliament constrained Charles II. Charles brought England into war against Protestant Holland (1665-67) with the support of extra taxes authorized by Parliament. In the years following that war, however, the extra funding from Parliament ceased, but Charles II’s borrowing and spending did not. By 1671, all his income was committed to regular expenses and paying interest on his debts. Parliament would not authorize additional funds, so Charles II was fiscally shackled.

Treaty of Dover

To regain fiscal autonomy and subvert Parliament, Charles II signed the secret Treaty of Dover with Louis XIV in 1671. Charles agreed that England would join France in war against Holland and that he would publicly convert to Catholicism. In return, Charles received cash from France and the prospect of victory spoils that would solve his debt problem. The treaty, however, threatened the Anglican Church, contradicted Charles II’s stated policy of support for Protestant Holland, and provided a source of revenue independent of Parliament.

Moreover, to free the money needed to launch his scheme, Charles stopped servicing many of his debts in an act called the Stop of the Exchequer, and, in Machiavellian fashion, Charles isolated a few bankers to take the loss (Roseveare 1991). The gamble, however, was lost when the English Navy failed to defeat the Dutch in 1672. Charles then avoided a break with Parliament by retreating from Catholicism.

James II

Parliament, however, was also unable to gain the upper hand. From 1679 to 1681, Protestant nobles had Parliament pass acts excluding Charles II’s Catholic brother James from succession to the throne. The political turmoil of the Exclusion Crisis created the Whig faction favoring exclusion and the Tory counter-faction opposing exclusion. Even with a majority in Commons, however, the Whigs could not force a reworking of the constitution in their favor because Charles responded by dissolving three Parliaments without giving his consent to the acts.

As a consequence of the stalemate, Charles did not summon Parliament over the final years of his life, and James did succeed to the throne in 1685. Unlike the pragmatic Charles, James II boldly pushed for all of his goals. On the religious front, the Catholic James upset his Anglican allies by threatening the preeminence of the Anglican Church (Jones 1978, 238). He also declared that his son and heir would be raised Catholic. On the military front, James expanded the standing army and promoted Catholic officers. On the financial front, he attempted to subvert Parliament by packing it with his loyalists. With a packed Parliament, “the king and his ministers could have achieved practical and permanent independence by obtaining a larger revenue” (Jones 1978, p. 243). By 1688, Tories, worried about the Church of England, and Whigs, worried about the independence of Parliament, agreed that they needed to unite against James II.

William of Orange

The solution became Mary Stuart and her husband, William of Orange. English factions invited Mary and William to seize the throne because the couple was Protestant and Mary was the daughter of James II. The situation, however, had additional drama because William was also the military commander of the Dutch Republic, and, in 1688, the Dutch were in a difficult military position. Holland was facing war with France (the Nine Years War, 1688-97), and the possibility was growing that James II would bring England into the war on the side of France. James was nearing open war with his son-in-law William.

For William and Holland, accepting the invitation and invading England was a bold gamble, but the success could turn England from a threat to an ally. William landed in England with a Dutch army on November 5, 1688 (Israel 1991). Defections in James II’s army followed before battle was joined, and William allowed James to flee to France. Parliament took the flight of James II as abdication and the co-reign of William III and Mary II officially replaced him on February 13, 1689. Although Mary had the claim to the throne as James II’s daughter, William demanded to be made King and Mary wanted William to have that power. Authority was simplified when Mary’s death in 1694 left William the sole monarch.

New Constitution

The deal struck between Parliament and the royal couple in 1688-89 was that Parliament would support the war against France, while William and Mary would accept new constraints on their authority. The new constitution reflected the relative weakness of William’s bargaining position more than any strength in Parliament’s position. Parliament feared the return of James, but William very much needed England’s willing support in the war against France because the costs would be extraordinary and William would be focused on military command instead of political wrangling.

The initial constitutional settlement was worked out in 1689 in the English Bill of Rights, the Toleration Act, and the Mutiny Act that collectively committed the monarchs to respect Parliament and Parliament’s laws. Fiscal power was settled over the 1690s as Parliament stopped granting the monarchs the authority to collect taxes for life. Instead, Parliament began regular re-authorization of all taxes, Parliament began to specify how new revenue authorizations could be spent, Parliament began to audit how revenue was spent, and Parliament diverted some funds entirely from the king’s control (Dickson 1967: 48-73). By the end of the war in 1697, the new fiscal powers of Parliament were largely in place.

Constitutional Credibility

The financial and economic importance of the arrangement between William and Mary and Parliament was that the commitments embodied in the constitutional monarchy of the Glorious Revolution were more credible that the commitments under the Restoration constitution (North and Weingast 1989). Essential to the argument is what economists mean by the term credible. If a constitution is viewed as a deal between Parliament and the Crown, then credibility means how believable it is today that Parliament and the king will choose to honor their promises tomorrow. Credibility does not ask whether Charles II reneged on a promise; rather, credibility asks if people expected Charles to renege.

One can represent the situation by drawing a decision tree that shows the future choices determining credibility. For example, the decision tree in Figure 1 contains the elements determining the credibility of Charles II’s honoring the Restoration constitution of 1660. Going forward in time from 1660 (left to right), the critical decision is whether Charles II will honor the constitution or eventually renege. The future decision by Charles, however, will depend on his estimation of benefits of becoming an absolute monarch versus the cost of failure and the chances he assigns to each. Determining credibility in 1660 requires working backwards (right to left). If one thinks Charles II will risk civil war to become an absolute monarch, then one would expect Charles II to renege on the constitution, and therefore the constitution lacks credibility despite what Charles II may promise in 1660. In contrast, if one expects Charles II to avoid civil war, then one would expect Charles to choose to honor the constitution, so the Restoration constitution would be credible.

Figure 1. Restoration of 1660 Decision Tree

A difficulty with credibility is foreseeing future options. With hindsight, we know that Charles II did attempt to break the Restoration constitution in 1670-72. When his war against Holland failed, he repaired relations with Parliament and avoided civil war, so Charles managed something not portrayed in Figure 1. He replaced the outcome of civil war in the decision tree with the outcome of a return to the status quo. The consequence of removing the threat of civil war, however, was to destroy credibility in the king’s commitment to the constitution. If James II believed he inherited the options created by his brother, then James II’s 1685 commitment to the Restoration constitution lacked credibility because the worst that would happen to James was a return to the status quo.

So why would the Glorious Revolution constitution be more credible than Restoration constitution challenged by both Charles II and James II? William was very unlikely to become Catholic or pro-French which eliminated many tensions. Also, William very much needed Parliament’s support for his war against France; however, the change in credibility argued by North and Weingast (1989) looks past William’s reign, so it also requires confidence that William’s successors would abide by the constitution. A source of long-run confidence was that the Glorious Revolution reasserted the risk of a monarch losing his throne. William III’s decision tree in 1689 again looked like Charles II’s in 1660, and Parliament’s threat to remove an offending monarch was becoming credible. The seventeenth century had now seen Parliament remove two of the four Stuart monarchs, and the second displacement in 1688 was much easier than the wars that ended the reign of Charles I in 1649.

Another lasting change that made the new constitution more credible than the old constitution was that William and his successors were more constrained in fiscal matters. Parliament’s growing ‘power of the purse’ gave the king less freedom to maneuver a constitutional challenge. Moreover, Parliament’s fiscal control increased over time because the new constitution favored Parliament in the constitutional renegotiations that accompanied each succeeding monarch.

As a result, the Glorious Revolution constitution made credible the enduring ascendancy of Parliament. In terms of the king, the new constitution increased the credibility of the proposition that kings would not usurp Parliament.

Fiscal Credibility

The second credibility story of the Glorious Revolution was that the increased credibility of the government’s constitutional structure translated into an increased credibility for the government’s commitments. When acting together, the king and Parliament retained the power to default on debt, seize property, or change rules; so why would the credibility of the constitution create confidence in a government’s promises to the public?

A king who lives within the constitution has less desire to renege on his commitments. Recall that Charles II defaulted on his debts in an attempt to subvert the constitution, and, in contrast, Parliament after the Glorious Revolution generously financed wars for monarchs who abided by the constitution. An irony of the Glorious Revolution is that monarchs who accepted constitutional constraints gained more resources than their absolutist forebears.

Still, should a monarch want to have his government renege, Parliament will not always agree, and a stable constitution assures a Parliamentary veto. The two houses of Parliament, Commons and Lords, creates more veto opportunities, and the chances of a policy change decrease with more veto opportunities if the king and the two houses have different interests (Weingast 1997).

Another aspect of Parliament is the role of political parties. For veto opportunities to block change, opponents need only to control one veto, and here the coalition aspect of parties was important. For example, the Whig coalition combined dissenting Protestants and moneyed interests, so each could rely on mutual support through the Whig party to block government action against either. Cross-issue bargaining between factions creates a cohesive coalition on multiple issues (Stasavage 2002).

An additional reason for Parliament’s credibility was reputation. As a deterrent against violating commitments today, reputation relies on penalties felt tomorrow, so reputation often does not deter those overly focused on the present. A desperate king is a common example. As collective bodies of indefinite life, however, Parliament and political parties have longer time horizons than an individual, so reputation has better chance of fostering credibility.

A measure of fiscal credibility is the risk premium that the market puts on government debt. During the Nine Years War (1688-97), government debt carried a risk premium of 4 percent over private debt, but that risk premium disappeared and became a small discount in the years 1698 to 1705 (Quinn 2001: 610). The drop in the rates on government debt marks a substantial increase in the market’s confidence in the government after the Treaty of Ryswick ended the Nine Years War in 1697 and left William III and the new constitution intact. A related measure of confidence was the market price of stock in companies like the Bank of England and the East India Company. Because those companies were created by Parliamentary authorization and held large quantities of government debt, changes in confidence were reflected in changes in their stock prices. Again, the Treaty of Ryswick greatly increased stock prices and confirms a substantial increase in the credibility of the government (Wells and Wills 2000, 434). In contrast, later Jacobite threats, such as the invasion of Scotland by James II’s son ‘the Pretender’ in 1708, had negative but largely transitory effects on share prices.

Financial Consequences

The fiscal credibility of the English government created by the Glorious Revolution unleashed a revolution in public finance. The most prominent element was the introduction of long-run borrowing by the government, because such borrowing absolutely relied on the government’s fiscal credibility. To create credible long-run debt, Parliament took responsibility for the debt, and Parliamentary-funded debt became the National Debt, instead of just the king’s debt. To bolster credibility, Parliament committed future tax revenues to servicing the debts and introduced new taxes as needed (Dickson 1967, Brewer 1988). Credible government debt formed the basis of the Bank of England in 1694 and the core the London stock market. The combination of these changes has been called the Financial Revolution and was essential for Britain’s emergence as a Great Power in the eighteenth century (Neal 2000).

While the Glorious Revolution was critical to the Financial Revolution in England, the follow up assertion in North and Weingast (1989) that the Glorious Revolution increased the security of property rights in general, and so spurred economic growth, remains an open question. A difficulty is how to test the question. An increase in the credibility of property rights might cause interest rates to decrease because people become willing to save more; however, rates based on English property rentals show no effect from the Glorious Revolution, and the rates of one London banker actually increased after the Glorious Revolution (Clark 1996, Quinn 2001). In contrast, high interest rates could indicate that the Glorious Revolution increased entrepreneurship and demand for investment. Unfortunately, high rates could also mean that the expansion of government borrowing permitted by the Financial Revolution crowded out investment. North and Weingast (1989) point to a general expansion of financial intermediation which is supported by studies like Carlos, Key, and Dupree (1998) that find the secondary market for Royal African Company and Hudson’s Bay Company stocks became busier in the 1690s. Distinguishing between crowding out and increased demand for investment, however, relies on establishing whether the overall quantity of business investment changed, and that remains unresolved because of the difficulty in constructing such an aggregate measure. The potential linkages between the credibility created by the Glorious Revolution and economic development remain an open question.

References:

Brewer, John. The Sinews of Power. Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1988.

Carlos, Ann M., Jennifer Key, and Jill L. Dupree. “Learning and the Creation of Stock-Market Institutions: Evidence from the Royal African and Hudson’s Bay Companies, 1670-1700.” Journal of Economic History 58, no. 2 (1998): 318-44.

Clark, Gregory. “The Political Foundations of Modern Economic Growth: England, 1540-1800.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 55 (1996): 563-87.

Dickson, Peter. The Financial Revolution in England. New York: St. Martin’s, 1967.

Israel, Jonathan. “The Dutch Role in the Glorious Revolution.” In The Anglo-Dutch Moment, edited by Jonathan Israel, 103-62. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Jones, James, Country and Court England, 1658-1714. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Neal, Larry. “How it All Began: the Monetary and Financial Architecture of Europe during the First Global Capital Markets, 1648-1815.” Financial History Review 7 (2000): 117-40.

North, Douglass, and Barry Weingast. “Constitutions and Commitment: The Evolution of Institutions Governing Public Choice in Seventeenth-Century England.” Journal of Economic History 49, no. 4(1989): 803-32.

Roseveare, Henry. The Financial Revolution 1660-1760. London: Longman, 1991.

Quinn, Stephen. “The Glorious Revolution’s Effect on English Private Finance: A Microhistory, 1680-1705.” Journal of Economic History 61, no. 3 (2001): 593-615.

Stasavage, David. “Credible Commitments in Early Modern Europe: North and Weingast Revisited.” Journal of Law and Economics 18, no. 1 (2002): 155-86.

Weingast, Barry, “The Political Foundations of Limited Government: Parliament Sovereign Debt in Seventeenth-Century and Eighteenth-Century England.” In The Frontiers of the New Institutional Economics, edited by John Drobak and John Nye, 213-246. San Diego: Academic Press, 1997.

Wells, John, and Douglas Wills. “Revolution, Restoration, and Debt Repudiation: The Jacobite Threat to England’s Institutions and Economic Growth.” Journal of Economic History 60, no 2 (2000): 418-41.

Citation: Quinn, Stephen. “The Glorious Revolution of 1688”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. April 17, 2003. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-glorious-revolution-of-1688/

The U.S. Economy in the 1920s

Gene Smiley, Marquette University

Introduction

The interwar period in the United States, and in the rest of the world, is a most interesting era. The decade of the 1930s marks the most severe depression in our history and ushered in sweeping changes in the role of government. Economists and historians have rightly given much attention to that decade. However, with all of this concern about the growing and developing role of government in economic activity in the 1930s, the decade of the 1920s often tends to get overlooked. This is unfortunate because the 1920s are a period of vigorous, vital economic growth. It marks the first truly modern decade and dramatic economic developments are found in those years. There is a rapid adoption of the automobile to the detriment of passenger rail travel. Though suburbs had been growing since the late nineteenth century their growth had been tied to rail or trolley access and this was limited to the largest cities. The flexibility of car access changed this and the growth of suburbs began to accelerate. The demands of trucks and cars led to a rapid growth in the construction of all-weather surfaced roads to facilitate their movement. The rapidly expanding electric utility networks led to new consumer appliances and new types of lighting and heating for homes and businesses. The introduction of the radio, radio stations, and commercial radio networks began to break up rural isolation, as did the expansion of local and long-distance telephone communications. Recreational activities such as traveling, going to movies, and professional sports became major businesses. The period saw major innovations in business organization and manufacturing technology. The Federal Reserve System first tested its powers and the United States moved to a dominant position in international trade and global business. These things make the 1920s a period of considerable importance independent of what happened in the 1930s.

National Product and Income and Prices

We begin the survey of the 1920s with an examination of the overall production in the economy, GNP, the most comprehensive measure of aggregate economic activity. Real GNP growth during the 1920s was relatively rapid, 4.2 percent a year from 1920 to 1929 according to the most widely used estimates. (Historical Statistics of the United States, or HSUS, 1976) Real GNP per capita grew 2.7 percent per year between 1920 and 1929. By both nineteenth and twentieth century standards these were relatively rapid rates of real economic growth and they would be considered rapid even today.

There were several interruptions to this growth. In mid-1920 the American economy began to contract and the 1920-1921 depression lasted about a year, but a rapid recovery reestablished full-employment by 1923. As will be discussed below, the Federal Reserve System’s monetary policy was a major factor in initiating the 1920-1921 depression. From 1923 through 1929 growth was much smoother. There was a very mild recession in 1924 and another mild recession in 1927 both of which may be related to oil price shocks (McMillin and Parker, 1994). The 1927 recession was also associated with Henry Ford’s shut-down of all his factories for six months in order to changeover from the Model T to the new Model A automobile. Though the Model T’s market share was declining after 1924, in 1926 Ford’s Model T still made up nearly 40 percent of all the new cars produced and sold in the United States. The Great Depression began in the summer of 1929, possibly as early as June. The initial downturn was relatively mild but the contraction accelerated after the crash of the stock market at the end of October. Real total GNP fell 10.2 percent from 1929 to 1930 while real GNP per capita fell 11.5 percent from 1929 to 1930.

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Price changes during the 1920s are shown in Figure 2. The Consumer Price Index, CPI, is a better measure of changes in the prices of commodities and services that a typical consumer would purchase, while the Wholesale Price Index, WPI, is a better measure in the changes in the cost of inputs for businesses. As the figure shows the 1920-1921 depression was marked by extraordinarily large price decreases. Consumer prices fell 11.3 percent from 1920 to 1921 and fell another 6.6 percent from 1921 to 1922. After that consumer prices were relatively constant and actually fell slightly from 1926 to 1927 and from 1927 to 1928. Wholesale prices show greater variation. The 1920-1921 depression hit farmers very hard. Prices had been bid up with the increasing foreign demand during the First World War. As European production began to recover after the war prices began to fall. Though the prices of agricultural products fell from 1919 to 1920, the depression brought on dramatic declines in the prices of raw agricultural produce as well as many other inputs that firms employ. In the scramble to beat price increases during 1919 firms had built up large inventories of raw materials and purchased inputs and this temporary increase in demand led to even larger price increases. With the depression firms began to draw down those inventories. The result was that the prices of raw materials and manufactured inputs fell rapidly along with the prices of agricultural produce—the WPI dropped 45.9 percent between 1920 and 1921. The price changes probably tend to overstate the severity of the 1920-1921 depression. Romer’s recent work (1988) suggests that prices changed much more easily in that depression reducing the drop in production and employment. Wholesale prices in the rest of the 1920s were relatively stable though they were more likely to fall than to rise.

Economic Growth in the 1920s

Despite the 1920-1921 depression and the minor interruptions in 1924 and 1927, the American economy exhibited impressive economic growth during the 1920s. Though some commentators in later years thought that the existence of some slow growing or declining sectors in the twenties suggested weaknesses that might have helped bring on the Great Depression, few now argue this. Economic growth never occurs in all sectors at the same time and at the same rate. Growth reallocates resources from declining or slower growing sectors to the more rapidly expanding sectors in accordance with new technologies, new products and services, and changing consumer tastes.

Economic growth in the 1920s was impressive. Ownership of cars, new household appliances, and housing was spread widely through the population. New products and processes of producing those products drove this growth. The combination of the widening use of electricity in production and the growing adoption of the moving assembly line in manufacturing combined to bring on a continuing rise in the productivity of labor and capital. Though the average workweek in most manufacturing remained essentially constant throughout the 1920s, in a few industries, such as railroads and coal production, it declined. (Whaples 2001) New products and services created new markets such as the markets for radios, electric iceboxes, electric irons, fans, electric lighting, vacuum cleaners, and other laborsaving household appliances. This electricity was distributed by the growing electric utilities. The stocks of those companies helped create the stock market boom of the late twenties. RCA, one of the glamour stocks of the era, paid no dividends but its value appreciated because of expectations for the new company. Like the Internet boom of the late 1990s, the electricity boom of the 1920s fed a rapid expansion in the stock market.

Fed by continuing productivity advances and new products and services and facilitated by an environment of stable prices that encouraged production and risk taking, the American economy embarked on a sustained expansion in the 1920s.

Population and Labor in the 1920s

At the same time that overall production was growing, population growth was declining. As can be seen in Figure 3, from an annual rate of increase of 1.85 and 1.93 percent in 1920 and 1921, respectively, population growth rates fell to 1.23 percent in 1928 and 1.04 percent in 1929.

These changes in the overall growth rate were linked to the birth and death rates of the resident population and a decrease in foreign immigration. Though the crude death rate changed little during the period, the crude birth rate fell sharply into the early 1930s. (Figure 4) There are several explanations for the decline in the birth rate during this period. First, there was an accelerated rural-to-urban migration. Urban families have tended to have fewer children than rural families because urban children do not augment family incomes through their work as unpaid workers as rural children do. Second, the period also saw continued improvement in women’s job opportunities and a rise in their labor force participation rates.

Immigration also fell sharply. In 1917 the federal government began to limit immigration and in 1921 an immigration act limited the number of prospective citizens of any nationality entering the United States each year to no more than 3 percent of that nationality’s resident population as of the 1910 census. A new act in 1924 lowered this to 2 percent of the resident population at the 1890 census and more firmly blocked entry for people from central, southern, and eastern European nations. The limits were relaxed slightly in 1929.

The American population also continued to move during the interwar period. Two regions experienced the largest losses in population shares, New England and the Plains. For New England this was a continuation of a long-term trend. The population share for the Plains region had been rising through the nineteenth century. In the interwar period its agricultural base, combined with the continuing shift from agriculture to industry, led to a sharp decline in its share. The regions gaining population were the Southwest and, particularly, the far West.— California began its rapid growth at this time.

 Real Average Weekly or Daily Earnings for Selected=During the 1920s the labor force grew at a more rapid rate than population. This somewhat more rapid growth came from the declining share of the population less than 14 years old and therefore not in the labor force. In contrast, the labor force participation rates, or fraction of the population aged 14 and over that was in the labor force, declined during the twenties from 57.7 percent to 56.3 percent. This was entirely due to a fall in the male labor force participation rate from 89.6 percent to 86.8 percent as the female labor force participation rate rose from 24.3 percent to 25.1 percent. The primary source of the fall in male labor force participation rates was a rising retirement rate. Employment rates for males who were 65 or older fell from 60.1 percent in 1920 to 58.0 percent in 1930.

With the depression of 1920-1921 the unemployment rate rose rapidly from 5.2 to 8.7 percent. The recovery reduced unemployment to an average rate of 4.8 percent in 1923. The unemployment rate rose to 5.8 percent in the recession of 1924 and to 5.0 percent with the slowdown in 1927. Otherwise unemployment remained relatively low. The onset of the Great Depression from the summer of 1929 on brought the unemployment rate from 4.6 percent in 1929 to 8.9 percent in 1930. (Figure 5)

Earnings for laborers varied during the twenties. Table 1 presents average weekly earnings for 25 manufacturing industries. For these industries male skilled and semi-skilled laborers generally commanded a premium of 35 percent over the earnings of unskilled male laborers in the twenties. Unskilled males received on average 35 percent more than females during the twenties. Real average weekly earnings for these 25 manufacturing industries rose somewhat during the 1920s. For skilled and semi-skilled male workers real average weekly earnings rose 5.3 percent between 1923 and 1929, while real average weekly earnings for unskilled males rose 8.7 percent between 1923 and 1929. Real average weekly earnings for females rose on 1.7 percent between 1923 and 1929. Real weekly earnings for bituminous and lignite coal miners fell as the coal industry encountered difficult times in the late twenties and the real daily wage rate for farmworkers in the twenties, reflecting the ongoing difficulties in agriculture, fell after the recovery from the 1920-1921 depression.

The 1920s were not kind to labor unions even though the First World War had solidified the dominance of the American Federation of Labor among labor unions in the United States. The rapid growth in union membership fostered by federal government policies during the war ended in 1919. A committee of AFL craft unions undertook a successful membership drive in the steel industry in that year. When U.S. Steel refused to bargain, the committee called a strike, the failure of which was a sharp blow to the unionization drive. (Brody, 1965) In the same year, the United Mine Workers undertook a large strike and also lost. These two lost strikes and the 1920-21 depression took the impetus out of the union movement and led to severe membership losses that continued through the twenties. (Figure 6)

Under Samuel Gompers’s leadership, the AFL’s “business unionism” had attempted to promote the union and collective bargaining as the primary answer to the workers’ concerns with wages, hours, and working conditions. The AFL officially opposed any government actions that would have diminished worker attachment to unions by providing competing benefits, such as government sponsored unemployment insurance, minimum wage proposals, maximum hours proposals and social security programs. As Lloyd Ulman (1961) points out, the AFL, under Gompers’ direction, differentiated on the basis of whether the statute would or would not aid collective bargaining. After Gompers’ death, William Green led the AFL in a policy change as the AFL promoted the idea of union-management cooperation to improve output and promote greater employer acceptance of unions. But Irving Bernstein (1965) concludes that, on the whole, union-management cooperation in the twenties was a failure.

To combat the appeal of unions in the twenties, firms used the “yellow-dog” contract requiring employees to swear they were not union members and would not join one; the “American Plan” promoting the open shop and contending that the closed shop was un-American; and welfare capitalism. The most common aspects of welfare capitalism included personnel management to handle employment issues and problems, the doctrine of “high wages,” company group life insurance, old-age pension plans, stock-purchase plans, and more. Some firms formed company unions to thwart independent unionization and the number of company-controlled unions grew from 145 to 432 between 1919 and 1926.

Until the late thirties the AFL was a voluntary association of independent national craft unions. Craft unions relied upon the particular skills the workers had acquired (their craft) to distinguish the workers and provide barriers to the entry of other workers. Most craft unions required a period of apprenticeship before a worker was fully accepted as a journeyman worker. The skills, and often lengthy apprenticeship, constituted the entry barrier that gave the union its bargaining power. There were only a few unions that were closer to today’s industrial unions where the required skills were much less (or nonexistent) making the entry of new workers much easier. The most important of these industrial unions was the United Mine Workers, UMW.

The AFL had been created on two principles: the autonomy of the national unions and the exclusive jurisdiction of the national union.—Individual union members were not, in fact, members of the AFL; rather, they were members of the local and national union, and the national was a member of the AFL. Representation in the AFL gave dominance to the national unions, and, as a result, the AFL had little effective power over them. The craft lines, however, had never been distinct and increasingly became blurred. The AFL was constantly mediating jurisdictional disputes between member national unions. Because the AFL and its individual unions were not set up to appeal to and work for the relatively less skilled industrial workers, union organizing and growth lagged in the twenties.

Agriculture

The onset of the First World War in Europe brought unprecedented prosperity to American farmers. As agricultural production in Europe declined, the demand for American agricultural exports rose, leading to rising farm product prices and incomes. In response to this, American farmers expanded production by moving onto marginal farmland, such as Wisconsin cutover property on the edge of the woods and hilly terrain in the Ozark and Appalachian regions. They also increased output by purchasing more machinery, such as tractors, plows, mowers, and threshers. The price of farmland, particularly marginal farmland, rose in response to the increased demand, and the debt of American farmers increased substantially.

This expansion of American agriculture continued past the end of the First World War as farm exports to Europe and farm prices initially remained high. However, agricultural production in Europe recovered much faster than most observers had anticipated. Even before the onset of the short depression in 1920, farm exports and farm product prices had begun to fall. During the depression, farm prices virtually collapsed. From 1920 to 1921, the consumer price index fell 11.3 percent, the wholesale price index fell 45.9 percent, and the farm products price index fell 53.3 percent. (HSUS, Series E40, E42, and E135)

Real average net income per farm fell over 72.6 percent between 1920 and 1921 and, though rising in the twenties, never recovered the relative levels of 1918 and 1919. (Figure 7) Farm mortgage foreclosures rose and stayed at historically high levels for the entire decade of the 1920s. (Figure 8) The value of farmland and buildings fell throughout the twenties and, for the first time in American history, the number of cultivated acres actually declined as farmers pulled back from the marginal farmland brought into production during the war. Rather than indicators of a general depression in agriculture in the twenties, these were the results of the financial commitments made by overoptimistic American farmers during and directly after the war. The foreclosures were generally on second mortgages rather than on first mortgages as they were in the early 1930s. (Johnson, 1973; Alston, 1983)

A Declining Sector

A major difficulty in analyzing the interwar agricultural sector lies in separating the effects of the 1920-21 and 1929-33 depressions from those that arose because agriculture was declining relative to the other sectors. A relatively very slow growing demand for basic agricultural products and significant increases in the productivity of labor, land, and machinery in agricultural production combined with a much more rapid extensive economic growth in the nonagricultural sectors of the economy required a shift of resources, particularly labor, out of agriculture. (Figure 9) The market induces labor to voluntarily move from one sector to another through income differentials, suggesting that even in the absence of the effects of the depressions, farm incomes would have been lower than nonfarm incomes so as to bring about this migration.

The continuous substitution of tractor power for horse and mule power released hay and oats acreage to grow crops for human consumption. Though cotton and tobacco continued as the primary crops in the south, the relative production of cotton continued to shift to the west as production in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California increased. As quotas reduced immigration and incomes rose, the demand for cereal grains grew slowly—more slowly than the supply—and the demand for fruits, vegetables, and dairy products grew. Refrigeration and faster freight shipments expanded the milk sheds further from metropolitan areas. Wisconsin and other North Central states began to ship cream and cheeses to the Atlantic Coast. Due to transportation improvements, specialized truck farms and the citrus industry became more important in California and Florida. (Parker, 1972; Soule, 1947)

The relative decline of the agricultural sector in this period was closely related to the highly inelastic income elasticity of demand for many farm products, particularly cereal grains, pork, and cotton. As incomes grew, the demand for these staples grew much more slowly. At the same time, rising land and labor productivity were increasing the supplies of staples, causing real prices to fall.

Table 3 presents selected agricultural productivity statistics for these years. Those data indicate that there were greater gains in labor productivity than in land productivity (or per acre yields). Per acre yields in wheat and hay actually decreased between 1915-19 and 1935-39. These productivity increases, which released resources from the agricultural sector, were the result of technological improvements in agriculture.

Technological Improvements In Agricultural Production

In many ways the adoption of the tractor in the interwar period symbolizes the technological changes that occurred in the agricultural sector. This changeover in the power source that farmers used had far-reaching consequences and altered the organization of the farm and the farmers’ lifestyle. The adoption of the tractor was land saving (by releasing acreage previously used to produce crops for workstock) and labor saving. At the same time it increased the risks of farming because farmers were now much more exposed to the marketplace. They could not produce their own fuel for tractors as they had for the workstock. Rather, this had to be purchased from other suppliers. Repair and replacement parts also had to be purchased, and sometimes the repairs had to be undertaken by specialized mechanics. The purchase of a tractor also commonly required the purchase of new complementary machines; therefore, the decision to purchase a tractor was not an isolated one. (White, 2001; Ankli, 1980; Ankli and Olmstead, 1981; Musoke, 1981; Whatley, 1987). These changes resulted in more and more farmers purchasing and using tractors, but the rate of adoption varied sharply across the United States.

Technological innovations in plants and animals also raised productivity. Hybrid seed corn increased yields from an average of 40 bushels per acre to 100 to 120 bushels per acre. New varieties of wheat were developed from the hardy Russian and Turkish wheat varieties which had been imported. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Experiment Stations took the lead in developing wheat varieties for different regions. For example, in the Columbia River Basin new varieties raised yields from an average of 19.1 bushels per acre in 1913-22 to 23.1 bushels per acre in 1933-42. (Shepherd, 1980) New hog breeds produced more meat and new methods of swine sanitation sharply increased the survival rate of piglets. An effective serum for hog cholera was developed, and the federal government led the way in the testing and eradication of bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis. Prior to the Second World War, a number of pesticides to control animal disease were developed, including cattle dips and disinfectants. By the mid-1920s a vaccine for “blackleg,” an infectious, usually fatal disease that particularly struck young cattle, was completed. The cattle tick, which carried Texas Fever, was largely controlled through inspections. (Schlebecker, 1975; Bogue, 1983; Wood, 1980)

Federal Agricultural Programs in the 1920s

Though there was substantial agricultural discontent in the period from the Civil War to late 1890s, the period from then to the onset of the First World War was relatively free from overt farmers’ complaints. In later years farmers dubbed the 1910-14 period as agriculture’s “golden years” and used the prices of farm crops and farm inputs in that period as a standard by which to judge crop and input prices in later years. The problems that arose in the agricultural sector during the twenties once again led to insistent demands by farmers for government to alleviate their distress.

Though there were increasing calls for direct federal government intervention to limit production and raise farm prices, this was not used until Roosevelt took office. Rather, there was a reliance upon the traditional method to aid injured groups—tariffs, and upon the “sanctioning and promotion of cooperative marketing associations.” In 1921 Congress attempted to control the grain exchanges and compel merchants and stockyards to charge “reasonable rates,” with the Packers and Stockyards Act and the Grain Futures Act. In 1922 Congress passed the Capper-Volstead Act to promote agricultural cooperatives and the Fordney-McCumber Tariff to impose high duties on most agricultural imports.—The Cooperative Marketing Act of 1924 did not bolster failing cooperatives as it was supposed to do. (Hoffman and Liebcap, 1991)

Twice between 1924 and 1928 Congress passed “McNary-Haugan” bills, but President Calvin Coolidge vetoed both. The McNary-Haugan bills proposed to establish “fair” exchange values (based on the 1910-14 period) for each product and to maintain them through tariffs and a private corporation that would be chartered by the government and could buy enough of each commodity to keep its price up to the computed fair level. The revenues were to come from taxes imposed on farmers. The Hoover administration passed the Hawley-Smoot tariff in 1930 and an Agricultural Marketing Act in 1929. This act committed the federal government to a policy of stabilizing farm prices through several nongovernment institutions but these failed during the depression. Federal intervention in the agricultural sector really came of age during the New Deal era of the 1930s.

Manufacturing

Agriculture was not the only sector experiencing difficulties in the twenties. Other industries, such as textiles, boots and shoes, and coal mining, also experienced trying times. However, at the same time that these industries were declining, other industries, such as electrical appliances, automobiles, and construction, were growing rapidly. The simultaneous existence of growing and declining industries has been common to all eras because economic growth and technological progress never affect all sectors in the same way. In general, in manufacturing there was a rapid rate of growth of productivity during the twenties. The rise of real wages due to immigration restrictions and the slower growth of the resident population spurred this. Transportation improvements and communications advances were also responsible. These developments brought about differential growth in the various manufacturing sectors in the United States in the 1920s.

Because of the historic pattern of economic development in the United States, the northeast was the first area to really develop a manufacturing base. By the mid-nineteenth century the East North Central region was creating a manufacturing base and the other regions began to create manufacturing bases in the last half of the nineteenth century resulting in a relative westward and southern shift of manufacturing activity. This trend continued in the 1920s as the New England and Middle Atlantic regions’ shares of manufacturing employment fell while all of the other regions—excluding the West North Central region—gained. There was considerable variation in the growth of the industries and shifts in their ranking during the decade. The largest broadly defined industries were, not surprisingly, food and kindred products; textile mill products; those producing and fabricating primary metals; machinery production; and chemicals. When industries are more narrowly defined, the automobile industry, which ranked third in manufacturing value added in 1919, ranked first by the mid-1920s.

Productivity Developments

Gavin Wright (1990) has argued that one of the underappreciated characteristics of American industrial history has been its reliance on mineral resources. Wright argues that the growing American strength in industrial exports and industrialization in general relied on an increasing intensity in nonreproducible natural resources. The large American market was knit together as one large market without internal barriers through the development of widespread low-cost transportation. Many distinctively American developments, such as continuous-process, mass-production methods were associated with the “high throughput” of fuel and raw materials relative to labor and capital inputs. As a result the United States became the dominant industrial force in the world 1920s and 1930s. According to Wright, after World War II “the process by which the United States became a unified ‘economy’ in the nineteenth century has been extended to the world as a whole. To a degree, natural resources have become commodities rather than part of the ‘factor endowment’ of individual countries.” (Wright, 1990)

In addition to this growing intensity in the use of nonreproducible natural resources as a source of productivity gains in American manufacturing, other technological changes during the twenties and thirties tended to raise the productivity of the existing capital through the replacement of critical types of capital equipment with superior equipment and through changes in management methods. (Soule, 1947; Lorant, 1967; Devine, 1983; Oshima, 1984) Some changes, such as the standardization of parts and processes and the reduction of the number of styles and designs, raised the productivity of both capital and labor. Modern management techniques, first introduced by Frederick W. Taylor, were introduced on a wider scale.

One of the important forces contributing to mass production and increased productivity was the transfer to electric power. (Devine, 1983) By 1929 about 70 percent of manufacturing activity relied on electricity, compared to roughly 30 percent in 1914. Steam provided 80 percent of the mechanical drive capacity in manufacturing in 1900, but electricity provided over 50 percent by 1920 and 78 percent by 1929. An increasing number of factories were buying their power from electric utilities. In 1909, 64 percent of the electric motor capacity in manufacturing establishments used electricity generated on the factory site; by 1919, 57 percent of the electricity used in manufacturing was purchased from independent electric utilities.

The shift from coal to oil and natural gas and from raw unprocessed energy in the forms of coal and waterpower to processed energy in the form of internal combustion fuel and electricity increased thermal efficiency. After the First World War energy consumption relative to GNP fell, there was a sharp increase in the growth rate of output per labor-hour, and the output per unit of capital input once again began rising. These trends can be seen in the data in Table 3. Labor productivity grew much more rapidly during the 1920s than in the previous or following decade. Capital productivity had declined in the decade previous to the 1920s while it also increased sharply during the twenties and continued to rise in the following decade. Alexander Field (2003) has argued that the 1930s were the most technologically progressive decade of the twentieth century basing his argument on the growth of multi-factor productivity as well as the impressive array of technological developments during the thirties. However, the twenties also saw impressive increases in labor and capital productivity as, particularly, developments in energy and transportation accelerated.

 Average Annual Rates of Labor Productivity and Capital Productivity Growth.

Warren Devine, Jr. (1983) reports that in the twenties the most important result of the adoption of electricity was that it would be an indirect “lever to increase production.” There were a number of ways in which this occurred. Electricity brought about an increased flow of production by allowing new flexibility in the design of buildings and the arrangement of machines. In this way it maximized throughput. Electric cranes were an “inestimable boon” to production because with adequate headroom they could operate anywhere in a plant, something that mechanical power transmission to overhead cranes did not allow. Electricity made possible the use of portable power tools that could be taken anywhere in the factory. Electricity brought about improved illumination, ventilation, and cleanliness in the plants, dramatically improving working conditions. It improved the control of machines since there was no longer belt slippage with overhead line shafts and belt transmission, and there were less limitations on the operating speeds of machines. Finally, it made plant expansion much easier than when overhead shafts and belts had been relied upon for operating power.

The mechanization of American manufacturing accelerated in the 1920s, and this led to a much more rapid growth of productivity in manufacturing compared to earlier decades and to other sectors at that time. There were several forces that promoted mechanization. One was the rapidly expanding aggregate demand during the prosperous twenties. Another was the technological developments in new machines and processes, of which electrification played an important part. Finally, Harry Jerome (1934) and, later, Harry Oshima (1984) both suggest that the price of unskilled labor began to rise as immigration sharply declined with new immigration laws and falling population growth. This accelerated the mechanization of the nation’s factories.

Technological changes during this period can be documented for a number of individual industries. In bituminous coal mining, labor productivity rose when mechanical loading devices reduced the labor required from 24 to 50 percent. The burst of paved road construction in the twenties led to the development of a finishing machine to smooth the surface of cement highways, and this reduced the labor requirement from 40 to 60 percent. Mechanical pavers that spread centrally mixed materials further increased productivity in road construction. These replaced the roadside dump and wheelbarrow methods of spreading the cement. Jerome (1934) reports that the glass in electric light bulbs was made by new machines that cut the number of labor-hours required for their manufacture by nearly half. New machines to produce cigarettes and cigars, for warp-tying in textile production, and for pressing clothes in clothing shops also cut labor-hours. The Banbury mixer reduced the labor input in the production of automobile tires by half, and output per worker of inner tubes increased about four times with a new production method. However, as Daniel Nelson (1987) points out, the continuing advances were the “cumulative process resulting from a vast number of successive small changes.” Because of these continuing advances in the quality of the tires and in the manufacturing of tires, between 1910 and 1930 “tire costs per thousand miles of driving fell from $9.39 to $0.65.”

John Lorant (1967) has documented other technological advances that occurred in American manufacturing during the twenties. For example, the organic chemical industry developed rapidly due to the introduction of the Weizman fermentation process. In a similar fashion, nearly half of the productivity advances in the paper industry were due to the “increasingly sophisticated applications of electric power and paper manufacturing processes,” especially the fourdrinier paper-making machines. As Avi Cohen (1984) has shown, the continuing advances in these machines were the result of evolutionary changes to the basic machine. Mechanization in many types of mass-production industries raised the productivity of labor and capital. In the glass industry, automatic feeding and other types of fully automatic production raised the efficiency of the production of glass containers, window glass, and pressed glass. Giedion (1948) reported that the production of bread was “automatized” in all stages during the 1920s.

Though not directly bringing about productivity increases in manufacturing processes, developments in the management of manufacturing firms, particularly the largest ones, also significantly affected their structure and operation. Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. (1962) has argued that the structure of a firm must follow its strategy. Until the First World War most industrial firms were centralized, single-division firms even when becoming vertically integrated. When this began to change the management of the large industrial firms had to change accordingly.

Because of these changes in the size and structure of the firm during the First World War, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company was led to adopt a strategy of diversifying into the production of largely unrelated product lines. The firm found that the centralized, divisional structure that had served it so well was not suited to this strategy, and its poor business performance led its executives to develop between 1919 and 1921 a decentralized, multidivisional structure that boosted it to the first rank among American industrial firms.

General Motors had a somewhat different problem. By 1920 it was already decentralized into separate divisions. In fact, there was so much decentralization that those divisions essentially remained separate companies and there was little coordination between the operating divisions. A financial crisis at the end of 1920 ousted W. C. Durant and brought in the du Ponts and Alfred Sloan. Sloan, who had seen the problems at GM but had been unable to convince Durant to make changes, began reorganizing the management of the company. Over the next several years Sloan and other GM executives developed the general office for a decentralized, multidivisional firm.

Though facing related problems at nearly the same time, GM and du Pont developed their decentralized, multidivisional organizations separately. As other manufacturing firms began to diversify, GM and du Pont became the models for reorganizing the management of the firms. In many industrial firms these reorganizations were not completed until well after the Second World War.

Competition, Monopoly, and the Government

The rise of big businesses, which accelerated in the postbellum period and particularly during the first great turn-of-the-century merger wave, continued in the interwar period. Between 1925 and 1939 the share of manufacturing assets held by the 100 largest corporations rose from 34.5 to 41.9 percent. (Niemi, 1980) As a public policy, the concern with monopolies diminished in the 1920s even though firms were growing larger. But the growing size of businesses was one of the convenient scapegoats upon which to blame the Great Depression.

However, the rise of large manufacturing firms in the interwar period is not so easily interpreted as an attempt to monopolize their industries. Some of the growth came about through vertical integration by the more successful manufacturing firms. Backward integration was generally an attempt to ensure a smooth supply of raw materials where that supply was not plentiful and was dispersed and firms “feared that raw materials might become controlled by competitors or independent suppliers.” (Livesay and Porter, 1969) Forward integration was an offensive tactic employed when manufacturers found that the existing distribution network proved inadequate. Livesay and Porter suggested a number of reasons why firms chose to integrate forward. In some cases they had to provide the mass distribution facilities to handle their much larger outputs; especially when the product was a new one. The complexity of some new products required technical expertise that the existing distribution system could not provide. In other cases “the high unit costs of products required consumer credit which exceeded financial capabilities of independent distributors.” Forward integration into wholesaling was more common than forward integration into retailing. The producers of automobiles, petroleum, typewriters, sewing machines, and harvesters were typical of those manufacturers that integrated all the way into retailing.

In some cases, increases in industry concentration arose as a natural process of industrial maturation. In the automobile industry, Henry Ford’s invention in 1913 of the moving assembly line—a technological innovation that changed most manufacturing—lent itself to larger factories and firms. Of the several thousand companies that had produced cars prior to 1920, 120 were still doing so then, but Ford and General Motors were the clear leaders, together producing nearly 70 percent of the cars. During the twenties, several other companies, such as Durant, Willys, and Studebaker, missed their opportunity to become more important producers, and Chrysler, formed in early 1925, became the third most important producer by 1930. Many went out of business and by 1929 only 44 companies were still producing cars. The Great Depression decimated the industry. Dozens of minor firms went out of business. Ford struggled through by relying on its huge stockpile of cash accumulated prior to the mid-1920s, while Chrysler actually grew. By 1940, only eight companies still produced cars—GM, Ford, and Chrysler had about 85 percent of the market, while Willys, Studebaker, Nash, Hudson, and Packard shared the remainder. The rising concentration in this industry was not due to attempts to monopolize. As the industry matured, growing economies of scale in factory production and vertical integration, as well as the advantages of a widespread dealer network, led to a dramatic decrease in the number of viable firms. (Chandler, 1962 and 1964; Rae, 1984; Bernstein, 1987)

It was a similar story in the tire industry. The increasing concentration and growth of firms was driven by scale economies in production and retailing and by the devastating effects of the depression in the thirties. Although there were 190 firms in 1919, 5 firms dominated the industry—Goodyear, B. F. Goodrich, Firestone, U.S. Rubber, and Fisk, followed by Miller Rubber, General Tire and Rubber, and Kelly-Springfield. During the twenties, 166 firms left the industry while 66 entered. The share of the 5 largest firms rose from 50 percent in 1921 to 75 percent in 1937. During the depressed thirties, there was fierce price competition, and many firms exited the industry. By 1937 there were 30 firms, but the average employment per factory was 4.41 times as large as in 1921, and the average factory produced 6.87 times as many tires as in 1921. (French, 1986 and 1991; Nelson, 1987; Fricke, 1982)

The steel industry was already highly concentrated by 1920 as U.S. Steel had around 50 percent of the market. But U. S. Steel’s market share declined through the twenties and thirties as several smaller firms competed and grew to become known as Little Steel, the next six largest integrated producers after U. S. Steel. Jonathan Baker (1989) has argued that the evidence is consistent with “the assumption that competition was a dominant strategy for steel manufacturers” until the depression. However, the initiation of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) codes in 1933 required the firms to cooperate rather than compete, and Baker argues that this constituted a training period leading firms to cooperate in price and output policies after 1935. (McCraw and Reinhardt, 1989; Weiss, 1980; Adams, 1977)

Mergers

A number of the larger firms grew by merger during this period, and the second great merger wave in American industry occurred during the last half of the 1920s. Figure 10 shows two series on mergers during the interwar period. The FTC series included many of the smaller mergers. The series constructed by Carl Eis (1969) only includes the larger mergers and ends in 1930.

This second great merger wave coincided with the stock market boom of the twenties and has been called “merger for oligopoly” rather than merger for monopoly. (Stigler, 1950) This merger wave created many larger firms that ranked below the industry leaders. Much of the activity in occurred in the banking and public utilities industries. (Markham, 1955) In manufacturing and mining, the effects on industrial structure were less striking. Eis (1969) found that while mergers took place in almost all industries, they were concentrated in a smaller number of them, particularly petroleum, primary metals, and food products.

The federal government’s antitrust policies toward business varied sharply during the interwar period. In the 1920s there was relatively little activity by the Justice Department, but after the Great Depression the New Dealers tried to take advantage of big business to make business exempt from the antitrust laws and cartelize industries under government supervision.

With the passage of the FTC and Clayton Acts in 1914 to supplement the 1890 Sherman Act, the cornerstones of American antitrust law were complete. Though minor amendments were later enacted, the primary changes after that came in the enforcement of the laws and in swings in judicial decisions. Their two primary areas of application were in the areas of overt behavior, such as horizontal and vertical price-fixing, and in market structure, such as mergers and dominant firms. Horizontal price-fixing involves firms that would normally be competitors getting together to agree on stable and higher prices for their products. As long as most of the important competitors agree on the new, higher prices, substitution between products is eliminated and the demand becomes much less elastic. Thus, increasing the price increases the revenues and the profits of the firms who are fixing prices. Vertical price-fixing involves firms setting the prices of intermediate products purchased at different stages of production. It also tends to eliminate substitutes and makes the demand less elastic.

Price-fixing continued to be considered illegal throughout the period, but there was no major judicial activity regarding it in the 1920s other than the Trenton Potteries decision in 1927. In that decision 20 individuals and 23 corporations were found guilty of conspiring to fix the prices of bathroom bowls. The evidence in the case suggested that the firms were not very successful at doing so, but the court found that they were guilty nevertheless; their success, or lack thereof, was not held to be a factor in the decision. (Scherer and Ross, 1990) Though criticized by some, the decision was precedent setting in that it prohibited explicit pricing conspiracies per se.

The Justice Department had achieved success in dismantling Standard Oil and American Tobacco in 1911 through decisions that the firms had unreasonably restrained trade. These were essentially the same points used in court decisions against the Powder Trust in 1911, the thread trust in 1913, Eastman Kodak in 1915, the glucose and cornstarch trust in 1916, and the anthracite railroads in 1920. The criterion of an unreasonable restraint of trade was used in the 1916 and 1918 decisions that found the American Can Company and the United Shoe Machinery Company innocent of violating the Sherman Act; it was also clearly enunciated in the 1920 U. S. Steel decision. This became known as the rule of reason standard in antitrust policy.

Merger policy had been defined in the 1914 Clayton Act to prohibit only the acquisition of one corporation’s stock by another corporation. Firms then shifted to the outright purchase of a competitor’s assets. A series of court decisions in the twenties and thirties further reduced the possibilities of Justice Department actions against mergers. “Only fifteen mergers were ordered dissolved through antitrust actions between 1914 and 1950, and ten of the orders were accomplished under the Sherman Act rather than Clayton Act proceedings.”

Energy

The search for energy and new ways to translate it into heat, light, and motion has been one of the unending themes in history. From whale oil to coal oil to kerosene to electricity, the search for better and less costly ways to light our lives, heat our homes, and move our machines has consumed much time and effort. The energy industries responded to those demands and the consumption of energy materials (coal, oil, gas, and fuel wood) as a percent of GNP rose from about 2 percent in the latter part of the nineteenth century to about 3 percent in the twentieth.

Changes in the energy markets that had begun in the nineteenth century continued. Processed energy in the forms of petroleum derivatives and electricity continued to become more important than “raw” energy, such as that available from coal and water. The evolution of energy sources for lighting continued; at the end of the nineteenth century, natural gas and electricity, rather than liquid fuels began to provide more lighting for streets, businesses, and homes.

In the twentieth century the continuing shift to electricity and internal combustion fuels increased the efficiency with which the American economy used energy. These processed forms of energy resulted in a more rapid increase in the productivity of labor and capital in American manufacturing. From 1899 to 1919, output per labor-hour increased at an average annual rate of 1.2 percent, whereas from 1919 to 1937 the increase was 3.5 percent per year. The productivity of capital had fallen at an average annual rate of 1.8 percent per year in the 20 years prior to 1919, but it rose 3.1 percent a year in the 18 years after 1919. As discussed above, the adoption of electricity in American manufacturing initiated a rapid evolution in the organization of plants and rapid increases in productivity in all types of manufacturing.

The change in transportation was even more remarkable. Internal combustion engines running on gasoline or diesel fuel revolutionized transportation. Cars quickly grabbed the lion’s share of local and regional travel and began to eat into long distance passenger travel, just as the railroads had done to passenger traffic by water in the 1830s. Even before the First World War cities had begun passing laws to regulate and limit “jitney” services and to protect the investments in urban rail mass transit. Trucking began eating into the freight carried by the railroads.

These developments brought about changes in the energy industries. Coal mining became a declining industry. As Figure 11 shows, in 1925 the share of petroleum in the value of coal, gas, and petroleum output exceeded bituminous coal, and it continued to rise. Anthracite coal’s share was much smaller and it declined while natural gas and LP (or liquefied petroleum) gas were relatively unimportant. These changes, especially the declining coal industry, were the source of considerable worry in the twenties.

Coal

One of the industries considered to be “sick” in the twenties was coal, particularly bituminous, or soft, coal. Income in the industry declined, and bankruptcies were frequent. Strikes frequently interrupted production. The majority of the miners “lived in squalid and unsanitary houses, and the incidence of accidents and diseases was high.” (Soule, 1947) The number of operating bituminous coal mines declined sharply from 1923 through 1932. Anthracite (or hard) coal output was much smaller during the twenties. Real coal prices rose from 1919 to 1922, and bituminous coal prices fell sharply from then to 1925. (Figure 12) Coal mining employment plummeted during the twenties. Annual earnings, especially in bituminous coal mining, also fell because of dwindling hourly earnings and, from 1929 on, a shrinking workweek. (Figure 13)

The sources of these changes are to be found in the increasing supply due to productivity advances in coal production and in the decreasing demand for coal. The demand fell as industries began turning from coal to electricity and because of productivity advances in the use of coal to create energy in steel, railroads, and electric utilities. (Keller, 1973) In the generation of electricity, larger steam plants employing higher temperatures and steam pressures continued to reduce coal consumption per kilowatt hour. Similar reductions were found in the production of coke from coal for iron and steel production and in the use of coal by the steam railroad engines. (Rezneck, 1951) All of these factors reduced the demand for coal.

Productivity advances in coal mining tended to be labor saving. Mechanical cutting accounted for 60.7 percent of the coal mined in 1920 and 78.4 percent in 1929. By the middle of the twenties, the mechanical loading of coal began to be introduced. Between 1929 and 1939, output per labor-hour rose nearly one third in bituminous coal mining and nearly four fifths in anthracite as more mines adopted machine mining and mechanical loading and strip mining expanded.

The increasing supply and falling demand for coal led to the closure of mines that were too costly to operate. A mine could simply cease operations, let the equipment stand idle, and lay off employees. When bankruptcies occurred, the mines generally just turned up under new ownership with lower capital charges. When demand increased or strikes reduced the supply of coal, idle mines simply resumed production. As a result, the easily expanded supply largely eliminated economic profits.

The average daily employment in coal mining dropped by over 208,000 from its peak in 1923, but the sharply falling real wages suggests that the supply of labor did not fall as rapidly as the demand for labor. Soule (1947) notes that when employment fell in coal mining, it meant fewer days of work for the same number of men. Social and cultural characteristics tended to tie many to their home region. The local alternatives were few, and ignorance of alternatives outside the Appalachian rural areas, where most bituminous coal was mined, made it very costly to transfer out.

Petroleum

In contrast to the coal industry, the petroleum industry was growing throughout the interwar period. By the thirties, crude petroleum dominated the real value of the production of energy materials. As Figure 14 shows, the production of crude petroleum increased sharply between 1920 and 1930, while real petroleum prices, though highly variable, tended to decline.

The growing demand for petroleum was driven by the growth in demand for gasoline as America became a motorized society. The production of gasoline surpassed kerosene production in 1915. Kerosene’s market continued to contract as electric lighting replaced kerosene lighting. The development of oil burners in the twenties began a switch from coal toward fuel oil for home heating, and this further increased the growing demand for petroleum. The growth in the demand for fuel oil and diesel fuel for ship engines also increased petroleum demand. But it was the growth in the demand for gasoline that drove the petroleum market.

The decline in real prices in the latter part of the twenties shows that supply was growing even faster than demand. The discovery of new fields in the early twenties increased the supply of petroleum and led to falling prices as production capacity grew. The Santa Fe Springs, California strike in 1919 initiated a supply shock as did the discovery of the Long Beach, California field in 1921. New discoveries in Powell, Texas and Smackover Arkansas further increased the supply of petroleum in 1921. New supply increases occurred in 1926 to 1928 with petroleum strikes in Seminole, Oklahoma and Hendricks, Texas. The supply of oil increased sharply in 1930 to 1931 with new discoveries in Oklahoma City and East Texas. Each new discovery pushed down real oil prices, and the prices of petroleum derivatives, and the growing production capacity led to a general declining trend in petroleum prices. McMillin and Parker (1994) argue that supply shocks generated by these new discoveries were a factor in the business cycles during the 1920s.

The supply of gasoline increased more than the supply of crude petroleum. In 1913 a chemist at Standard Oil of Indiana introduced the cracking process to refine crude petroleum; until that time it had been refined by distillation or unpressurized heating. In the heating process, various refined products such as kerosene, gasoline, naphtha, and lubricating oils were produced at different temperatures. It was difficult to vary the amount of the different refined products produced from a barrel of crude. The cracking process used pressurized heating to break heavier components down into lighter crude derivatives; with cracking, it was possible to increase the amount of gasoline obtained from a barrel of crude from 15 to 45 percent. In the early twenties, chemists at Standard Oil of New Jersey improved the cracking process, and by 1927 it was possible to obtain twice as much gasoline from a barrel of crude petroleum as in 1917.

The petroleum companies also developed new ways to distribute gasoline to motorists that made it more convenient to purchase gasoline. Prior to the First World War, gasoline was commonly purchased in one- or five-gallon cans and the purchaser used a funnel to pour the gasoline from the can into the car. Then “filling stations” appeared, which specialized in filling cars’ tanks with gasoline. These spread rapidly, and by 1919 gasoline companies werebeginning to introduce their own filling stations or contract with independent stations to exclusively distribute their gasoline. Increasing competition and falling profits led filling station operators to expand into other activities such as oil changes and other mechanical repairs. The general name attached to such stations gradually changed to “service stations” to reflect these new functions.

Though the petroleum firms tended to be large, they were highly competitive, trying to pump as much petroleum as possible to increase their share of the fields. This, combined with the development of new fields, led to an industry with highly volatile prices and output. Firms desperately wanted to stabilize and reduce the production of crude petroleum so as to stabilize and raise the prices of crude petroleum and refined products. Unable to obtain voluntary agreement on output limitations by the firms and producers, governments began stepping in. Led by Texas, which created the Texas Railroad Commission in 1891, oil-producing states began to intervene to regulate production. Such laws were usually termed prorationing laws and were quotas designed to limit each well’s output to some fraction of its potential. The purpose was as much to stabilize and reduce production and raise prices as anything else, although generally such laws were passed under the guise of conservation. Although the federal government supported such attempts, not until the New Deal were federal laws passed to assist this.

Electricity

By the mid 1890s the debate over the method by which electricity was to be transmitted had been won by those who advocated alternating current. The reduced power losses and greater distance over which electricity could be transmitted more than offset the necessity for transforming the current back to direct current for general use. Widespread adoption of machines and appliances by industry and consumers then rested on an increase in the array of products using electricity as the source of power, heat, or light and the development of an efficient, lower cost method of generating electricity.

General Electric, Westinghouse, and other firms began producing the electrical appliances for homes and an increasing number of machines based on electricity began to appear in industry. The problem of lower cost production was solved by the introduction of centralized generating facilities that distributed the electric power through lines to many consumers and business firms.

Though initially several firms competed in generating and selling electricity to consumers and firms in a city or area, by the First World War many states and communities were awarding exclusive franchises to one firm to generate and distribute electricity to the customers in the franchise area. (Bright, 1947; Passer, 1953) The electric utility industry became an important growth industry and, as Figure 15 shows, electricity production and use grew rapidly.

The electric utilities increasingly were regulated by state commissions that were charged with setting rates so that the utilities could receive a “fair return” on their investments. Disagreements over what constituted a “fair return” and the calculation of the rate base led to a steady stream of cases before the commissions and a continuing series of court appeals. Generally these court decisions favored the reproduction cost basis. Because of the difficulty and cost in making these calculations, rates tended to be in the hands of the electric utilities that, it has been suggested, did not lower rates adequately to reflect the rising productivity and lowered costs of production. The utilities argued that a more rapid lowering of rates would have jeopardized their profits. Whether or not this increased their monopoly power is still an open question, but it should be noted, that electric utilities were hardly price-taking industries prior to regulation. (Mercer, 1973) In fact, as Figure 16 shows, the electric utilities began to systematically practice market segmentation charging users with less elastic demands, higher prices per kilowatt-hour.

Energy in the American Economy of the 1920s

The changes in the energy industries had far-reaching consequences. The coal industry faced a continuing decline in demand. Even in the growing petroleum industry, the periodic surges in the supply of petroleum caused great instability. In manufacturing, as described above, electrification contributed to a remarkable rise in productivity. The transportation revolution brought about by the rise of gasoline-powered trucks and cars changed the way businesses received their supplies and distributed their production as well as where they were located. The suburbanization of America and the beginnings of urban sprawl were largely brought about by the introduction of low-priced gasoline for cars.

Transportation

The American economy was forever altered by the dramatic changes in transportation after 1900. Following Henry Ford’s introduction of the moving assembly production line in 1914, automobile prices plummeted, and by the end of the 1920s about 60 percent of American families owned an automobile. The advent of low-cost personal transportation led to an accelerating movement of population out of the crowded cities to more spacious homes in the suburbs and the automobile set off a decline in intracity public passenger transportation that has yet to end. Massive road-building programs facilitated the intercity movement of people and goods. Trucks increasingly took over the movement of freight in competition with the railroads. New industries, such as gasoline service stations, motor hotels, and the rubber tire industry, arose to service the automobile and truck traffic. These developments were complicated by the turmoil caused by changes in the federal government’s policies toward transportation in the United States.

With the end of the First World War, a debate began as to whether the railroads, which had been taken over by the government, should be returned to private ownership or nationalized. The voices calling for a return to private ownership were much stronger, but doing so fomented great controversy. Many in Congress believed that careful planning and consolidation could restore the railroads and make them more efficient. There was continued concern about the near monopoly that the railroads had on the nation’s intercity freight and passenger transportation. The result of these deliberations was the Transportation Act of 1920, which was premised on the continued domination of the nation’s transportation by the railroads—an erroneous presumption.

The Transportation Act of 1920 presented a marked change in the Interstate Commerce Commission’s ability to control railroads. The ICC was allowed to prescribe exact rates that were to be set so as to allow the railroads to earn a fair return, defined as 5.5 percent, on the fair value of their property. The ICC was authorized to make an accounting of the fair value of each regulated railroad’s property; however, this was not completed until well into the 1930s, by which time the accounting and rate rules were out of date. To maintain fair competition between railroads in a region, all roads were to have the same rates for the same goods over the same distance. With the same rates, low-cost roads should have been able to earn higher rates of return than high-cost roads. To handle this, a recapture clause was inserted: any railroad earning a return of more than 6 percent on the fair value of its property was to turn the excess over to the ICC, which would place half of the money in a contingency fund for the railroad when it encountered financial problems and the other half in a contingency fund to provide loans to other railroads in need of assistance.

In order to address the problem of weak and strong railroads and to bring better coordination to the movement of rail traffic in the United States, the act was directed to encourage railroad consolidation, but little came of this in the 1920s. In order to facilitate its control of the railroads, the ICC was given two additional powers. The first was the control over the issuance or purchase of securities by railroads, and the second was the power to control changes in railroad service through the control of car supply and the extension and abandonment of track. The control of the supply of rail cars was turned over to the Association of American Railroads. Few extensions of track were proposed, but as time passed, abandonment requests grew. The ICC, however, trying to mediate between the conflicting demands of shippers, communities and railroads, generally refused to grant abandonments, and this became an extremely sensitive issue in the 1930s.

As indicated above, the premises of the Transportation Act of 1920 were wrong. Railroads experienced increasing competition during the 1920s, and both freight and passenger traffic were drawn off to competing transport forms. Passenger traffic exited from the railroads much more quickly. As the network of all weather surfaced roads increased, people quickly turned from the train to the car. Harmed even more by the move to automobile traffic were the electric interurban railways that had grown rapidly just prior to the First World War. (Hilton-Due, 1960) Not surprisingly, during the 1920s few railroads earned profits in excess of the fair rate of return.

The use of trucks to deliver freight began shortly after the turn of the century. Before the outbreak of war in Europe, White and Mack were producing trucks with as much as 7.5 tons of carrying capacity. Most of the truck freight was carried on a local basis, and it largely supplemented the longer distance freight transportation provided by the railroads. However, truck size was growing. In 1915 Trailmobile introduced the first four-wheel trailer designed to be pulled by a truck tractor unit. During the First World War, thousands of trucks were constructed for military purposes, and truck convoys showed that long distance truck travel was feasible and economical. The use of trucks to haul freight had been growing by over 18 percent per year since 1925, so that by 1929 intercity trucking accounted for more than one percent of the ton-miles of freight hauled.

The railroads argued that the trucks and buses provided “unfair” competition and believed that if they were also regulated, then the regulation could equalize the conditions under which they competed. As early as 1925, the National Association of Railroad and Utilities Commissioners issued a call for the regulation of motor carriers in general. In 1928 the ICC called for federal regulation of buses and in 1932 extended this call to federal regulation of trucks.

Most states had began regulating buses at the beginning of the 1920s in an attempt to reduce the diversion of urban passenger traffic from the electric trolley and railway systems. However, most of the regulation did not aim to control intercity passenger traffic by buses. As the network of surfaced roads expanded during the twenties, so did the routes of the intercity buses. In 1929 a number of smaller bus companies were incorporated in the Greyhound Buslines, the carrier that has since dominated intercity bus transportation. (Walsh, 2000)

A complaint of the railroads was that interstate trucking competition was unfair because it was subsidized while railroads were not. All railroad property was privately owned and subject to property taxes, whereas truckers used the existing road system and therefore neither had to bear the costs of creating the road system nor pay taxes upon it. Beginning with the Federal Road-Aid Act of 1916, small amounts of money were provided as an incentive for states to construct rural post roads. (Dearing-Owen, 1949) However, through the First World War most of the funds for highway construction came from a combination of levies on the adjacent property owners and county and state taxes. The monies raised by the counties were commonly 60 percent of the total funds allocated, and these primarily came from property taxes. In 1919 Oregon pioneered the state gasoline tax, which then began to be adopted by more and more states. A highway system financed by property taxes and other levies can be construed as a subsidization of motor vehicles, and one study for the period up to 1920 found evidence of substantial subsidization of trucking. (Herbst-Wu, 1973) However, the use of gasoline taxes moved closer to the goal of users paying the costs of the highways. Neither did the trucks have to pay for all of the highway construction because automobiles jointly used the highways. Highways had to be constructed in more costly ways in order to accommodate the larger and heavier trucks. Ideally the gasoline taxes collected from trucks should have covered the extra (or marginal) costs of highway construction incurred because of the truck traffic. Gasoline taxes tended to do this.

The American economy occupies a vast geographic region. Because economic activity occurs over most of the country, falling transportation costs have been crucial to knitting American firms and consumers into a unified market. Throughout the nineteenth century the railroads played this crucial role. Because of the size of the railroad companies and their importance in the economic life of Americans, the federal government began to regulate them. But, by 1917 it appeared that the railroad system had achieved some stability, and it was generally assumed that the post-First World War era would be an extension of the era from 1900 to 1917. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Spurred by public investments in highways, cars and trucks voraciously ate into the railroad’s market, and, though the regulators failed to understand this at the time, the railroad’s monopoly on transportation quickly disappeared.

Communications

Communications had joined with transportation developments in the nineteenth century to tie the American economy together more completely. The telegraph had benefited by using the railroads’ right-of-ways, and the railroads used the telegraph to coordinate and organize their far-flung activities. As the cost of communications fell and information transfers sped, the development of firms with multiple plants at distant locations was facilitated. The interwar era saw a continuation of these developments as the telephone continued to supplant the telegraph and the new medium of radio arose to transmit news and provide a new entertainment source.

Telegraph domination of business and personal communications had given way to the telephone as long distance telephone calls between the east and west coasts with the new electronic amplifiers became possible in 1915. The number of telegraph messages handled grew 60.4 percent in the twenties. The number of local telephone conversations grew 46.8 percent between 1920 and 1930, while the number of long distance conversations grew 71.8 percent over the same period. There were 5 times as many long distance telephone calls as telegraph messages handled in 1920, and 5.7 times as many in 1930.

The twenties were a prosperous period for AT&T and its 18 major operating companies. (Brooks, 1975; Temin, 1987; Garnet, 1985; Lipartito, 1989) Telephone usage rose and, as Figure 19 shows, the share of all households with a telephone rose from 35 percent to nearly 42 percent. In cities across the nation, AT&T consolidated its system, gained control of many operating companies, and virtually eliminated its competitors. It was able to do this because in 1921 Congress passed the Graham Act exempting AT&T from the Sherman Act in consolidating competing telephone companies. By 1940, the non-Bell operating companies were all small relative to the Bell operating companies.

Surprisingly there was a decline in telephone use on the farms during the twenties. (Hadwiger-Cochran, 1984; Fischer 1987) Rising telephone rates explain part of the decline in rural use. The imposition of connection fees during the First World War made it more costly for new farmers to hook up. As AT&T gained control of more and more operating systems, telephone rates were increased. AT&T also began requiring, as a condition of interconnection, that independent companies upgrade their systems to meet AT&T standards. Most of the small mutual companies that had provided service to farmers had operated on a shoestring—wires were often strung along fenceposts, and phones were inexpensive “whoop and holler” magneto units. Upgrading to AT&T’s standards raised costs, forcing these companies to raise rates.

However, it also seems likely that during the 1920s there was a general decline in the rural demand for telephone services. One important factor in this was the dramatic decline in farm incomes in the early twenties. The second reason was a change in the farmers’ environment. Prior to the First World War, the telephone eased farm isolation and provided news and weather information that was otherwise hard to obtain. After 1920 automobiles, surfaced roads, movies, and the radio loosened the isolation and the telephone was no longer as crucial.

Othmar Merganthaler’s development of the linotype machine in the late nineteenth century had irrevocably altered printing and publishing. This machine, which quickly created a line of soft, lead-based metal type that could be printed, melted down and then recast as a new line of type, dramatically lowered the costs of printing. Previously, all type had to be painstakingly set by hand, with individual cast letter matrices picked out from compartments in drawers to construct words, lines, and paragraphs. After printing, each line of type on the page had to be broken down and each individual letter matrix placed back into its compartment in its drawer for use in the next printing job. Newspapers often were not published every day and did not contain many pages, resulting in many newspapers in most cities. In contrast to this laborious process, the linotype used a keyboard upon which the operator typed the words in one of the lines in a news column. Matrices for each letter dropped down from a magazine of matrices as the operator typed each letter and were assembled into a line of type with automatic spacers to justify the line (fill out the column width). When the line was completed the machine mechanically cast the line of matrices into a line of lead type. The line of lead type was ejected into a tray and the letter matrices mechanically returned to the magazine while the operator continued typing the next line in the news story. The first Merganthaler linotype machine was installed in the New York Tribune in 1886. The linotype machine dramatically lowered the costs of printing newspapers (as well as books and magazines). Prior to the linotype a typical newspaper averaged no more than 11 pages and many were published only a few times a week. The linotype machine allowed newspapers to grow in size and they began to be published more regularly. A process of consolidation of daily and Sunday newspapers began that continues to this day. Many have termed the Merganthaler linotype machine the most significant printing invention since the introduction of movable type 400 years earlier.

For city families as well as farm families, radio became the new source of news and entertainment. (Barnouw, 1966; Rosen, 1980 and 1987; Chester-Garrison, 1950) It soon took over as the prime advertising medium and in the process revolutionized advertising. By 1930 more homes had radio sets than had telephones. The radio networks sent news and entertainment broadcasts all over the country. The isolation of rural life, particularly in many areas of the plains, was forever broken by the intrusion of the “black box,” as radio receivers were often called. The radio began a process of breaking down regionalism and creating a common culture in the United States.

The potential demand for radio became clear with the first regular broadcast of Westinghouse’s KDKA in Pittsburgh in the fall of 1920. Because the Department of Commerce could not deny a license application there was an explosion of stations all broadcasting at the same frequency and signal jamming and interference became a serious problem. By 1923 the Department of Commerce had gained control of radio from the Post Office and the Navy and began to arbitrarily disperse stations on the radio dial and deny licenses creating the first market in commercial broadcast licenses. In 1926 a U.S. District Court decided that under the Radio Law of 1912 Herbert Hoover, the secretary of commerce, did not have this power. New stations appeared and the logjam and interference of signals worsened. A Radio Act was passed in January of 1927 creating the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) as a temporary licensing authority. Licenses were to be issued in the public interest, convenience, and necessity. A number of broadcasting licenses were revoked; stations were assigned frequencies, dial locations, and power levels. The FRC created 24 clear-channel stations with as much as 50,000 watts of broadcasting power, of which 21 ended up being affiliated with the new national radio networks. The Communications Act of 1934 essentially repeated the 1927 act except that it created a permanent, seven-person Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Local stations initially created and broadcast the radio programs. The expenses were modest, and stores and companies operating radio stations wrote this off as indirect, goodwill advertising. Several forces changed all this. In 1922, AT&T opened up a radio station in New York City, WEAF (later to become WNBC). AT&T envisioned this station as the center of a radio toll system where individuals could purchase time to broadcast a message transmitted to other stations in the toll network using AT&T’s long distance lines and an August 1922 broadcast by a Long Island realty company became the first conscious use of direct advertising.

Though advertising continued to be condemned, the fiscal pressures on radio stations to accept advertising began rising. In 1923 the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP), began demanding a performance fee anytime ASCAP-copyrighted music was performed on the radio, either live or on record. By 1924 the issue was settled, and most stations began paying performance fees to ASCAP. AT&T decided that all stations broadcasting with non AT&T transmitters were violating their patent rights and began asking for annual fees from such stations based on the station’s power. By the end of 1924, most stations were paying the fees. All of this drained the coffers of the radio stations, and more and more of them began discreetly accepting advertising.

RCA became upset at AT&T’s creation of a chain of radio stations and set up its own toll network using the inferior lines of Western Union and Postal Telegraph, because AT&T, not surprisingly, did not allow any toll (or network) broadcasting on its lines except by its own stations. AT&T began to worry that its actions might threaten its federal monopoly in long distance telephone communications. In 1926 a new firm was created, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), which took over all broadcasting activities from AT&T and RCA as AT&T left broadcasting. When NBC debuted in November of 1926, it had two networks: the Red, which was the old AT&T network, and the Blue, which was the old RCA network. Radio networks allowed advertisers to direct advertising at a national audience at a lower cost. Network programs allowed local stations to broadcast superior programs that captured a larger listening audience and in return received a share of the fees the national advertiser paid to the network. In 1927 a new network, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) financed by the Paley family began operation and other new networks entered or tried to enter the industry in the 1930s.

Communications developments in the interwar era present something of a mixed picture. By 1920 long distance telephone service was in place, but rising rates slowed the rate of adoption in the period, and telephone use in rural areas declined sharply. Though direct dialing was first tried in the twenties, its general implementation would not come until the postwar era, when other changes, such as microwave transmission of signals and touch-tone dialing, would also appear. Though the number of newspapers declined, newspaper circulation generally held up. The number of competing newspapers in larger cities began declining, a trend that also would accelerate in the postwar American economy.

Banking and Securities Markets

In the twenties commercial banks became “department stores of finance.”— Banks opened up installment (or personal) loan departments, expanded their mortgage lending, opened up trust departments, undertook securities underwriting activities, and offered safe deposit boxes. These changes were a response to growing competition from other financial intermediaries. Businesses, stung by bankers’ control and reduced lending during the 1920-21 depression, began relying more on retained earnings and stock and bond issues to raise investment and, sometimes, working capital. This reduced loan demand. The thrift institutions also experienced good growth in the twenties as they helped fuel the housing construction boom of the decade. The securities markets boomed in the twenties only to see a dramatic crash of the stock market in late 1929.

There were two broad classes of commercial banks; those that were nationally chartered and those that were chartered by the states. Only the national banks were required to be members of the Federal Reserve System. (Figure 21) Most banks were unit banks because national regulators and most state regulators prohibited branching. However, in the twenties a few states began to permit limited branching; California even allowed statewide branching.—The Federal Reserve member banks held the bulk of the assets of all commercial banks, even though most banks were not members. A high bank failure rate in the 1920s has usually been explained by “overbanking” or too many banks located in an area, but H. Thomas Johnson (1973-74) makes a strong argument against this. (Figure 22)— If there were overbanking, on average each bank would have been underutilized resulting in intense competition for deposits and higher costs and lower earnings. One common reason would have been the free entry of banks as long as they achieved the minimum requirements then in force. However, the twenties saw changes that led to the demise of many smaller rural banks that would likely have been profitable if these changes had not occurred. Improved transportation led to a movement of business activities, including banking, into the larger towns and cities. Rural banks that relied on loans to farmers suffered just as farmers did during the twenties, especially in the first half of the twenties. The number of bank suspensions and the suspension rate fell after 1926. The sharp rise in bank suspensions in 1930 occurred because of the first banking crisis during the Great Depression.

Prior to the twenties, the main assets of commercial banks were short-term business loans, made by creating a demand deposit or increasing an existing one for a borrowing firm. As business lending declined in the 1920s commercial banks vigorously moved into new types of financial activities. As banks purchased more securities for their earning asset portfolios and gained expertise in the securities markets, larger ones established investment departments and by the late twenties were an important force in the underwriting of new securities issued by nonfinancial corporations.

The securities market exhibited perhaps the most dramatic growth of the noncommercial bank financial intermediaries during the twenties, but others also grew rapidly. (Figure 23) The assets of life insurance companies increased by 10 percent a year from 1921 to 1929; by the late twenties they were a very important source of funds for construction investment. Mutual savings banks and savings and loan associations (thrifts) operated in essentially the same types of markets. The Mutual savings banks were concentrated in the northeastern United States. As incomes rose, personal savings increased, and housing construction expanded in the twenties, there was an increasing demand for the thrifts’ interest earning time deposits and mortgage lending.

But the dramatic expansion in the financial sector came in new corporate securities issues in the twenties—especially common and preferred stock—and in the trading of existing shares of those securities. (Figure 24) The late twenties boom in the American economy was rapid, highly visible, and dramatic. Skyscrapers were being erected in most major cities, the automobile manufacturers produced over four and a half million new cars in 1929; and the stock market, like a barometer of this prosperity, was on a dizzying ride to higher and higher prices. “Playing the market” seemed to become a national pastime.

The Dow-Jones index hit its peak of 381 on September 3 and then slid to 320 on October 21. In the following week the stock market “crashed,” with a record number of shares being traded on several days. At the end of Tuesday, October, 29th, the index stood at 230, 96 points less than one week before. On November 13, 1929, the Dow-Jones index reached its lowest point for the year at 198—183 points less than the September 3 peak.

The path of the stock market boom of the twenties can be seen in Figure 25. Sharp price breaks occurred several times during the boom, and each of these gave rise to dark predictions of the end of the bull market and speculation. Until late October of 1929, these predictions turned out to be wrong. Between those price breaks and prior to the October crash, stock prices continued to surge upward. In March of 1928, 3,875,910 shares were traded in one day, establishing a record. By late 1928, five million shares being traded in a day was a common occurrence.

New securities, from rising merger activity and the formation of holding companies, were issued to take advantage of the rising stock prices.—Stock pools, which were not illegal until the 1934 Securities and Exchange Act, took advantage of the boom to temporarily drive up the price of selected stocks and reap large gains for the members of the pool. In stock pools a group of speculators would pool large amounts of their funds and then begin purchasing large amounts of shares of a stock. This increased demand led to rising prices for that stock. Frequently pool insiders would “churn” the stock by repeatedly buying and selling the same shares among themselves, but at rising prices. Outsiders, seeing the price rising, would decide to purchase the stock whose price was rising. At a predetermined higher price the pool members would, within a short period, sell their shares and pull out of the market for that stock. Without the additional demand from the pool, the stock’s price usually fell quickly bringing large losses for the unsuspecting outside investors while reaping large gains for the pool insiders.

Another factor commonly used to explain both the speculative boom and the October crash was the purchase of stocks on small margins. However, contrary to popular perception, margin requirements through most of the twenties were essentially the same as in previous decades. Brokers, recognizing the problems with margin lending in the rapidly changing market, began raising margin requirements in late 1928, and by the fall of 1929, margin requirements were the highest in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. In the 1920s, as was the case for decades prior to that, the usual margin requirements were 10 to 15 percent of the purchase price, and, apparently, more often around 10 percent. There were increases in this percentage by 1928 and by the fall of 1928, well before the crash and at the urging of a special New York Clearinghouse committee, margin requirements had been raised to some of the highest levels in New York Stock Exchange history. One brokerage house required the following of its clients. Securities with a selling price below $10 could only be purchased for cash. Securities with a selling price of $10 to $20 had to have a 50 percent margin; for securities of $20 to $30 a margin requirement of 40 percent; and, for securities with a price above $30 the margin was 30 percent of the purchase price. In the first half of 1929 margin requirements on customers’ accounts averaged a 40 percent margin, and some houses raised their margins to 50 percent a few months before the crash. These were, historically, very high margin requirements. (Smiley and Keehn, 1988)—Even so, during the crash when additional margin calls were issued, those investors who could not provide additional margin saw the brokers’ sell their stock at whatever the market price was at the time and these forced sales helped drive prices even lower.

The crash began on Monday, October 21, as the index of stock prices fell 3 points on the third-largest volume in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. After a slight rally on Tuesday, prices began declining on Wednesday and fell 21 points by the end of the day bringing on the third call for more margin in that week. On Black Thursday, October 24, prices initially fell sharply, but rallied somewhat in the afternoon so that the net loss was only 7 points, but the volume of thirteen million shares set a NYSE record. Friday brought a small gain that was wiped out on Saturday. On Monday, October 28, the Dow Jones index fell 38 points on a volume of nine million shares—three million in the final hour of trading. Black Tuesday, October 29, brought declines in virtually every stock price. Manufacturing firms, which had been lending large sums to brokers for margin loans, had been calling in these loans and this accelerated on Monday and Tuesday. The big Wall Street banks increased their lending on call loans to offset some of this loss of loanable funds. The Dow Jones Index fell 30 points on a record volume of nearly sixteen and a half million shares exchanged. Black Thursday and Black Tuesday wiped out entire fortunes.

Though the worst was over, prices continued to decline until November 13, 1929, as brokers cleaned up their accounts and sold off the stocks of clients who could not supply additional margin. After that, prices began to slowly rise and by April of 1930 had increased 96 points from the low of November 13,— “only” 87 points less than the peak of September 3, 1929. From that point, stock prices resumed their depressing decline until the low point was reached in the summer of 1932.

 

—There is a long tradition that insists that the Great Bull Market of the late twenties was an orgy of speculation that bid the prices of stocks far above any sustainable or economically justifiable level creating a bubble in the stock market. John Kenneth Galbraith (1954) observed, “The collapse in the stock market in the autumn of 1929 was implicit in the speculation that went before.”—But not everyone has agreed with this.

In 1930 Irving Fisher argued that the stock prices of 1928 and 1929 were based on fundamental expectations that future corporate earnings would be high.— More recently, Murray Rothbard (1963), Gerald Gunderson (1976), and Jude Wanniski (1978) have argued that stock prices were not too high prior to the crash.—Gunderson suggested that prior to 1929, stock prices were where they should have been and that when corporate profits in the summer and fall of 1929 failed to meet expectations, stock prices were written down.— Wanniski argued that political events brought on the crash. The market broke each time news arrived of advances in congressional consideration of the Hawley-Smoot tariff. However, the virtually perfect foresight that Wanniski’s explanation requires is unrealistic.— Charles Kindleberger (1973) and Peter Temin (1976) examined common stock yields and price-earnings ratios and found that the relative constancy did not suggest that stock prices were bid up unrealistically high in the late twenties.—Gary Santoni and Gerald Dwyer (1990) also failed to find evidence of a bubble in stock prices in 1928 and 1929.—Gerald Sirkin (1975) found that the implied growth rates of dividends required to justify stock prices in 1928 and 1929 were quite conservative and lower than post-Second World War dividend growth rates.

However, examination of after-the-fact common stock yields and price-earning ratios can do no more than provide some ex post justification for suggesting that there was not excessive speculation during the Great Bull Market.— Each individual investor was motivated by that person’s subjective expectations of each firm’s future earnings and dividends and the future prices of shares of each firm’s stock. Because of this element of subjectivity, not only can we never accurately know those values, but also we can never know how they varied among individuals. The market price we observe will be the end result of all of the actions of the market participants, and the observed price may be different from the price almost all of the participants expected.

In fact, there are some indications that there were differences in 1928 and 1929. Yields on common stocks were somewhat lower in 1928 and 1929. In October of 1928, brokers generally began raising margin requirements, and by the beginning of the fall of 1929, margin requirements were, on average, the highest in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. Though the discount and commercial paper rates had moved closely with the call and time rates on brokers’ loans through 1927, the rates on brokers’ loans increased much more sharply in 1928 and 1929.— This pulled in funds from corporations, private investors, and foreign banks as New York City banks sharply reduced their lending. These facts suggest that brokers and New York City bankers may have come to believe that stock prices had been bid above a sustainable level by late 1928 and early 1929. White (1990) created a quarterly index of dividends for firms in the Dow-Jones index and related this to the DJI. Through 1927 the two track closely, but in 1928 and 1929 the index of stock prices grows much more rapidly than the index of dividends.

The qualitative evidence for a bubble in the stock market in 1928 and 1929 that White assembled was strengthened by the findings of J. Bradford De Long and Andre Shleifer (1991). They examined closed-end mutual funds, a type of fund where investors wishing to liquidate must sell their shares to other individual investors allowing its fundamental value to be exactly measurable.— Using evidence from these funds, De Long and Shleifer estimated that in the summer of 1929, the Standard and Poor’s composite stock price index was overvalued about 30 percent due to excessive investor optimism. Rappoport and White (1993 and 1994) found other evidence that supported a bubble in the stock market in 1928 and 1929. There was a sharp divergence between the growth of stock prices and dividends; there were increasing premiums on call and time brokers’ loans in 1928 and 1929; margin requirements rose; and stock market volatility rose in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash.

There are several reasons for the creation of such a bubble. First, the fundamental values of earnings and dividends become difficult to assess when there are major industrial changes, such as the rapid changes in the automobile industry, the new electric utilities, and the new radio industry.— Eugene White (1990) suggests that “While investors had every reason to expect earnings to grow, they lacked the means to evaluate easily the future path of dividends.” As a result investors bid up prices as they were swept up in the ongoing stock market boom. Second, participation in the stock market widened noticeably in the twenties. The new investors were relatively unsophisticated, and they were more likely to be caught up in the euphoria of the boom and bid prices upward.— New, inexperienced commission sales personnel were hired to sell stocks and they promised glowing returns on stocks they knew little about.

These observations were strengthened by the experimental work of economist Vernon Smith. (Bishop, 1987) In a number of experiments over a three-year period using students and Tucson businessmen and businesswomen, bubbles developed as inexperienced investors valued stocks differently and engaged in price speculation. As these investors in the experiments began to realize that speculative profits were unsustainable and uncertain, their dividend expectations changed, the market crashed, and ultimately stocks began trading at their fundamental dividend values. These bubbles and crashes occurred repeatedly, leading Smith to conjecture that there are few regulatory steps that can be taken to prevent a crash.

Though the bubble of 1928 and 1929 made some downward adjustment in stock prices inevitable, as Barsky and De Long have shown, changes in fundamentals govern the overall movements. And the end of the long bull market was almost certainly governed by this. In late 1928 and early 1929 there was a striking rise in economic activity, but a decline began somewhere between May and July of that year and was clearly evident by August of 1929. By the middle of August, the rise in stock prices had slowed down as better information on the contraction was received. There were repeated statements by leading figures that stocks were “overpriced” and the Federal Reserve System sharply increased the discount rate in August 1929 was well as continuing its call for banks to reduce their margin lending. As this information was assessed, the number of speculators selling stocks increased, and the number buying decreased. With the decreased demand, stock prices began to fall, and as more accurate information on the nature and extent of the decline was received, stock prices fell more. The late October crash made the decline occur much more rapidly, and the margin purchases and consequent forced selling of many of those stocks contributed to a more severe price fall. The recovery of stock prices from November 13 into April of 1930 suggests that stock prices may have been driven somewhat too low during the crash.

There is now widespread agreement that the 1929 stock market crash did not cause the Great Depression. Instead, the initial downturn in economic activity was a primary determinant of the ending of the 1928-29 stock market bubble. The stock market crash did make the downturn become more severe beginning in November 1929. It reduced discretionary consumption spending (Romer, 1990) and created greater income uncertainty helping to bring on the contraction (Flacco and Parker, 1992). Though stock market prices reached a bottom and began to recover following November 13, 1929, the continuing decline in economic activity took its toll and by May 1930 stock prices resumed their decline and continued to fall through the summer of 1932.

Domestic Trade

In the nineteenth century, a complex array of wholesalers, jobbers, and retailers had developed, but changes in the postbellum period reduced the role of the wholesalers and jobbers and strengthened the importance of the retailers in domestic trade. (Cochran, 1977; Chandler, 1977; Marburg, 1951; Clewett, 1951) The appearance of the department store in the major cities and the rise of mail order firms in the postbellum period changed the retailing market.

Department Stores

A department store is a combination of specialty stores organized as departments within one general store. A. T. Stewart’s huge 1846 dry goods store in New York City is often referred to as the first department store. (Resseguie, 1965; Sobel-Sicilia, 1986) R. H. Macy started his dry goods store in 1858 and Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia opened in 1876. By the end of the nineteenth century, every city of any size had at least one major department store. (Appel, 1930; Benson, 1986; Hendrickson, 1979; Hower, 1946; Sobel, 1974) Until the late twenties, the department store field was dominated by independent stores, though some department stores in the largest cities had opened a few suburban branches and stores in other cities. In the interwar period department stores accounted for about 8 percent of retail sales.

The department stores relied on a “one-price” policy, which Stewart is credited with beginning. In the antebellum period and into the postbellum period, it was common not to post a specific price on an item; rather, each purchaser haggled with a sales clerk over what the price would be. Stewart posted fixed prices on the various dry goods sold, and the customer could either decide to buy or not buy at the fixed price. The policy dramatically lowered transactions costs for both the retailer and the purchaser. Prices were reduced with a smaller markup over the wholesale price, and a large sales volume and a quicker turnover of the store’s inventory generated profits.

Mail Order Firms

What changed the department store field in the twenties was the entrance of Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, the two dominant mail order firms in the United States. (Emmet-Jeuck, 1950; Chandler, 1962, 1977) Both firms had begun in the late nineteenth century and by 1914 the younger Sears Roebuck had surpassed Montgomery Ward. Both located in Chicago due to its central location in the nation’s rail network and both had benefited from the advent of Rural Free Delivery in 1896 and low cost Parcel Post Service in 1912.

In 1924 Sears hired Robert C. Wood, who was able to convince Sears Roebuck to open retail stores. Wood believed that the declining rural population and the growing urban population forecast the gradual demise of the mail order business; survival of the mail order firms required a move into retail sales. By 1925 Sears Roebuck had opened 8 retail stores, and by 1929 it had 324 stores. Montgomery Ward quickly followed suit. Rather than locating these in the central business district (CBD), Wood located many on major streets closer to the residential areas. These moves of Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward expanded department store retailing and provided a new type of chain store.

Chain Stores

Though chain stores grew rapidly in the first two decades of the twentieth century, they date back to the 1860s when George F. Gilman and George Huntington Hartford opened a string of New York City A&P (Atlantic and Pacific) stores exclusively to sell tea. (Beckman-Nolen, 1938; Lebhar, 1963; Bullock, 1933) Stores were opened in other regions and in 1912 their first “cash-and-carry” full-range grocery was opened. Soon they were opening 50 of these stores each week and by the 1920s A&P had 14,000 stores. They then phased out the small stores to reduce the chain to 4,000 full-range, supermarket-type stores. A&P’s success led to new grocery store chains such as Kroger, Jewel Tea, and Safeway.

Prior to A&P’s cash-and-carry policy, it was common for grocery stores, produce (or green) grocers, and meat markets to provide home delivery and credit, both of which were costly. As a result, retail prices were generally marked up well above the wholesale prices. In cash-and-carry stores, items were sold only for cash; no credit was extended, and no expensive home deliveries were provided. Markups on prices could be much lower because other costs were much lower. Consumers liked the lower prices and were willing to pay cash and carry their groceries, and the policy became common by the twenties.

Chains also developed in other retail product lines. In 1879 Frank W. Woolworth developed a “5 and 10 Cent Store,” or dime store, and there were over 1,000 F. W. Woolworth stores by the mid-1920s. (Winkler, 1940) Other firms such as Kresge, Kress, and McCrory successfully imitated Woolworth’s dime store chain. J.C. Penney’s dry goods chain store began in 1901 (Beasley, 1948), Walgreen’s drug store chain began in 1909, and shoes, jewelry, cigars, and other lines of merchandise also began to be sold through chain stores.

Self-Service Policies

In 1916 Clarence Saunders, a grocer in Memphis, Tennessee, built upon the one-price policy and began offering self-service at his Piggly Wiggly store. Previously, customers handed a clerk a list or asked for the items desired, which the clerk then collected and the customer paid for. With self-service, items for sale were placed on open shelves among which the customers could walk, carrying a shopping bag or pushing a shopping cart. Each customer could then browse as he or she pleased, picking out whatever was desired. Saunders and other retailers who adopted the self-service method of retail selling found that customers often purchased more because of exposure to the array of products on the shelves; as well, self-service lowered the labor required for retail sales and therefore lowered costs.

Shopping Centers

Shopping Centers, another innovation in retailing that began in the twenties, was not destined to become a major force in retail development until after the Second World War. The ultimate cause of this innovation was the widening ownership and use of the automobile. By the 1920s, as the ownership and use of the car began expanding, population began to move out of the crowded central cities toward the more open suburbs. When General Robert Wood set Sears off on its development of urban stores, he located these not in the central business district, CBD, but as free-standing stores on major arteries away from the CBD with sufficient space for parking.

At about the same time, a few entrepreneurs began to develop shopping centers. Yehoshua Cohen (1972) says, “The owner of such a center was responsible for maintenance of the center, its parking lot, as well as other services to consumers and retailers in the center.” Perhaps the earliest such shopping center was the Country Club Plaza built in 1922 by the J. C. Nichols Company in Kansas City, Missouri. Other early shopping centers appeared in Baltimore and Dallas. By the mid-1930s the concept of a planned shopping center was well known and was expected to be the means to capture the trade of the growing number of suburban consumers.

International Trade and Finance

In the twenties a gold exchange standard was developed to replace the gold standard of the prewar world. Under a gold standard, each country’s currency carried a fixed exchange rate with gold, and the currency had to be backed up by gold. As a result, all countries on the gold standard had fixed exchange rates with all other countries. Adjustments to balance international trade flows were made by gold flows. If a country had a deficit in its trade balance, gold would leave the country, forcing the money stock to decline and prices to fall. Falling prices made the deficit countries’ exports more attractive and imports more costly, reducing the deficit. Countries with a surplus imported gold, which increased the money stock and caused prices to rise. This made the surplus countries’ exports less attractive and imports more attractive, decreasing the surplus. Most economists who have studied the prewar gold standard contend that it did not work as the conventional textbook model says, because capital flows frequently reduced or eliminated the need for gold flows for long periods of time. However, there is no consensus on whether fortuitous circumstances, rather than the gold standard, saved the international economy from periodic convulsions or whether the gold standard as it did work was sufficient to promote stability and growth in international transactions.

After the First World War it was argued that there was a “shortage” of fluid monetary gold to use for the gold standard, so some method of “economizing” on gold had to be found. To do this, two basic changes were made. First, most nations, other than the United States, stopped domestic circulation of gold. Second, the “gold exchange” system was created. Most countries held their international reserves in the form of U.S. dollars or British pounds and international transactions used dollars or pounds, as long as the United States and Great Britain stood ready to exchange their currencies for gold at fixed exchange rates. However, the overvaluation of the pound and the undervaluation of the franc threatened these arrangements. The British trade deficit led to a capital outflow, higher interest rates, and a weak economy. In the late twenties, the French trade surplus led to the importation of gold that they did not allow to expand the money supply.

Economizing on gold by no longer allowing its domestic circulation and by using key currencies as international monetary reserves was really an attempt to place the domestic economies under the control of the nations’ politicians and make them independent of international events. Unfortunately, in doing this politicians eliminated the equilibrating mechanism of the gold standard but had nothing with which to replace it. The new international monetary arrangements of the twenties were potentially destabilizing because they were not allowed to operate as a price mechanism promoting equilibrating adjustments.

There were other problems with international economic activity in the twenties. Because of the war, the United States was abruptly transformed from a debtor to a creditor on international accounts. Though the United States did not want reparations payments from Germany, it did insist that Allied governments repay American loans. The Allied governments then insisted on war reparations from Germany. These initial reparations assessments were quite large. The Allied Reparations Commission collected the charges by supervising Germany’s foreign trade and by internal controls on the German economy, and it was authorized to increase the reparations if it was felt that Germany could pay more. The treaty allowed France to occupy the Ruhr after Germany defaulted in 1923.

Ultimately, this tangled web of debts and reparations, which was a major factor in the course of international trade, depended upon two principal actions. First, the United States had to run an import surplus or, on net, export capital out of the United States to provide a pool of dollars overseas. Germany then had either to have an export surplus or else import American capital so as to build up dollar reserves—that is, the dollars the United States was exporting. In effect, these dollars were paid by Germany to Great Britain, France, and other countries that then shipped them back to the United States as payment on their U.S. debts. If these conditions did not occur, (and note that the “new” gold standard of the twenties had lost its flexibility because the price adjustment mechanism had been eliminated) disruption in international activity could easily occur and be transmitted to the domestic economies.

In the wake of the 1920-21 depression Congress passed the Emergency Tariff Act, which raised tariffs, particularly on manufactured goods. (Figures 26 and 27) The Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 continued the Emergency Tariff of 1921, and its protection on many items was extremely high, ranging from 60 to 100 percent ad valorem (or as a percent of the price of the item). The increases in the Fordney-McCumber tariff were as large and sometimes larger than the more famous (or “infamous”) Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930. As farm product prices fell at the end of the decade presidential candidate Herbert Hoover proposed, as part of his platform, tariff increases and other changes to aid the farmers. In January 1929, after Hoover’s election, but before he took office, a tariff bill was introduced into Congress. Special interests succeeded in gaining additional (or new) protection for most domestically produced commodities and the goal of greater protection for the farmers tended to get lost in the increased protection for multitudes of American manufactured products. In spite of widespread condemnation by economists, President Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in June 1930 and rates rose sharply.

Following the First World War, the U.S. government actively promoted American exports, and in each of the postwar years through 1929, the United States recorded a surplus in its balance of trade. (Figure 28) However, the surplus declined in the 1930s as both exports and imports fell sharply after 1929. From the mid-1920s on finished manufactures were the most important exports, while agricultural products dominated American imports.

The majority of the funds that allowed Germany to make its reparations payments to France and Great Britain and hence allowed those countries to pay their debts to the United States came from the net flow of capital out of the United States in the form of direct investment in real assets and investments in long- and short-term foreign financial assets. After the devastating German hyperinflation of 1922 and 1923, the Dawes Plan reformed the German economy and currency and accelerated the U.S. capital outflow. American investors began to actively and aggressively pursue foreign investments, particularly loans (Lewis, 1938) and in the late twenties there was a marked deterioration in the quality of foreign bonds sold in the United States. (Mintz, 1951)

The system, then, worked well as long as there was a net outflow of American capital, but this did not continue. In the middle of 1928, the flow of short-term capital began to decline. In 1928 the flow of “other long-term” capital out of the United States was 752 million dollars, but in 1929 it was only 34 million dollars. Though arguments now exist as to whether the booming stock market in the United States was to blame for this, it had far-reaching effects on the international economic system and the various domestic economies.

The Start of the Depression

The United States had the majority of the world’s monetary gold, about 40 percent, by 1920. In the latter part of the twenties, France also began accumulating gold as its share of the world’s monetary gold rose from 9 percent in 1927 to 17 percent in 1929 and 22 percent by 1931. In 1927 the Federal Reserve System had reduced discount rates (the interest rate at which they lent reserves to member commercial banks) and engaged in open market purchases (purchasing U.S. government securities on the open market to increase the reserves of the banking system) to push down interest rates and assist Great Britain in staying on the gold standard. By early 1928 the Federal Reserve System was worried about its loss of gold due to this policy as well as the ongoing boom in the stock market. It began to raise the discount rate to stop these outflows. Gold was also entering the United States so that foreigners could obtain dollars to invest in stocks and bonds. As the United States and France accumulated more and more of the world’s monetary gold, other countries’ central banks took contractionary steps to stem the loss of gold. In country after country these deflationary strategies began contracting economic activity and by 1928 some countries in Europe, Asia, and South America had entered into a depression. More countries’ economies began to decline in 1929, including the United States, and by 1930 a depression was in force for almost all of the world’s market economies. (Temin, 1989; Eichengreen, 1992)

Monetary and Fiscal Policies in the 1920s

Fiscal Policies

As a tool to promote stability in aggregate economic activity, fiscal policy is largely a post-Second World War phenomenon. Prior to 1930 the federal government’s spending and taxing decisions were largely, but not completely, based on the perceived “need” for government-provided public goods and services.

Though the fiscal policy concept had not been developed, this does not mean that during the twenties no concept of the government’s role in stimulating economic activity existed. Herbert Stein (1990) points out that in the twenties Herbert Hoover and some of his contemporaries shared two ideas about the proper role of the federal government. The first was that federal spending on public works could be an important force in reducin Smiley and Keehn, 1995.  investment. Both concepts fit the ideas held by Hoover and others of his persuasion that the U.S. economy of the twenties was not the result of laissez-faire workings but of “deliberate social engineering.”

The federal personal income tax was enacted in 1913. Though mildly progressive, its rates were low and topped out at 7 percent on taxable income in excess of $750,000. (Table 4) As the United States prepared for war in 1916, rates were increased and reached a maximum marginal rate of 12 percent. With the onset of the First World War, the rates were dramatically increased. To obtain additional revenue in 1918, marginal rates were again increased. The share of federal revenue generated by income taxes rose from 11 percent in 1914 to 69 percent in 1920. The tax rates had been extended downward so that more than 30 percent of the nation’s income recipients were subject to income taxes by 1918. However, through the purchase of tax exempt state and local securities and through steps taken by corporations to avoid the cash distribution of profits, the number of high income taxpayers and their share of total taxes paid declined as Congress kept increasing the tax rates. The normal (or base) tax rate was reduced slightly for 1919 but the surtax rates, which made the income tax highly progressive, were retained. (Smiley-Keehn, 1995)

President Harding’s new Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, proposed cutting the tax rates, arguing that the rates in the higher brackets had “passed the point of productivity” and rates in excess of 70 percent simply could not be collected. Though most agreed that the rates were too high, there was sharp disagreement on how the rates should be cut. Democrats and  Smiley and Keehn, 1995.  Progressive Republicans argued for rate cuts targeted for the lower income taxpayers while maintaining most of the steep progressivity of the tax rates. They believed that remedies could be found to change the tax laws to stop the legal avoidance of federal income taxes. Republicans argued for sharper cuts that reduced the progressivity of the rates. Mellon proposed a maximum rate of 25 percent.

Though the federal income tax rates were reduced and made less progressive, it took three tax rate cuts in 1921, 1924, and 1925 before Mellon’s goal was finally achieved. The highest marginal tax rate was reduced from 73 percent to 58 percent to 46 percent and finally to 25 percent for the 1925 tax year. All of the other rates were also reduced and exemptions increased. By 1926, only about the top 10 percent of income recipients were subject to federal income taxes. As tax rates were reduced, the number of high income tax returns increased and the share of total federal personal income taxes paid rose. (Tables 5 and 6) Even with the dramatic income tax rate cuts and reductions in the number of low income taxpayers, federal personal income tax revenue continued to rise during the 1920s. Though early estimates of the distribution of personal income showed sharp increases in income inequality during the 1920s (Kuznets, 1953; Holt, 1977), more recent estimates have found that the increases in inequality were considerably less and these appear largely to be related to the sharp rise in capital gains due to the booming stock market in the late twenties. (Smiley, 1998 and 2000)

Each year in the twenties the federal government generated a surplus, in some years as much as 1 percent of GNP. The surpluses were used to reduce the federal deficit and it declined by 25 percent between 1920 and 1930. Contrary to simple macroeconomic models that argue a federal government budget surplus must be contractionary and tend to stop an economy from reaching full employment, the American economy operated at full-employment or close to it throughout the twenties and saw significant economic growth. In this case, the surpluses were not contractionary because the dollars were circulated back into the economy through the purchase of outstanding federal debt rather than pulled out as currency and held in a vault somewhere.

Monetary Policies

In 1913 fear of the “money trust” and their monopoly power led Congress to create 12 central banks when they created the Federal Reserve System. The new central banks were to control money and credit and act as lenders of last resort to end banking panics. The role of the Federal Reserve Board, located in Washington, D.C., was to coordinate the policies of the 12 district banks; it was composed of five presidential appointees and the current secretary of the treasury and comptroller of the currency. All national banks had to become members of the Federal Reserve System, the Fed, and any state bank meeting the qualifications could elect to do so.

The act specified fixed reserve requirements on demand and time deposits, all of which had to be on deposit in the district bank. Commercial banks were allowed to rediscount commercial paper and given Federal Reserve currency. Initially, each district bank set its own rediscount rate. To provide additional income when there was little rediscounting, the district banks were allowed to engage in open market operations that involved the purchasing and selling of federal government securities, short-term securities of state and local governments issued in anticipation of taxes, foreign exchange, and domestic bills of exchange. The district banks were also designated to act as fiscal agents for the federal government. Finally, the Federal Reserve System provided a central check clearinghouse for the entire banking system.

When the Federal Reserve System was originally set up, it was believed that its primary role was to be a lender of last resort to prevent banking panics and become a check-clearing mechanism for the nation’s banks. Both the Federal Reserve Board and the Governors of the District Banks were bodies established to jointly exercise these activities. The division of functions was not clear, and a struggle for power ensued, mainly between the New York Federal Reserve Bank, which was led by J. P. Morgan’s protege, Benjamin Strong, through 1928, and the Federal Reserve Board. By the thirties the Federal Reserve Board had achieved dominance.

There were really two conflicting criteria upon which monetary actions were ostensibly based: the Gold Standard and the Real Bills Doctrine. The Gold Standard was supposed to be quasi-automatic, with an effective limit to the quantity of money. However, the Real Bills Doctrine (which required that all loans be made on short-term, self-liquidating commercial paper) had no effective limit on the quantity of money. The rediscounting of eligible commercial paper was supposed to lead to the required “elasticity” of the stock of money to “accommodate” the needs of industry and business. Actually the rediscounting of commercial paper, open market purchases, and gold inflows all had the same effects on the money stock.

The 1920-21 Depression

During the First World War, the Fed kept discount rates low and granted discounts on banks’ customer loans used to purchase V-bonds in order to help finance the war. The final Victory Loan had not been floated when the Armistice was signed in November of 1918: in fact, it took until October of 1919 for the government to fully sell this last loan issue. The Treasury, with the secretary of the treasury sitting on the Federal Reserve Board, persuaded the Federal Reserve System to maintain low interest rates and discount the Victory bonds necessary to keep bond prices high until this last issue had been floated. As a result, during this period the money supply grew rapidly and prices rose sharply.

A shift from a federal deficit to a surplus and supply disruptions due to steel and coal strikes in 1919 and a railroad strike in early 1920 contributed to the end of the boom. But the most—common view is that the Fed’s monetary policy was the main determinant of the end of the expansion and inflation and the beginning of the subsequent contraction and severe deflation. When the Fed was released from its informal agreement with the Treasury in November of 1919, it raised the discount rate from 4 to 4.75 percent. Benjamin Strong (the governor of the New York bank) was beginning to believe that the time for strong action was past and that the Federal Reserve System’s actions should be moderate. However, with Strong out of the country, the Federal Reserve Board increased the discount rate from 4.75 to 6 percent in late January of 1920 and to 7 percent on June 1, 1920. By the middle of 1920, economic activity and employment were rapidly falling, and prices had begun their downward spiral in one of the sharpest price declines in American history. The Federal Reserve System kept the discount rate at 7 percent until May 5, 1921, when it was lowered to 6.5 percent. By June of 1922, the rate had been lowered yet again to 4 percent. (Friedman and Schwartz, 1963)

The Federal Reserve System authorities received considerable criticism then and later for their actions. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz (1963) contend that the discount rate was raised too much too late and then kept too high for too long, causing the decline to be more severe and the price deflation to be greater. In their opinion the Fed acted in this manner due to the necessity of meeting the legal reserve requirement with a safe margin of gold reserves. Elmus Wicker (1966), however, argues that the gold reserve ratio was not the main factor determining the Federal Reserve policy in the episode. Rather, the Fed knowingly pursued a deflationary policy because it felt that the money supply was simply too large and prices too high. To return to the prewar parity for gold required lowering the price level, and there was an excessive stock of money because the additional money had been used to finance the war, not to produce consumer goods. Finally, the outstanding indebtedness was too large due to the creation of Fed credit.

Whether statutory gold reserve requirements to maintain the gold standard or domestic credit conditions were the most important determinant of Fed policy is still an open question, though both certainly had some influence. Regardless of the answer to that question, the Federal Reserve System’s first major undertaking in the years immediately following the First World War demonstrated poor policy formulation.

Federal Reserve Policies from 1922 to 1930

By 1921 the district banks began to recognize that their open market purchases had effects on interest rates, the money stock, and economic activity. For the next several years, economists in the Federal Reserve System discussed how this worked and how it could be related to discounting by member banks. A committee was created to coordinate the open market purchases of the district banks.

The recovery from the 1920-1921 depression had proceeded smoothly with moderate price increases. In early 1923 the Fed sold some securities and increased the discount rate from 4 percent as they believed the recovery was too rapid. However, by the fall of 1923 there were some signs of a business slump. McMillin and Parker (1994) argue that this contraction, as well as the 1927 contraction, were related to oil price shocks. By October of 1923 Benjamin Strong was advocating securities purchases to counter this. Between then and September 1924 the Federal Reserve System increased its securities holdings by over $500 million. Between April and August of 1924 the Fed reduced the discount rate to 3 percent in a series of three separate steps. In addition to moderating the mild business slump, the expansionary policy was also intended to reduce American interest rates relative to British interest rates. This reversed the gold flow back toward Great Britain allowing Britain to return to the gold standard in 1925. At the time it appeared that the Fed’s monetary policy had successfully accomplished its goals.

By the summer of 1924 the business slump was over and the economy again began to grow rapidly. By the mid-1920s real estate speculation had arisen in many urban areas in the United States and especially in Southeastern Florida. Land prices were rising sharply. Stock market prices had also begun rising more rapidly. The Fed expressed some worry about these developments and in 1926 sold some securities to gently slow the real estate and stock market boom. Amid hurricanes and supply bottlenecks the Florida real estate boom collapsed but the stock market boom continued.

The American economy entered into another mild business recession in the fall of 1926 that lasted until the fall of 1927. One of the factors in this was Henry’s Ford’s shut down of all of his factories to changeover from the Model T to the Model A. His employees were left without a job and without income for over six months. International concerns also reappeared. France, which was preparing to return to the gold standard, had begun accumulating gold and gold continued to flow into the United States. Some of this gold came from Great Britain making it difficult for the British to remain on the gold standard. This occasioned a new experiment in central bank cooperation. In July 1927 Benjamin Strong arranged a conference with Governor Montagu Norman of the Bank of England, Governor Hjalmar Schacht of the Reichsbank, and Deputy Governor Charles Ritt of the Bank of France in an attempt to promote cooperation among the world’s central bankers. By the time the conference began the Fed had already taken steps to counteract the business slump and reduce the gold inflow. In early 1927 the Fed reduced discount rates and made large securities purchases. One result of this was that the gold stock fell from $4.3 billion in mid-1927 to $3.8 billion in mid-1928. Some of the gold exports went to France and France returned to the gold standard with its undervalued currency. The loss of gold from Britain eased allowing it to maintain the gold standard.

By early 1928 the Fed was again becoming worried. Stock market prices were rising even faster and the apparent speculative bubble in the stock market was of some concern to Fed authorities. The Fed was also concerned about the loss of gold and wanted to bring that to an end. To do this they sold securities and, in three steps, raised the discount rate to 5 percent by July 1928. To this point the Federal Reserve Board had largely agreed with district Bank policy changes. However, problems began to develop.

During the stock market boom of the late 1920s the Federal Reserve Board preferred to use “moral suasion” rather than increases in discount rates to lessen member bank borrowing. The New York City bank insisted that moral suasion would not work unless backed up by literal credit rationing on a bank by bank basis which they, and the other district banks, were unwilling to do. They insisted that discount rates had to be increased. The Federal Reserve Board countered that this general policy change would slow down economic activity in general rather than be specifically targeted to stock market speculation. The result was that little was done for a year. Rates were not raised but no open market purchases were undertaken. Rates were finally raised to 6 percent in August of 1929. By that time the contraction had already begun. In late October the stock market crashed, and America slid into the Great Depression.

In November, following the stock market crash the Fed reduced discount rates to 4.5 percent. In January they again decreased discount rates and began a series of discount rate decreases until the rate reached 2.5 percent at the end of 1930. No further open market operations were undertaken for the next six months. As banks reduced their discounting in 1930, the stock of money declined. There was a banking crisis in the southeast in November and December of 1930, and in its wake the public’s holding of currency relative to deposits and banks’ reserve ratios began to rise and continued to do so through the end of the Great Depression.

Conclusion

Though some disagree, there is growing evidence that the behavior of the American economy in the 1920s did not cause the Great Depression. The depressed 1930s were not “retribution” for the exuberant growth of the 1920s. The weakness of a few economic sectors in the 1920s did not forecast the contraction from 1929 to 1933. Rather it was the depression of the 1930s and the Second World War that interrupted the economic growth begun in the 1920s and resumed after the Second World War. Just as the construction of skyscrapers that began in the 1920s resumed in the 1950s, so did real economic growth and progress resume. In retrospect we can see that the introduction and expansion of new technologies and industries in the 1920s, such as autos, household electric appliances, radio, and electric utilities, are echoed in the 1990s in the effects of the expanding use and development of the personal computer and the rise of the internet. The 1920s have much to teach us about the growth and development of the American economy.

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US Banking History, Civil War to World War II


Richard S. Grossman, Wesleyan University

The National Banking Era Begins, 1863

The National Banking Acts of 1863 and 1864

The National Banking era was ushered in by the passage of the National Currency (later renamed the National Banking) Acts of 1863 and 1864. The Acts marked a decisive change in the monetary system, confirmed a quarter-century-old trend in bank chartering arrangements, and also played a role in financing the Civil War.

Provision of a Uniform National Currency

As its original title suggests, one of the main objectives of the legislation was to provide a uniform national currency. Prior to the establishment of the national banking system, the national currency supply consisted of a confusing patchwork of bank notes issued under a variety of rules by banks chartered under different state laws. Notes of sound banks circulated side-by-side with notes of banks in financial trouble, as well as those of banks that had failed (not to mention forgeries). In fact, bank notes frequently traded at a discount, so that a one-dollar note of a smaller, less well-known bank (or, for that matter, of a bank at some distance) would likely have been valued at less than one dollar by someone receiving it in a transaction. The confusion was such as to lead to the publication of magazines that specialized in printing pictures, descriptions, and prices of various bank notes, along with information on whether or not the issuing bank was still in existence.

Under the legislation, newly created national banks were empowered to issue national bank notes backed by a deposit of US Treasury securities with their chartering agency, the Department of the Treasury’s Comptroller of the Currency. The legislation also placed a tax on notes issued by state banks, effectively driving them out of circulation. Bank notes were of uniform design and, in fact, were printed by the government. The amount of bank notes a national bank was allowed to issue depended upon the bank’s capital (which was also regulated by the act) and the amount of bonds it deposited with the Comptroller. The relationship between bank capital, bonds held, and note issue was changed by laws in 1874, 1882, and 1900 (Cagan 1963, James 1976, and Krooss 1969).

Federal Chartering of Banks

A second element of the Act was the introduction bank charters issued by the federal government. From the earliest days of the Republic, banking had been considered primarily the province of state governments.[1] Originally, individuals who wished to obtain banking charters had to approach the state legislature, which then decided if the applicant was of sufficient moral standing to warrant a charter and if the region in question needed an additional bank. These decisions may well have been influenced by bribes and political pressure, both by the prospective banker and by established bankers who may have hoped to block the entry of new competitors.

An important shift in state banking practice had begun with the introduction of free banking laws in the 1830s. Beginning with laws passed in Michigan (1837) and New York (1838), free banking laws changed the way banks obtained charters. Rather than apply to the state legislature and receive a decision on a case-by-case basis, individuals could obtain a charter by filling out some paperwork and depositing a prescribed amount of specified bonds with the state authorities. By 1860, over one half of the states had enacted some type of free banking law (Rockoff 1975). By regularizing and removing legislative discretion from chartering decisions, the National Banking Acts spread free banking on a national level.

Financing the Civil War

A third important element of the National Banking Acts was that they helped the Union government pay for the war. Adopted in the midst of the Civil War, the requirement for banks to deposit US bonds with the Comptroller maintained the demand for Union securities and helped finance the war effort.[2]

Development and Competition with State Banks

The National Banking system grew rapidly at first (Table 1). Much of the increase came at the expense of the state-chartered banking systems, which contracted over the same period, largely because they were no longer able to issue notes. The expansion of the new system did not lead to the extinction of the old: the growth of deposit-taking, combined with less stringent capital requirements, convinced many state bankers that they could do without either the ability to issue banknotes or a federal charter, and led to a resurgence of state banking in the 1880s and 1890s. Under the original acts, the minimum capital requirement for national banks was $50,000 for banks in towns with a population of 6000 or less, $100,000 for banks in cities with a population ranging from 6000 to 50,000, and $200,000 for banks in cities with populations exceeding 50,000. By contrast, the minimum capital requirement for a state bank was often as low as $10,000. The difference in capital requirements may have been an important difference in the resurgence of state banking: in 1877 only about one-fifth of state banks had a capital of less than $50,000; by 1899 the proportion was over three-fifths. Recognizing this competition, the Gold Standard Act of 1900 reduced the minimum capital necessary for national banks. It is questionable whether regulatory competition (both between states and between states and the federal government) kept regulators on their toes or encouraged a “race to the bottom,” that is, lower and looser standards.

Table 1: Numbers and Assets of National and State Banks, 1863-1913

Number of Banks Assets of Banks ($millions)
National Banks State Banks National Banks State Banks
1863 66 1466 16.8 1185.4
1864 467 1089 252.2 725.9
1865 1294 349 1126.5 165.8
1866 1634 297 1476.3 154.8
1867 1636 272 1494.5 151.9
1868 1640 247 1572.1 154.6
1869 1619 259 1564.1 156.0
1870 1612 325 1565.7 201.5
1871 1723 452 1703.4 259.6
1872 1853 566 1770.8 264.5
1873 1968 277 1851.2 178.9
1874 1983 368 1851.8 237.4
1875 2076 586 1913.2 395.2
1876 2091 671 1825.7 405.9
1877 2078 631 1774.3 506.9
1878 2056 510 1770.4 388.8
1879 2048 648 2019.8 427.6
1880 2076 650 2035.4 481.8
1881 2115 683 2325.8 575.5
1882 2239 704 2344.3 633.8
1883 2417 788 2364.8 724.5
1884 2625 852 2282.5 760.9
1885 2689 1015 2421.8 802.0
1886 2809 891 2474.5 807.0
1887 3014 1471 2636.2 1003.0
1888 3120 1523 2731.4 1055.0
1889 3239 1791 2937.9 1237.3
1890 3484 2250 3061.7 1374.6
1891 3652 2743 3113.4 1442.0
1892 3759 3359 3493.7 1640.0
1893 3807 3807 3213.2 1857.0
1894 3770 3810 3422.0 1782.0
1895 3715 4016 3470.5 1954.0
1896 3689 3968 3353.7 1962.0
1897 3610 4108 3563.4 1981.0
1898 3582 4211 3977.6 2298.0
1899 3583 4451 4708.8 2707.0
1900 3732 4659 4944.1 3090.0
1901 4165 5317 5675.9 3776.0
1902 4535 5814 6008.7 4292.0
1903 4939 6493 6286.9 4790.0
1904 5331 7508 6655.9 5244.0
1905 5668 8477 7327.8 6056.0
1906 6053 9604 7784.2 6636.0
1907 6429 10761 8476.5 7190.0
1908 6824 12062 8714.0 6898.0
1909 6926 12398 9471.7 7407.0
1910 7145 13257 9896.6 7911.0
1911 7277 14115 10383 8412.0
1912 7372 14791 10861.7 9005.0
1913 7473 15526 11036.9 9267.0

Source: U.S. Department of the Treasury. Annual Report of the Comptroller of the Currency (1931), pp. 3, 5. State bank columns include data on state-chartered commercial banks and loan and trust companies.

Capital Requirements and Interest Rates

The relatively high minimum capital requirement for national banks may have contributed to regional interest rate differentials in the post-Civil War era. The period from the Civil War through World War I saw a substantial decline in interregional interest rate differentials. According to Lance Davis (1965), the decline in difference between regional interest rates can be explained by the development and spread of the commercial paper market, which increased the interregional mobility of funds. Richard Sylla (1969) argues that the high minimum capital requirements established by the National Banking Acts represented barriers to entry and therefore led to local monopolies by note-issuing national banks. These local monopolies in capital-short regions led to the persistence of interest rate spreads.[3] (See also James 1976b.)

Bank Failures

Financial crises were a common occurrence in the National Banking era. O.M.W. Sprague (1910) classified the main financial crises during the era as occurring in 1873, 1884, 1890, 1893, and 1907, with those of 1873, 1893, and 1907 being regarded as full-fledged crises and those of 1884 and 1890 as less severe.

Contemporary observers complained of both the persistence and ill effects of bank failures under the new system.[4] The number and assets of failed national and non-national banks during the National Banking era is shown in Table 2. Suspensions — temporary closures of banks unable to meet demand for their liabilities — were even higher during this period.

Table 2: Bank Failures, 1865-1913

Number of Failed Banks Assets of Failed Banks ($millions)
National Banks Other Banks National Banks Other banks
1865 1 5 0.1 0.2
1866 2 5 1.8 1.2
1867 7 3 4.9 0.2
1868 3 7 0.5 0.2
1869 2 6 0.7 0.1
1870 0 1 0.0 0.0
1871 0 7 0.0 2.3
1872 6 10 5.2 2.1
1873 11 33 8.8 4.6
1874 3 40 0.6 4.1
1875 5 14 3.2 9.2
1876 9 37 2.2 7.3
1877 10 63 7.3 13.1
1878 14 70 6.9 26.0
1879 8 20 2.6 5.1
1880 3 10 1.0 1.6
1881 0 9 0.0 0.6
1882 3 19 6.0 2.8
1883 2 27 0.9 2.8
1884 11 54 7.9 12.9
1885 4 32 4.7 3.0
1886 8 13 1.6 1.3
1887 8 19 6.9 2.9
1888 8 17 6.9 2.8
1889 8 15 0.8 1.3
1890 9 30 2.0 10.7
1891 25 44 9.0 7.2
1892 17 27 15.1 2.7
1893 65 261 27.6 54.8
1894 21 71 7.4 8.0
1895 36 115 12.1 11.3
1896 27 78 12.0 10.2
1897 38 122 29.1 17.9
1898 7 53 4.6 4.5
1899 12 26 2.3 7.8
1900 6 32 11.6 7.7
1901 11 56 8.1 6.4
1902 2 43 0.5 7.3
1903 12 26 6.8 2.2
1904 20 102 7.7 24.3
1905 22 57 13.7 7.0
1906 8 37 2.2 6.6
1907 7 34 5.4 13.0
1908 24 132 30.8 177.1
1909 9 60 3.4 15.8
1910 6 28 2.6 14.5
1911 3 56 1.1 14.0
1912 8 55 5.0 7.8
1913 6 40 7.6 6.2

Source: U.S. Department of the Treasury. Annual Report of the Comptroller of the Currency (1931), pp. 6, 8.

The largest number of failures occurred in the years following the financial crisis of 1893. The number and assets of national and non-national bank failures remained high for four years following the crisis, a period which coincided with the free silver agitation of the mid-1890s, before returning to pre-1893 levels. Other crises were also accompanied by an increase in the number and assets of bank failures. The earliest peak during the national banking era accompanied the onset of the crisis of 1873. Failures subsequently fell, but rose again in the trough of the depression that followed the 1873 crisis. The panic of 1884 saw a slight increase in failures, while the financial stringency of 1890 was followed by a more substantial increase. Failures peaked again following several minor panics around the turn of the century and again at the time of the crisis of 1907.

Among the alleged causes of crises during the national banking era were that the money supply was not sufficiently elastic to allow for seasonal and other stresses on the money market and the fact that reserves were pyramided. That is, under the National Banking Acts, a portion of banks’ required reserves could be held in national banks in larger cities (“reserve city banks”). Reserve city banks could, in turn, hold a portion of their required reserves in “central reserve city banks,” national banks in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis. In practice, this led to the build-up of reserve balances in New York City. Increased demands for funds in the interior of the country during the autumn harvest season led to substantial outflows of funds from New York, which contributed to tight money market conditions and, sometimes, to panics (Miron 1986).[5]

Attempted Remedies for Banking Crises

Causes of Bank Failures

Bank failures occur when banks are unable to meet the demands of their creditors (in earlier times these were note holders; later on, they were more often depositors). Banks typically do not hold 100 percent of their liabilities in reserves, instead holding some fraction of demandable liabilities in reserves: as long as the flows of funds into and out of the bank are more or less in balance, the bank is in little danger of failing. A withdrawal of deposits that exceeds the bank’s reserves, however, can lead to the banks’ temporary suspension (inability to pay) or, if protracted, failure. The surge in withdrawals can have a variety of causes including depositor concern about the bank’s solvency (ability to pay depositors), as well as worries about other banks’ solvency that lead to a general distrust of all banks.[6]

Clearinghouses

Bankers and policy makers attempted a number of different responses to banking panics during the National Banking era. One method of dealing with panics was for the bankers of a city to pool their resources, through the local bankers’ clearinghouse and to jointly guarantee the payment of every member banks’ liabilities (see Gorton (1985a, b)).

Deposit Insurance

Another method of coping with panics was deposit insurance. Eight states (Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, Mississippi, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Washington) adopted deposit insurance systems between 1908 and 1917 (six other states had adopted some form of deposit insurance in the nineteenth century: New York, Vermont, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Iowa). These systems were not particularly successful, in part because they lacked diversification: because these systems operated statewide, when a panic fell full force on a state, deposit insurance system did not have adequate resources to handle each and every failure. When the agricultural depression of the 1920s hit, a number of these systems failed (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation 1988).

Double Liability

Another measure adopted to curtail bank risk-taking, and through risk-taking, bank failures, was double liability (Grossman 2001). Under double liability, shareholders who had invested in banks that failed were liable to lose not only the money they had invested, but could be called on by a bank’s receiver to contribute an additional amount equal to the par value of the shares (hence the term “double liability,” although clearly the loss to the shareholder need not have been double if the par and market values of shares were different). Other states instituted triple liability, where the receiver could call on twice the par value of shares owned. Still others had unlimited liability, while others had single, or regular limited, liability.[7] It was argued that banks with double liability would be more risk averse, since shareholders would be liable for a greater payment if the firm went bankrupt.

By 1870, multiple (i.e., double, triple, and unlimited) liability was already the rule for state banks in eighteen states, principally in the Midwest, New England, and Middle Atlantic regions, as well as for national banks. By 1900, multiple liability was the law for state banks in thirty-two states. By this time, the main pockets of single liability were in the south and west. By 1930, only four states had single liability.

Double liability appears to have been successful (Grossman 2001), at least during less-than-turbulent times. During the 1890-1930 period, state banks in states where banks were subject to double (or triple, or unlimited) liability typically undertook less risk than their counterparts in single (limited) liability states in normal years. However, in years in which bank failures were quite high, banks in multiple liability states appeared to take more risk than their limited liability counterparts. This may have resulted from the fact that legislators in more crisis-prone states were more likely to have already adopted double liability. Whatever its advantages or disadvantages, the Great Depression spelled the end of double liability: by 1941, virtually every state had repealed double liability for state-chartered banks.

The Crisis of 1907 and Founding of the Federal Reserve

The crisis of 1907, which had been brought under control by a coalition of trust companies and other chartered banks and clearing-house members led by J.P. Morgan, led to a reconsideration of the monetary system of the United States. Congress set up the National Monetary Commission (1908-12), which undertook a massive study of the history of banking and monetary arrangements in the United States and in other economically advanced countries.[8]

The eventual result of this investigation was the Federal Reserve Act (1913), which established the Federal Reserve System as the central bank of the US. Unlike other countries that had one central bank (e.g., Bank of England, Bank of France), the Federal Reserve Act provided for a system of between eight and twelve reserve banks (twelve were eventually established under the act, although during debate over the act, some had called for as many as one reserve bank per state). This provision, like the rejection of the first two attempts at a central bank, resulted, in part, from American’s antipathy towards centralized monetary authority. The Federal Reserve was established to manage the monetary affairs of the country, to hold the reserves of banks and to regulate the money supply. At the time of its founding each of the reserve banks had a high degree of independence. As a result of the crises surrounding the Great Depression, Congress passed the Banking Act of 1935, which, among other things, centralized Federal Reserve power (including the power to engage in open market operations) in a Washington-based Board of Governors (and Federal Open Market Committee), relegating the heads of the individual reserve banks to a more consultative role in the operation of monetary policy.

The Goal of an “Elastic Currency”

The stated goals of the Federal Reserve Act were: ” . . . to furnish an elastic currency, to furnish the means of rediscounting commercial paper, to establish a more effective supervision of banking in the United States, and for other purposes.” Furnishing an “elastic currency” was important goal of the act, since none of the components of the money supply (gold and silver certificates, national bank notes) were able to expand or contract particularly rapidly. The inelasticity of the money supply, along with the seasonal fluctuations in money demand had led to a number of the panics of the National Banking era. These panic-inducing seasonal fluctuations resulted from the large flows of money out of New York and other money centers to the interior of the country to pay for the newly harvested crops. If monetary conditions were already tight before the drain of funds to the nation’s interior, the autumnal movement of funds could — and did –precipitate panics.[9]

Growth of the Bankers’ Acceptance Market

The act also fostered the growth of the bankers’ acceptance market. Bankers’ acceptances were essentially short-dated IOUs, issued by banks on behalf of clients that were importing (or otherwise purchasing) goods. These acceptances were sent to the seller who could hold on to them until they matured, and receive the face value of the acceptance, or could discount them, that is, receive the face value minus interest charges. By allowing the Federal Reserve to rediscount commercial paper, the act facilitated the growth of this short-term money market (Warburg 1930, Broz 1997, and Federal Reserve Bank of New York 1998). In the 1920s, the various Federal Reserve banks began making large-scale purchases of US Treasury obligations, marking the beginnings of Federal Reserve open market operations.[10]

The Federal Reserve and State Banking

The establishment of the Federal Reserve did not end the competition between the state and national banking systems. While national banks were required to be members of the new Federal Reserve System, state banks could also become members of the system on equal terms. Further, the Federal Reserve Act, bolstered by the Act of June 21, 1917, ensured that state banks could become member banks without losing any competitive advantages they might hold over national banks. Depending upon the state, state banking law sometimes gave state banks advantages in the areas of branching,[11] trust operations,[12] interlocking managements, loan and investment powers,[13] safe deposit operations, and the arrangement of mergers.[14] Where state banking laws were especially liberal, banks had an incentive to give up their national bank charter and seek admission to the Federal Reserve System as a state member bank.

McFadden Act

The McFadden Act (1927) addressed some of the competitive inequalities between state and national banks. It gave national banks charters of indeterminate length, allowing them to compete with state banks for trust business. It expanded the range of permissible investments, including real estate investment and allowed investment in the stock of safe deposit companies. The Act greatly restricted the ability of member banks — whether state or nationally chartered — from opening or maintaining out-of-town branches.

The Great Depression: Panic and Reform

The Great Depression was the longest, most severe economic downturn in the history of the United States.[15] The banking panics of 1930, 1931, and 1933 were the most severe banking disruption ever to hit the United States, with more than one quarter of all banks closing. Data on the number of bank suspensions during this period is presented in Table 3.

Table 3: Bank Suspensions, 1921-33

Number of Bank Suspensions
All Banks National Banks
1921 505 52
1922 367 49
1923 646 90
1924 775 122
1925 618 118
1926 976 123
1927 669 91
1928 499 57
1929 659 64
1930 1352 161
1931 2294 409
1932 1456 276
1933 5190 1475

Source: Bremer (1935).

Note: 1933 figures include 4507 non-licensed banks (1400 non-licensed national banks). Non-licensed banks consist of banks operating on a restricted basis or not in operation, but not in liquidation or receivership.

The first banking panic erupted in October 1930. According to Friedman and Schwartz (1963, pp. 308-309), it began with failures in Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Arkansas, and North Carolina and quickly spread to other areas of the country. Friedman and Schwartz report that 256 banks with $180 million of deposits failed in November 1930, while 352 banks with over $370 million of deposits failed in the following month (the largest of which was the Bank of United States which failed on December 11 with over $200 million of deposits). The second banking panic began in March of 1931 and continued into the summer.[16] The third and final panic began at the end of 1932 and persisted into March of 1933. During the early months of 1933, a number of states declared banking holidays, allowing banks to close their doors and therefore freeing them from the requirement to redeem deposits. By the time President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, state-declared banking holidays were widespread. The following day, the president declared a national banking holiday.

Beginning on March 13, the Secretary of the Treasury began granting licenses to banks to reopen for business.

Federal Deposit Insurance

The crises led to the implementation of several major reforms in banking. Among the most important of these was the introduction of federal deposit insurance under the Banking (Glass-Steagall) Act of 1933. Originally an explicitly temporary program, the Act established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (the FDIC was made permanent by the Banking Act of 1935); insurance became effective January 1, 1934. Member banks of the Federal Reserve (which included all national banks) were required to join FDIC. Within six months, 14,000 out of 15,348 commercial banks, representing 97 percent of bank deposits had subscribed to federal deposit insurance (Friedman and Schwartz, 1963, 436-437).[17] Coverage under the initial act was limited to a maximum of $2500 of deposits for each depositor. Table 4 documents the increase in the limit from the act’s inception until 1980, when it reached its current $100,000 level.

Table 4: FDIC Insurance Limit

1934 (January) $2500
1934 (July) $5000
1950 $10,000
1966 $15,000
1969 $20,000
1974 $40,000
1980 $100,000
Source: http://www.fdic.gov/

Additional Provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act

An important goal of the New Deal reforms was to enhance the stability of the banking system. Because the involvement of commercial banks in securities underwriting was seen as having contributed to banking instability, the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 forced the separation of commercial and investment banking.[18] Additionally, the Acts (1933 for member banks, 1935 for other insured banks) established Regulation Q, which forbade banks from paying interest on demand deposits (i.e., checking accounts) and established limits on interest rates paid to time deposits. It was argued that paying interest on demand deposits introduced unhealthy competition.

Recent Responses to New Deal Banking Laws

In a sense, contemporary debates on banking policy stem largely from the reforms of the post-Depression era. Although several of the reforms introduced in the wake of the 1931-33 crisis have survived into the twenty-first century, almost all of them have been subject to intense scrutiny in the last two decades. For example, several court decisions, along with the Financial Services Modernization Act (Gramm-Leach-Bliley) of 1999, have blurred the previously strict separation between different financial service industries (particularly, although not limited to commercial and investment banking).

FSLIC

The Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s, resulting from a combination of deposit insurance-induced moral hazard and deregulation, led to the dismantling of the Depression-era Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC) and the transfer of Savings and Loan insurance to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Further Reading

Bernanke, Ben S. “Nonmonetary Effects of the Financial Crisis in Propagation of the Great Depression.” American Economic Review 73 (1983): 257-76.

Bordo, Michael D., Claudia Goldin, and Eugene N. White, editors. The Defining Moment: The Great Depression and the American Economy in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Bremer, C. D. American Bank Failures. New York: Columbia University Press, 1935.

Broz, J. Lawrence. The International Origins of the Federal Reserve System. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Cagan, Phillip. “The First Fifty Years of the National Banking System: An Historical Appraisal.” In Banking and Monetary Studies, edited by Deane Carson, 15-42. Homewood: Richard D. Irwin, 1963.

Cagan, Phillip. The Determinants and Effects of Changes in the Stock of Money. New York: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1065.

Calomiris, Charles W. and Gorton, Gary. “The Origins of Banking Panics: Models, Facts, and Bank Regulation.” In Financial Markets and Financial Crises, edited by Glenn R. Hubbard, 109-73. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Davis, Lance. “The Investment Market, 1870-1914: The Evolution of a National Market.” Journal of Economic History 25 (1965): 355-399.

Dewald, William G. “ The National Monetary Commission: A Look Back.”

Journal of Money, Credit and Banking 4 (1972): 930-956.

Eichengreen, Barry. “Mortgage Interest Rates in the Populist Era.” American Economic Review 74 (1984): 995-1015.

Eichengreen, Barry. Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919-1939, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. “A Brief History of Deposit Insurance in the United States.” Washington: FDIC, 1998. http://www.fdic.gov/bank/historical/brief/brhist.pdf

Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve: Purposes and Functions. Washington: Federal Reserve Board, 1994. http://www.federalreserve.gov/pf/pdf/frspurp.pdf

Federal Reserve Bank of New York. U.S. Monetary Policy and Financial Markets.

New York, 1998. http://www.ny.frb.org/pihome/addpub/monpol/chapter2.pdf

Friedman, Milton and Anna J. Schawtz. A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Goodhart, C.A.E. The New York Money Market and the Finance of Trade, 1900-1913. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Gorton, Gary. “Bank Suspensions of Convertibility.” Journal of Monetary Economics 15 (1985a): 177-193.

Gorton, Gary. “Clearing Houses and the Origin of Central Banking in the United States.” Journal of Economic History 45 (1985b): 277-283.

Grossman, Richard S. “Deposit Insurance, Regulation, Moral Hazard in the Thrift Industry: Evidence from the 1930s.” American Economic Review 82 (1992): 800-821.

Grossman, Richard S. “The Macroeconomic Consequences of Bank Failures under the National Banking System.” Explorations in Economic History 30 (1993): 294-320.

Grossman, Richard S. “The Shoe That Didn’t Drop: Explaining Banking Stability during the Great Depression.” Journal of Economic History 54, no. 3 (1994): 654-82.

Grossman, Richard S. “Double Liability and Bank Risk-Taking.” Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking 33 (2001): 143-159.

James, John A. “The Conundrum of the Low Issue of National Bank Notes.” Journal of Political Economy 84 (1976a): 359-67.

James, John A. “The Development of the National Money Market, 1893-1911.” Journal of Economic History 36 (1976b): 878-97.

Kent, Raymond P. “Dual Banking between the Two Wars.” In Banking and Monetary Studies, edited by Deane Carson, 43-63. Homewood: Richard D. Irwin, 1963.

Kindleberger, Charles P. Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises. New York: Basic Books, 1978.

Krooss, Herman E., editor. Documentary History of Banking and Currency in the United States. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1969.

Minsky, Hyman P. Can ‘It” Happen Again? Essays on Instability and Finance. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1982.

Miron , Jeffrey A. “Financial Panics, the Seasonality of the Nominal Interest Rate, and the Founding of the Fed.” American Economic Review 76 (1986): 125-38.

Mishkin, Frederic S. “Asymmetric Information and Financial Crises: A Historical Perspective.” In Financial Markets and Financial Crises, edited by R. Glenn Hubbard, 69-108. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Rockoff, Hugh. The Free Banking Era: A Reexamination. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Rockoff, Hugh. “Banking and Finance, 1789-1914.” In The Cambridge Economic History of the United States. Volume 2. The Long Nineteenth Century, edited by Stanley L Engerman and Robert E. Gallman, 643-84. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Sprague, O. M. W. History of Crises under the National Banking System. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1910.

Sylla, Richard. “Federal Policy, Banking Market Structure, and Capital Mobilization in the United States, 1863-1913.” Journal of Economic History 29 (1969): 657-686.

Temin, Peter. Did Monetary Forces Cause the Great Depression? New York: Norton, 1976.

Temin, Peter. Lessons from the Great Depression. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989.

Warburg,. Paul M. The Federal Reserve System: Its Origin and Growth: Reflections and Recollections, 2 volumes. New York: Macmillan, 1930.

White, Eugene N. The Regulation and Reform of American Banking, 1900-1929. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

White, Eugene N. “Before the Glass-Steagall Act: An Analysis of the Investment Banking Activities of National Banks.” Explorations in Economic History 23 (1986) 33-55.

White, Eugene N. “Banking and Finance in the Twentieth Century.” In The Cambridge Economic History of the United States. Volume 3. The Twentieth Century, edited by Stanley L.Engerman and Robert E. Gallman, 743-802. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Wicker, Elmus. The Banking Panics of the Great Depression. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Wicker, Elmus. Banking Panics of the Gilded Age. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.


[1] The two exceptions were the First and Second Banks of the United States. The First Bank, which was chartered by Congress at the urging of Alexander Hamilton, in 1791, was granted a 20-year charter, which Congress allowed to expire in 1811. The Second Bank was chartered just five years after the expiration of the first, but Andrew Jackson vetoed the charter renewal in 1832 and the bank ceased to operate with a national charter when its 20-year charter expired in 1836. The US remained without a central bank until the founding of the Federal Reserve in 1914. Even then, the Fed was not founded as one central bank, but as a collection of twelve regional reserve banks. American suspicion of concentrated financial power has not been limited to central banking: in contrast to the rest of the industrialized world, twentieth century US banking was characterized by large numbers of comparatively small, unbranched banks.

[2] The relationship between the enactment of the National Bank Acts and the Civil War was perhaps even deeper. Hugh Rockoff suggested the following to me: “There were western states where the banking system was in trouble because the note issue was based on southern bonds, and people in those states were looking to the national government to do something. There were also conservative politicians who were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to get rid of the greenback (a perfectly uniform [government issued wartime] currency) if there wasn’t a private alternative that also promised uniformity…. It has even been claimed that by setting up a national system, banks in the South were undermined — as a war measure.”

[3] Eichengreen (1984) argues that regional mortgage interest rate differentials resulted from differences in risk.

[4] There is some debate over the direction of causality between banking crises and economic downturns. According to monetarists Friedman and Schwartz (1963) and Cagan (1965), the monetary contraction associated with bank failures magnifies real economic downturns. Bernanke (1983) argues that bank failures raise the cost of credit intermediation and therefore have an effect on the real economy through non-monetary channels. An alternative view, articulated by Sprague (1910), Fisher (1933), Temin (1976), Minsky (1982), and Kindleberger (1978), maintains that bank failures and monetary contraction are primarily a consequence, rather than a cause, of sluggishness in the real economy which originates in non-monetary sources. See Grossman (1993) for a summary of this literature.

[5] See Calomiris and Gorton (1991) for an alternative view.

[6] See Mishkin (1991) on asymmetric information and financial crises.

[7] Still other states had “voluntary liability,” whereby each bank could choose single or double liability.

[8] See Dewald (1972) on the National Monetary Commission.

[9] Miron (1986) demonstrates the decline in the seasonality of interest rates following the founding of the Fed.

[10] Other Fed activities included check clearing.

[11] According to Kent (1963, pp. 48), starting in 1922 the Comptroller allowed national banks to open “offices” to receive deposits, cash checks, and receive applications for loans in head office cities of states that allowed state-chartered banks to establish branches.

[12] Prior to 1922, national bank charters had lives of only 20 years. This severely limited their ability to compete with state banks in the trust business. (Kent 1963, p. 49)

[13] National banks were subject to more severe limitations on lending than most state banks. These restrictions included a limit on the amount that could be loaned to one borrower as well as limitations on real estate lending. (Kent 1963, pp. 50-51)

[14] Although the Bank Consolidation Act of 1918 provided for the merger of two or more national banks, it made no provision for the merger of a state and national bank. Kent (1963, p. 51).

[15] References touching on banking and financial aspects of the Great Depression in the United States include Friedman and Schwartz (1963), Temin (1976, 1989), Kindleberger (1978), Bernanke (1983), Eichangreen (1992), and Bordo, Goldin, and White (1998).

[16] During this period, the failures of the Credit-Anstalt, Austria’s largest bank, and the Darmstädter und Nationalbank (Danat Bank), a large German bank, inaugurated the beginning of financial crisis in Europe. The European financial crisis led to Britain’s suspension of the gold standard in September 1931. See Grossman (1994) on the European banking crisis of 1931. The best source on the gold standard in the interwar years is Eichengreen (1992).

[17] Interestingly, federal deposit insurance was made optional for savings and loan institutions at about the same time. The majority of S&L’s did not elect to adopt deposit insurance until after 1950. See Grossman (1992).

[18] See, however, White (1986) for

Citation: Grossman, Richard. “US Banking History, Civil War to World War II”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL
http://eh.net/encyclopedia/us-banking-history-civil-war-to-world-war-ii/

Antebellum Banking in the United States

Howard Bodenhorn, Lafayette College

The first legitimate commercial bank in the United States was the Bank of North America founded in 1781. Encouraged by Alexander Hamilton, Robert Morris persuaded the Continental Congress to charter the bank, which loaned to the cash-strapped Revolutionary government as well as private citizens, mostly Philadelphia merchants. The possibilities of commercial banking had been widely recognized by many colonists, but British law forbade the establishment of commercial, limited-liability banks in the colonies. Given that many of the colonists’ grievances against Parliament centered on economic and monetary issues, it is not surprising that one of the earliest acts of the Continental Congress was the establishment of a bank.

The introduction of banking to the U.S. was viewed as an important first step in forming an independent nation because banks supplied a medium of exchange (banknotes1 and deposits) in an economy perpetually strangled by shortages of specie money and credit, because they animated industry, and because they fostered wealth creation and promoted well-being. In the last case, contemporaries typically viewed banks as an integral part of a wider system of government-sponsored commercial infrastructure. Like schools, bridges, road, canals, river clearing and harbor improvements, the benefits of banks were expected to accrue to everyone even if dividends accrued only to shareholders.

Financial Sector Growth

By 1800 each major U.S. port city had at least one commercial bank serving the local mercantile community. As city banks proved themselves, banking spread into smaller cities and towns and expanded their clientele. Although most banks specialized in mercantile lending, others served artisans and farmers. In 1820 there were 327 commercial banks and several mutual savings banks that promoted thrift among the poor. Thus, at the onset of the antebellum period (defined here as the period between 1820 and 1860), urban residents were familiar with the intermediary function of banks and used bank-supplied currencies (deposits and banknotes) for most transactions. Table 1 reports the number of banks and the value of loans outstanding at year end between 1820 and 1860. During the era, the number of banks increased from 327 to 1,562 and total loans increased from just over $55.1 million to $691.9 million. Bank-supplied credit in the U.S. economy increased at a remarkable annual average rate of 6.3 percent. Growth in the financial sector, then outpaced growth in aggregate economic activity. Nominal gross domestic product increased an average annual rate of about 4.3 percent over the same interval. This essay discusses how regional regulatory structures evolved as the banking sector grew and radiated out from northeastern cities to the hinterlands.

Table 1
Number of Banks and Total Loans, 1820-1860

Year Banks Loans ($ millions)
1820 327 55.1
1821 273 71.9
1822 267 56.0
1823 274 75.9
1824 300 73.8
1825 330 88.7
1826 331 104.8
1827 333 90.5
1828 355 100.3
1829 369 103.0
1830 381 115.3
1831 424 149.0
1832 464 152.5
1833 517 222.9
1834 506 324.1
1835 704 365.1
1836 713 457.5
1837 788 525.1
1838 829 485.6
1839 840 492.3
1840 901 462.9
1841 784 386.5
1842 692 324.0
1843 691 254.5
1844 696 264.9
1845 707 288.6
1846 707 312.1
1847 715 310.3
1848 751 344.5
1849 782 332.3
1850 824 364.2
1851 879 413.8
1852 913 429.8
1853 750 408.9
1854 1208 557.4
1855 1307 576.1
1856 1398 634.2
1857 1416 684.5
1858 1422 583.2
1859 1476 657.2
1860 1562 691.9

Sources: Fenstermaker (1965); U.S. Comptroller of the Currency (1931).

Adaptability

As important as early American banks were in the process of capital accumulation, perhaps their most notable feature was their adaptability. Kuznets (1958) argues that one measure of the financial sector’s value is how and to what extent it evolves with changing economic conditions. Put in place to perform certain functions under one set of economic circumstances, how did it alter its behavior and service the needs of borrowers as circumstances changed. One benefit of the federalist U.S. political system was that states were given the freedom to establish systems reflecting local needs and preferences. While the political structure deserves credit in promoting regional adaptations, North (1994) credits the adaptability of America’s formal rules and informal constraints that rewarded adventurism in the economic, as well as the noneconomic, sphere. Differences in geography, climate, crop mix, manufacturing activity, population density and a host of other variables were reflected in different state banking systems. Rhode Island’s banks bore little resemblance to those in far away Louisiana or Missouri, or even those in neighboring Connecticut. Each state’s banks took a different form, but their purpose was the same; namely, to provide the state’s citizens with monetary and intermediary services and to promote the general economic welfare. This section provides a sketch of regional differences. A more detailed discussion can be found in Bodenhorn (2002).

State Banking in New England

New England’s banks most resemble the common conception of the antebellum bank. They were relatively small, unit banks; their stock was closely held; they granted loans to local farmers, merchants and artisans with whom the bank’s managers had more than a passing familiarity; and the state took little direct interest in their daily operations.

Of the banking systems put in place in the antebellum era, New England’s is typically viewed as the most stable and conservative. Friedman and Schwartz (1986) attribute their stability to an Old World concern with business reputations, familial ties, and personal legacies. New England was long settled, its society well established, and its business community mature and respected throughout the Atlantic trading network. Wealthy businessmen and bankers with strong ties to the community — like the Browns of Providence or the Bowdoins of Boston — emphasized stability not just because doing so benefited and reflected well on them, but because they realized that bad banking was bad for everyone’s business.

Besides their reputation for soundness, the two defining characteristics of New England’s early banks were their insider nature and their small size. The typical New England bank was small compared to banks in other regions. Table 2 shows that in 1820 the average Massachusetts country bank was about the same size as a Pennsylvania country bank, but both were only about half the size of a Virginia bank. A Rhode Island bank was about one-third the size of a Massachusetts or Pennsylvania bank and a mere one-sixth as large as Virginia’s banks. By 1850 the average Massachusetts bank declined relatively, operating on about two-thirds the paid-in capital of a Pennsylvania country bank. Rhode Island’s banks also shrank relative to Pennsylvania’s and were tiny compared to the large branch banks in the South and West.

Table 2
Average Bank Size by Capital and Lending in 1820 and 1850 Selected States and Cities
(in $ thousands)

1820
Capital
Loans 1850 Capital Loans
Massachusetts $374.5 $480.4 $293.5 $494.0
except Boston 176.6 230.8 170.3 281.9
Rhode Island 95.7 103.2 186.0 246.2
except Providence 60.6 72.0 79.5 108.5
New York na na 246.8 516.3
except NYC na na 126.7 240.1
Pennsylvania 221.8 262.9 340.2 674.6
except Philadelphia 162.6 195.2 246.0 420.7
Virginia1,2 351.5 340.0 270.3 504.5
South Carolina2 na na 938.5 1,471.5
Kentucky2 na na 439.4 727.3

Notes: 1 Virginia figures for 1822. 2 Figures represent branch averages.

Source: Bodenhorn (2002).

Explanations for New England Banks’ Relatively Small Size

Several explanations have been offered for the relatively small size of New England’s banks. Contemporaries attributed it to the New England states’ propensity to tax bank capital, which was thought to work to the detriment of large banks. They argued that large banks circulated fewer banknotes per dollar of capital. The result was a progressive tax that fell disproportionately on large banks. Data compiled from Massachusetts’s bank reports suggest that large banks were not disadvantaged by the capital tax. It was a fact, as contemporaries believed, that large banks paid higher taxes per dollar of circulating banknotes, but a potentially better benchmark is the tax to loan ratio because large banks made more use of deposits than small banks. The tax to loan ratio was remarkably constant across both bank size and time, averaging just 0.6 percent between 1834 and 1855. Moreover, there is evidence of constant to modestly increasing returns to scale in New England banking. Large banks were generally at least as profitable as small banks in all years between 1834 and 1860, and slightly more so in many.

Lamoreaux (1993) offers a different explanation for the modest size of the region’s banks. New England’s banks, she argues, were not impersonal financial intermediaries. Rather, they acted as the financial arms of extended kinship trading networks. Throughout the antebellum era banks catered to insiders: directors, officers, shareholders, or business partners and kin of directors, officers, shareholders and business partners. Such preferences toward insiders represented the perpetuation of the eighteenth-century custom of pooling capital to finance family enterprises. In the nineteenth century the practice continued under corporate auspices. The corporate form, in fact, facilitated raising capital in greater amounts than the family unit could raise on its own. But because the banks kept their loans within a relatively small circle of business connections, it was not until the late nineteenth century that bank size increased.2

Once the kinship orientation of the region’s banks was established it perpetuated itself. When outsiders could not obtain loans from existing insider organizations, they formed their own insider bank. In doing so the promoters assured themselves of a steady supply of credit and created engines of economic mobility for kinship networks formerly closed off from many sources of credit. State legislatures accommodated the practice through their liberal chartering policies. By 1860, Rhode Island had 91 banks, Maine had 68, New Hampshire 51, Vermont 44, Connecticut 74 and Massachusetts 178.

The Suffolk System

One of the most commented on characteristic of New England’s banking system was its unique regional banknote redemption and clearing mechanism. Established by the Suffolk Bank of Boston in the early 1820s, the system became known as the Suffolk System. With so many banks in New England, each issuing it own form of currency, it was sometimes difficult for merchants, farmers, artisans, and even other bankers, to discriminate between real and bogus banknotes, or to discriminate between good and bad bankers. Moreover, the rural-urban terms of trade pulled most banknotes toward the region’s port cities. Because country merchants and farmers were typically indebted to city merchants, country banknotes tended to flow toward the cities, Boston more so than any other. By the second decade of the nineteenth century, country banknotes became a constant irritant for city bankers. City bankers believed that country issues displaced Boston banknotes in local transactions. More irritating though was the constant demand by the city banks’ customers to accept country banknotes on deposit, which placed the burden of interbank clearing on the city banks.3

In 1803 the city banks embarked on a first attempt to deal with country banknotes. They joined together, bought up a large quantity of country banknotes, and returned them to the country banks for redemption into specie. This effort to reduce country banknote circulation encountered so many obstacles that it was quickly abandoned. Several other schemes were hatched in the next two decades, but none proved any more successful than the 1803 plan.

The Suffolk Bank was chartered in 1818 and within a year embarked on a novel scheme to deal with the influx of country banknotes. The Suffolk sponsored a consortium of Boston bank in which each member appointed the Suffolk as its lone agent in the collection and redemption of country banknotes. In addition, each city bank contributed to a fund used to purchase and redeem country banknotes. When the Suffolk collected a large quantity of a country bank’s notes, it presented them for immediate redemption with an ultimatum: Join in a regular and organized redemption system or be subject to further unannounced redemption calls.4 Country banks objected to the Suffolk’s proposal, because it required them to keep noninterest-earning assets on deposit with the Suffolk in amounts equal to their average weekly redemptions at the city banks. Most country banks initially refused to join the redemption network, but after the Suffolk made good on a few redemption threats, the system achieved near universal membership.

Early interpretations of the Suffolk system, like those of Redlich (1949) and Hammond (1957), portray the Suffolk as a proto-central bank, which acted as a restraining influence that exercised some control over the region’s banking system and money supply. Recent studies are less quick to pronounce the Suffolk a successful experiment in early central banking. Mullineaux (1987) argues that the Suffolk’s redemption system was actually self-defeating. Instead of making country banknotes less desirable in Boston, the fact that they became readily redeemable there made them perfect substitutes for banknotes issued by Boston’s prestigious banks. This policy made country banknotes more desirable, which made it more, not less, difficult for Boston’s banks to keep their own notes in circulation.

Fenstermaker and Filer (1986) also contest the long-held view that the Suffolk exercised control over the region’s money supply (banknotes and deposits). Indeed, the Suffolk’s system was self-defeating in this regard as well. By increasing confidence in the value of a randomly encountered banknote, people were willing to hold increases in banknotes issues. In an interesting twist on the traditional interpretation, a possible outcome of the Suffolk system is that New England may have grown increasingly financial backward as a direct result of the region’s unique clearing system. Because banknotes were viewed as relatively safe and easily redeemed, the next big financial innovation — deposit banking — in New England lagged far behind other regions. With such wide acceptance of banknotes, there was no reason for banks to encourage the use of deposits and little reason for consumers to switch over.

Summary: New England Banks

New England’s banking system can be summarized as follows: Small unit banks predominated; many banks catered to small groups of capitalists bound by personal and familial ties; banking was becoming increasingly interconnected with other lines of business, such as insurance, shipping and manufacturing; the state took little direct interest in the daily operations of the banks and its supervisory role amounted to little more than a demand that every bank submit an unaudited balance sheet at year’s end; and that the Suffolk developed an interbank clearing system that facilitated the use of banknotes throughout the region, but had little effective control over the region’s money supply.

Banking in the Middle Atlantic Region

Pennsylvania

After 1810 or so, many bank charters were granted in New England, but not because of the presumption that the bank would promote the commonweal. Charters were granted for the personal gain of the promoter and the shareholders and in proportion to the personal, political and economic influence of the bank’s founders. No New England state took a significant financial stake in its banks. In both respects, New England differed markedly from states in other regions. From the beginning of state-chartered commercial banking in Pennsylvania, the state took a direct interest in the operations and profits of its banks. The Bank of North America was the obvious case: chartered to provide support to the colonial belligerents and the fledgling nation. Because the bank was popularly perceived to be dominated by Philadelphia’s Federalist merchants, who rarely loaned to outsiders, support for the bank waned.5 After a pitched political battle in which the Bank of North America’s charter was revoked and reinstated, the legislature chartered the Bank of Pennsylvania in 1793. As its name implies, this bank became the financial arm of the state. Pennsylvania subscribed $1 million of the bank’s capital, giving it the right to appoint six of thirteen directors and a $500,000 line of credit. The bank benefited by becoming the state’s fiscal agent, which guaranteed a constant inflow of deposits from regular treasury operations as well as western land sales.

By 1803 the demand for loans outstripped the existing banks’ supply and a plan for a new bank, the Philadelphia Bank, was hatched and its promoters petitioned the legislature for a charter. The existing banks lobbied against the charter, and nearly sank the new bank’s chances until it established a precedent that lasted throughout the antebellum era. Its promoters bribed the legislature with a payment of $135,000 in return for the charter, handed over one-sixth of its shares, and opened a line of credit for the state.

Between 1803 and 1814, the only other bank chartered in Pennsylvania was the Farmers and Mechanics Bank of Philadelphia, which established a second substantive precedent that persisted throughout the era. Existing banks followed a strict real-bills lending policy, restricting lending to merchants at very short terms of 30 to 90 days.6 Their adherence to a real-bills philosophy left a growing community of artisans, manufacturers and farmers on the outside looking in. The Farmers and Mechanics Bank was chartered to serve excluded groups. At least seven of its thirteen directors had to be farmers, artisans or manufacturers and the bank was required to lend the equivalent of 10 percent of its capital to farmers on mortgage for at least one year. In later years, banks were established to provide services to even more narrowly defined groups. Within a decade or two, most substantial port cities had banks with names like Merchants Bank, Planters Bank, Farmers Bank, and Mechanics Bank. By 1860 it was common to find banks with names like Leather Manufacturers Bank, Grocers Bank, Drovers Bank, and Importers Bank. Indeed, the Emigrant Savings Bank in New York City served Irish immigrants almost exclusively. In the other instances, it is not known how much of a bank’s lending was directed toward the occupational group included in its name. The adoption of such names may have been marketing ploys as much as mission statements. Only further research will reveal the answer.

New York

State-chartered banking in New York arrived less auspiciously than it had in Philadelphia or Boston. The Bank of New York opened in 1784, but operated without a charter and in open violation of state law until 1791 when the legislature finally sanctioned it. The city’s second bank obtained its charter surreptitiously. Alexander Hamilton was one of the driving forces behind the Bank of New York, and his long-time nemesis, Aaron Burr, was determined to establish a competing bank. Unable to get a charter from a Federalist legislature, Burr and his colleagues petitioned to incorporate a company to supply fresh water to the inhabitants of Manhattan Island. Burr tucked a clause into the charter of the Manhattan Company (the predecessor to today’s Chase Manhattan Bank) granting the water company the right to employ any excess capital in financial transactions. Once chartered, the company’s directors announced that $500,000 of its capital would be invested in banking.7 Thereafter, banking grew more quickly in New York than in Philadelphia, so that by 1812 New York had seven banks compared to the three operating in Philadelphia.

Deposit Insurance

Despite its inauspicious banking beginnings, New York introduced two innovations that influenced American banking down to the present. The Safety Fund system, introduced in 1829, was the nation’s first experiment in bank liability insurance (similar to that provided by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation today). The 1829 act authorized the appointment of bank regulators charged with regular inspections of member banks. An equally novel aspect was that it established an insurance fund insuring holders of banknotes and deposits against loss from bank failure. Ultimately, the insurance fund was insufficient to protect all bank creditors from loss during the panic of 1837 when eleven failures in rapid succession all but bankrupted the insurance fund, which delayed noteholder and depositor recoveries for months, even years. Even though the Safety Fund failed to provide its promised protections, it was an important episode in the subsequent evolution of American banking. Several Midwestern states instituted deposit insurance in the early twentieth century, and the federal government adopted it after the banking panics in the 1930s resulted in the failure of thousands of banks in which millions of depositors lost money.

“Free Banking”

Although the Safety Fund was nearly bankrupted in the late 1830s, it continued to insure a number of banks up to the mid 1860s when it was finally closed. No new banks joined the Safety Fund system after 1838 with the introduction of free banking — New York’s second significant banking innovation. Free banking represented a compromise between those most concerned with the underlying safety and stability of the currency and those most concerned with competition and freeing the country’s entrepreneurs from unduly harsh and anticompetitive restraints. Under free banking, a prospective banker could start a bank anywhere he saw fit, provided he met a few regulatory requirements. Each free bank’s capital was invested in state or federal bonds that were turned over to the state’s treasurer. If a bank failed to redeem even a single note into specie, the treasurer initiated bankruptcy proceedings and banknote holders were reimbursed from the sale of the bonds.

Actually Michigan preempted New York’s claim to be the first free-banking state, but Michigan’s 1837 law was modeled closely after a bill then under debate in New York’s legislature. Ultimately, New York’s influence was profound in this as well, because free banking became one of the century’s most widely copied financial innovations. By 1860 eighteen states adopted free banking laws closely resembling New York’s law. Three other states introduced watered-down variants. Eventually, the post-Civil War system of national banking adopted many of the substantive provisions of New York’s 1838 act.

Both the Safety Fund system and free banking were attempts to protect society from losses resulting from bank failures and to entice people to hold financial assets. Banks and bank-supplied currency were novel developments in the hinterlands in the early nineteenth century and many rural inhabitants were skeptical about the value of small pieces of paper. They were more familiar with gold and silver. Getting them to exchange one for the other was a slow process, and one that relied heavily on trust. But trust was built slowly and destroyed quickly. The failure of a single bank could, in a week, destroy the confidence in a system built up over a decade. New York’s experiments were designed to mitigate, if not eliminate, the negative consequences of bank failures. New York’s Safety Fund, then, differed in the details but not in intent, from New England’s Suffolk system. Bankers and legislators in each region grappled with the difficult issue of protecting a fragile but vital sector of the economy. Each region responded to the problem differently. The South and West settled on yet another solution.

Banking in the South and West

One distinguishing characteristic of southern and western banks was their extensive branch networks. Pennsylvania provided for branch banking in the early nineteenth century and two banks jointly opened about ten branches. In both instances, however, the branches became a net liability. The Philadelphia Bank opened four branches in 1809 and by 1811 was forced to pass on its semi-annual dividends because losses at the branches offset profits at the Philadelphia office. At bottom, branch losses resulted from a combination of ineffective central office oversight and unrealistic expectations about the scale and scope of hinterland lending. Philadelphia’s bank directors instructed branch managers to invest in high-grade commercial paper or real bills. Rural banks found a limited number of such lending opportunities and quickly turned to mortgage-based lending. Many of these loans fell into arrears and were ultimately written when land sales faltered.

Branch Banking

Unlike Pennsylvania, where branch banking failed, branch banks throughout the South and West thrived. The Bank of Virginia, founded in 1804, was the first state-chartered branch bank and up to the Civil War branch banks served the state’s financial needs. Several small, independent banks were chartered in the 1850s, but they never threatened the dominance of Virginia’s “Big Six” banks. Virginia’s branch banks, unlike Pennsylvania’s, were profitable. In 1821, for example, the net return to capital at the Farmers Bank of Virginia’s home office in Richmond was 5.4 percent. Returns at its branches ranged from a low of 3 percent at Norfolk (which was consistently the low-profit branch) to 9 percent in Winchester. In 1835, the last year the bank reported separate branch statistics, net returns to capital at the Farmers Bank’s branches ranged from 2.9 and 11.7 percent, with an average of 7.9 percent.

The low profits at the Norfolk branch represent a net subsidy from the state’s banking sector to the political system, which was not immune to the same kind of infrastructure boosterism that erupted in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and elsewhere. In the immediate post-Revolutionary era, the value of exports shipped from Virginia’s ports (Norfolk and Alexandria) slightly exceeded the value shipped from Baltimore. In the 1790s the numbers turned sharply in Baltimore’s favor and Virginia entered the internal-improvements craze and the battle for western shipments. Banks represented the first phase of the state’s internal improvements plan in that many believed that Baltimore’s new-found advantage resulted from easier credit supplied by the city’s banks. If Norfolk, with one of the best natural harbors on the North American Atlantic coast, was to compete with other port cities, it needed banks and the state required three of the state’s Big Six branch banks to operate branches there. Despite its natural advantages, Norfolk never became an important entrepot and it probably had more bank capital than it required. This pattern was repeated elsewhere. Other states required their branch banks to serve markets such as Memphis, Louisville, Natchez and Mobile that might, with the proper infrastructure grow into important ports.

State Involvement and Intervention in Banking

The second distinguishing characteristic of southern and western banking was sweeping state involvement and intervention. Virginia, for example, interjected the state into the banking system by taking significant stakes in its first chartered banks (providing an implicit subsidy) and by requiring them, once they established themselves, to subsidize the state’s continuing internal improvements programs of the 1820s and 1830s. Indiana followed such a strategy. So, too, did Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia in different degrees. South Carolina followed a wholly different strategy. On one hand, it chartered several banks in which it took no financial interest. On the other, it chartered the Bank of the State of South Carolina, a bank wholly owned by the state and designed to lend to planters and farmers who complained constantly that the state’s existing banks served only the urban mercantile community. The state-owned bank eventually divided its lending between merchants, farmers and artisans and dominated South Carolina’s financial sector.

The 1820s and 1830s witnessed a deluge of new banks in the South and West, with a corresponding increase in state involvement. No state matched Louisiana’s breadth of involvement in the 1830s when it chartered three distinct types of banks: commercial banks that served merchants and manufacturers; improvement banks that financed various internal improvements projects; and property banks that extended long-term mortgage credit to planters and other property holders. Louisiana’s improvement banks included the New Orleans Canal and Banking Company that built a canal connecting Lake Ponchartrain to the Mississippi River. The Exchange and Banking Company and the New Orleans Improvement and Banking Company were required to build and operate hotels. The New Orleans Gas Light and Banking Company constructed and operated gas streetlights in New Orleans and five other cities. Finally, the Carrollton Railroad and Banking Company and the Atchafalaya Railroad and Banking Company were rail construction companies whose bank subsidiaries subsidized railroad construction.

“Commonwealth Ideal” and Inflationary Banking

Louisiana’s 1830s banking exuberance reflected what some historians label the “commonwealth ideal” of banking; that is, the promotion of the general welfare through the promotion of banks. Legislatures in the South and West, however, never demonstrated a greater commitment to the commonwealth ideal than during the tough times of the early 1820s. With the collapse of the post-war land boom in 1819, a political coalition of debt-strapped landowners lobbied legislatures throughout the region for relief and its focus was banking. Relief advocates lobbied for inflationary banking that would reduce the real burden of debts taken on during prior flush times.

Several western states responded to these calls and chartered state-subsidized and state-managed banks designed to reinflate their embattled economies. Chartered in 1821, the Bank of the Commonwealth of Kentucky loaned on mortgages at longer than customary periods and all Kentucky landowners were eligible for $1,000 loans. The loans allowed landowners to discharge their existing debts without being forced to liquidate their property at ruinously low prices. Although the bank’s notes were not redeemable into specie, they were given currency in two ways. First, they were accepted at the state treasury in tax payments. Second, the state passed a law that forced creditors to accept the notes in payment of existing debts or agree to delay collection for two years.

The commonwealth ideal was not unique to Kentucky. During the depression of the 1820s, Tennessee chartered the State Bank of Tennessee, Illinois chartered the State Bank of Illinois and Louisiana chartered the Louisiana State Bank. Although they took slightly different forms, they all had the same intent; namely, to relieve distressed and embarrassed farmers, planters and land owners. What all these banks shared in common was the notion that the state should promote the general welfare and economic growth. In this instance, and again during the depression of the 1840s, state-owned banks were organized to minimize the transfer of property when economic conditions demanded wholesale liquidation. Such liquidation would have been inefficient and imposed unnecessary hardship on a large fraction of the population. To the extent that hastily chartered relief banks forestalled inefficient liquidation, they served their purpose. Although most of these banks eventually became insolvent, requiring taxpayer bailouts, we cannot label them unsuccessful. They reinflated economies and allowed for an orderly disposal of property. Determining if the net benefits were positive or negative requires more research, but for the moment we are forced to accept the possibility that the region’s state-owned banks of the 1820s and 1840s advanced the commonweal.

Conclusion: Banks and Economic Growth

Despite notable differences in the specific form and structure of each region’s banking system, they were all aimed squarely at a common goal; namely, realizing that region’s economic potential. Banks helped achieve the goal in two ways. First, banks monetized economies, which reduced the costs of transacting and helped smooth consumption and production across time. It was no longer necessary for every farm family to inventory their entire harvest. They could sell most of it, and expend the proceeds on consumption goods as the need arose until the next harvest brought a new cash infusion. Crop and livestock inventories are prone to substantial losses and an increased use of money reduced them significantly. Second, banks provided credit, which unleashed entrepreneurial spirits and talents. A complete appreciation of early American banking recognizes the banks’ contribution to antebellum America’s economic growth.

Bibliographic Essay

Because of the large number of sources used to construct the essay, the essay was more readable and less cluttered by including a brief bibliographic essay. A full bibliography is included at the end.

Good general histories of antebellum banking include Dewey (1910), Fenstermaker (1965), Gouge (1833), Hammond (1957), Knox (1903), Redlich (1949), and Trescott (1963). If only one book is read on antebellum banking, Hammond’s (1957) Pulitzer-Prize winning book remains the best choice.

The literature on New England banking is not particularly large, and the more important historical interpretations of state-wide systems include Chadbourne (1936), Hasse (1946, 1957), Simonton (1971), Spencer (1949), and Stokes (1902). Gras (1937) does an excellent job of placing the history of a single bank within the larger regional and national context. In a recent book and a number of articles Lamoreaux (1994 and sources therein) provides a compelling and eminently readable reinterpretation of the region’s banking structure. Nathan Appleton (1831, 1856) provides a contemporary observer’s interpretation, while Walker (1857) provides an entertaining if perverse and satirical history of a fictional New England bank. Martin (1969) provides details of bank share prices and dividend payments from the establishment of the first banks in Boston through the end of the nineteenth century. Less technical studies of the Suffolk system include Lake (1947), Trivoli (1979) and Whitney (1878); more technical interpretations include Calomiris and Kahn (1996), Mullineaux (1987), and Rolnick, Smith and Weber (1998).

The literature on Middle Atlantic banking is huge, but the better state-level histories include Bryan (1899), Daniels (1976), and Holdsworth (1928). The better studies of individual banks include Adams (1978), Lewis (1882), Nevins (1934), and Wainwright (1953). Chaddock (1910) provides a general history of the Safety Fund system. Golembe (1960) places it in the context of modern deposit insurance, while Bodenhorn (1996) and Calomiris (1989) provide modern analyses. A recent revival of interest in free banking has brought about a veritable explosion in the number of studies on the subject, but the better introductory ones remain Rockoff (1974, 1985), Rolnick and Weber (1982, 1983), and Dwyer (1996).

The literature on southern and western banking is large and of highly variable quality, but I have found the following to be the most readable and useful general sources: Caldwell (1935), Duke (1895), Esary (1912), Golembe (1978), Huntington (1915), Green (1972), Lesesne (1970), Royalty (1979), Schweikart (1987) and Starnes (1931).

References and Further Reading

Adams, Donald R., Jr. Finance and Enterprise in Early America: A Study of Stephen Girard’s Bank, 1812-1831. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.

Alter, George, Claudia Goldin and Elyce Rotella. “The Savings of Ordinary Americans: The Philadelphia Saving Fund Society in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century.” Journal of Economic History 54, no. 4 (December 1994): 735-67.

Appleton, Nathan. A Defence of Country Banks: Being a Reply to a Pamphlet Entitled ‘An Examination of the Banking System of Massachusetts, in Reference to the Renewal of the Bank Charters.’ Boston: Stimpson & Clapp, 1831.

Appleton, Nathan. Bank Bills or Paper Currency and the Banking System of Massachusetts with Remarks on Present High Prices. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1856.

Berry, Thomas Senior. Revised Annual Estimates of American Gross National Product: Preliminary Estimates of Four Major Components of Demand, 1789-1889. Richmond: University of Richmond Bostwick Paper No. 3, 1978.

Bodenhorn, Howard. “Zombie Banks and the Demise of New York’s Safety Fund.” Eastern Economic Journal 22, no. 1 (1996): 21-34.

Bodenhorn, Howard. “Private Banking in Antebellum Virginia: Thomas Branch & Sons of Petersburg.” Business History Review 71, no. 4 (1997): 513-42.

Bodenhorn, Howard. A History of Banking in Antebellum America: Financial Markets and Economic Development in an Era of Nation-Building. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Bodenhorn, Howard. State Banking in Early America: A New Economic History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Bryan, Alfred C. A History of State Banking in Maryland. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1899.

Caldwell, Stephen A. A Banking History of Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1935.

Calomiris, Charles W. “Deposit Insurance: Lessons from the Record.” Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Economic Perspectives 13 (1989): 10-30.

Calomiris, Charles W., and Charles Kahn. “The Efficiency of Self-Regulated Payments Systems: Learnings from the Suffolk System.” Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking 28, no. 4 (1996): 766-97.

Chadbourne, Walter W. A History of Banking in Maine, 1799-1930. Orono: University of Maine Press, 1936.

Chaddock, Robert E. The Safety Fund Banking System in New York, 1829-1866. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1910.

Daniels, Belden L. Pennsylvania: Birthplace of Banking in America. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Bankers Association, 1976.

Davis, Lance, and Robert E. Gallman. “Capital Formation in the United States during the Nineteenth Century.” In Cambridge Economic History of Europe (Vol. 7, Part 2), edited by Peter Mathias and M.M. Postan, 1-69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Davis, Lance, and Robert E. Gallman. “Savings, Investment, and Economic Growth: The United States in the Nineteenth Century.” In Capitalism in Context: Essays on Economic Development and Cultural Change in Honor of R.M. Hartwell, edited by John A. James and Mark Thomas, 202-29. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Dewey, Davis R. State Banking before the Civil War. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1910.

Duke, Basil W. History of the Bank of Kentucky, 1792-1895. Louisville: J.P. Morton, 1895.

Dwyer, Gerald P., Jr. “Wildcat Banking, Banking Panics, and Free Banking in the United States.” Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta Economic Review 81, no. 3 (1996): 1-20.

Engerman, Stanley L., and Robert E. Gallman. “U.S. Economic Growth, 1783-1860.” Research in Economic History 8 (1983): 1-46.

Esary, Logan. State Banking in Indiana, 1814-1873. Indiana University Studies No. 15. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1912.

Fenstermaker, J. Van. The Development of American Commercial Banking, 1782-1837. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University, 1965.

Fenstermaker, J. Van, and John E. Filer. “Impact of the First and Second Banks of the United States and the Suffolk System on New England Bank Money, 1791-1837.” Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking 18, no. 1 (1986): 28-40.

Friedman, Milton, and Anna J. Schwartz. “Has the Government Any Role in Money?” Journal of Monetary Economics 17, no. 1 (1986): 37-62.

Gallman, Robert E. “American Economic Growth before the Civil War: The Testimony of the Capital Stock Estimates.” In American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John Joseph Wallis, 79-115. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Goldsmith, Raymond. Financial Structure and Development. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969.

Golembe, Carter H. “The Deposit Insurance Legislation of 1933: An Examination of its Antecedents and Purposes.” Political Science Quarterly 76, no. 2 (1960): 181-200.

Golembe, Carter H. State Banks and the Economic Development of the West. New York: Arno Press, 1978.

Gouge, William M. A Short History of Paper Money and Banking in the United States. Philadelphia: T.W. Ustick, 1833.

Gras, N.S.B. The Massachusetts First National Bank of Boston, 1784-1934. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1937.

Green, George D. Finance and Economic Development in the Old South: Louisiana Banking, 1804-1861. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972.

Hammond, Bray. Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Hasse, William F., Jr. A History of Banking in New Haven, Connecticut. New Haven: privately printed, 1946.

Hasse, William F., Jr. A History of Money and Banking in Connecticut. New Haven: privately printed, 1957.

Holdsworth, John Thom. Financing an Empire: History of Banking in Pennsylvania. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1928.

Huntington, Charles Clifford. A History of Banking and Currency in Ohio before the Civil War. Columbus: F. J. Herr Printing Company, 1915.

Knox, John Jay. A History of Banking in the United States. New York: Bradford Rhodes & Company, 1903.

Kuznets, Simon. “Foreword.” In Financial Intermediaries in the American Economy, by Raymond W. Goldsmith. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958.

Lake, Wilfred. “The End of the Suffolk System.” Journal of Economic History 7, no. 4 (1947): 183-207.

Lamoreaux, Naomi R. Insider Lending: Banks, Personal Connections, and Economic Development in Industrial New England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Lesesne, J. Mauldin. The Bank of the State of South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970.

Lewis, Lawrence, Jr. A History of the Bank of North America: The First Bank Chartered in the United States. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Company, 1882.

Lockard, Paul A. Banks, Insider Lending and Industries of the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts, 1813-1860. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Massachusetts, 2000.

Martin, Joseph G. A Century of Finance. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969.

Moulton, H.G. “Commercial Banking and Capital Formation.” Journal of Political Economy 26 (1918): 484-508, 638-63, 705-31, 849-81.

Mullineaux, Donald J. “Competitive Monies and the Suffolk Banking System: A Contractual Perspective.” Southern Economic Journal 53 (1987): 884-98.

Nevins, Allan. History of the Bank of New York and Trust Company, 1784 to 1934. New York: privately printed, 1934.

New York. Bank Commissioners. “Annual Report of the Bank Commissioners.” New York General Assembly Document No. 74. Albany, 1835.

North, Douglass. “Institutional Change in American Economic History.” In American Economic Development in Historical Perspective, edited by Thomas Weiss and Donald Schaefer, 87-98. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Rappaport, George David. Stability and Change in Revolutionary Pennsylvania: Banking, Politics, and Social Structure. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

Redlich, Fritz. The Molding of American Banking: Men and Ideas. New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1947.

Rockoff, Hugh. “The Free Banking Era: A Reexamination.” Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking 6, no. 2 (1974): 141-67.

Rockoff, Hugh. “New Evidence on the Free Banking Era in the United States.” American Economic Review 75, no. 4 (1985): 886-89.

Rolnick, Arthur J., and Warren E. Weber. “Free Banking, Wildcat Banking, and Shinplasters.” Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Quarterly Review 6 (1982): 10-19.

Rolnick, Arthur J., and Warren E. Weber. “New Evidence on the Free Banking Era.” American Economic Review 73, no. 5 (1983): 1080-91.

Rolnick, Arthur J., Bruce D. Smith, and Warren E. Weber. “Lessons from a Laissez-Faire Payments System: The Suffolk Banking System (1825-58).” Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Quarterly Review 22, no. 3 (1998): 11-21.

Royalty, Dale. “Banking and the Commonwealth Ideal in Kentucky, 1806-1822.” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 77 (1979): 91-107.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. The Theory of Economic Development: An Inquiry into Profit, Capital, Credit, Interest, and the Business Cycle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934.

Schweikart, Larry. Banking in the American South from the Age of Jackson to Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

Simonton, William G. Maine and the Panic of 1837. Unpublished master’s thesis: University of Maine, 1971.

Sokoloff, Kenneth L. “Productivity Growth in Manufacturing during Early Industrialization.” In Long-Term Factors in American Economic Growth, edited by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Sokoloff, Kenneth L. “Invention, Innovation, and Manufacturing Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Northeast.” In American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John Joseph Wallis, 345-78. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Spencer, Charles, Jr. The First Bank of Boston, 1784-1949. New York: Newcomen Society, 1949.

Starnes, George T. Sixty Years of Branch Banking in Virginia. New York: Macmillan Company, 1931.

Stokes, Howard Kemble. Chartered Banking in Rhode Island, 1791-1900. Providence: Preston & Rounds Company, 1902.

Sylla, Richard. “Forgotten Men of Money: Private Bankers in Early U.S. History.” Journal of Economic History 36, no. 2 (1976):

Temin, Peter. The Jacksonian Economy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1969.

Trescott, Paul B. Financing American Enterprise: The Story of Commercial Banking. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.

Trivoli, George. The Suffolk Bank: A Study of a Free-Enterprise Clearing System. London: The Adam Smith Institute, 1979.

U.S. Comptroller of the Currency. Annual Report of the Comptroller of the Currency. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931.

Wainwright, Nicholas B. History of the Philadelphia National Bank. Philadelphia: William F. Fell Company, 1953.

Walker, Amasa. History of the Wickaboag Bank. Boston: Crosby, Nichols & Company, 1857.

Wallis, John Joseph. “What Caused the Panic of 1839?” Unpublished working paper, University of Maryland, October 2000.

Weiss, Thomas. “U.S. Labor Force Estimates and Economic Growth, 1800-1860.” In American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John Joseph Wallis, 19-75. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Whitney, David R. The Suffolk Bank. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1878.

Wright, Robert E. “Artisans, Banks, Credit, and the Election of 1800.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 122, no. 3 (July 1998), 211-239.

Wright, Robert E. “Bank Ownership and Lending Patterns in New York and Pennsylvania, 1781-1831.” Business History Review 73, no. 1 (Spring 1999), 40-60.

1 Banknotes were small demonination IOUs printed by banks and circulated as currency. Modern U.S. money are simply banknotes issued by the Federal Reserve Bank, which has a monopoly privilege in the issue of legal tender currency. In antebellum American, when a bank made a loan, the borrower was typically handed banknotes with a face value equal to the dollar value of the loan. The borrower then spent these banknotes in purchasing goods and services, putting them into circulation. Contemporary law held that banks were required to redeem banknotes into gold and silver legal tender on demand. Banks found it profitable to issue notes because they typically held about 30 percent of the total value of banknotes in circulation as reserves. Thus, banks were able to leverage $30 in gold and silver into $100 in loans that returned about 7 percent interest on average.

2 Paul Lockard (2000) challenges Lamoreaux’s interpretation. In a study of 4 banks in the Connecticut River valley, Lockard finds that insiders did not dominate these banks’ resources. As provocative as Lockard’s findings are, he draws conclusions from a small and unrepresentative sample. Two of his four sample banks were savings banks, which were designed as quasi-charitable organizations designed to encourage savings by the working classes and provide small loans. Thus, Lockard’s sample is effectively reduced to two banks. At these two banks, he identifies about 10 percent of loans as insider loans, but readily admits that he cannot always distinguish between insiders and outsiders. For a recent study of how early Americans used savings banks, see Alter, Goldin and Rotella (1994). The literature on savings banks is so large that it cannot be be given its due here.

3 Interbank clearing involves the settling of balances between banks. Modern banks cash checks drawn on other banks and credit the funds to the depositor. The Federal Reserve system provides clearing services between banks. The accepting bank sends the checks to the Federal Reserve, who credits the sending bank’s accounts and sends the checks back to the bank on which they were drawn for reimbursement. In the antebellum era, interbank clearing involved sending banknotes back to issuing banks. Because New England had so many small and scattered banks, the costs of returning banknotes to their issuers were large and sometimes avoided by recirculating notes of distant banks rather than returning them. Regular clearings and redemptions served an important purpose, however, because they kept banks in touch with the current market conditions. A massive redemption of notes was indicative of a declining demand for money and credit. Because the bank’s reserves were drawn down with the redemptions, it was forced to reduce its volume of loans in accord with changing demand conditions.

4 The law held that banknotes were redeemable on demand into gold or silver coin or bullion. If a bank refused to redeem even a single $1 banknote, the banknote holder could have the bank closed and liquidated to recover his or her claim against it.

5 Rappaport (1996) found that the bank’s loans were about equally divided between insiders (shareholders and shareholders’ family and business associates) and outsiders, but nonshareholders received loans about 30 percent smaller than shareholders. The issue remains about whether this bank was an “insider” bank, and depends largely on one’s definition. Any modern bank which made half of its loans to shareholders and their families would be viewed as an “insider” bank. It is less clear where the line can be usefully drawn for antebellum banks.

6 Real-bills lending followed from a nineteenth-century banking philosophy, which held that bank lending should be used to finance the warehousing or wholesaling of already-produced goods. Loans made on these bases were thought to be self-liquidating in that the loan was made against readily sold collateral actually in the hands of a merchant. Under the real-bills doctrine, the banks’ proper functions were to bridge the gap between production and retail sale of goods. A strict adherence to real-bills tenets excluded loans on property (mortgages), loans on goods in process (trade credit), or loans to start-up firms (venture capital). Thus, real-bills lending prescribed a limited role for banks and bank credit. Few banks were strict adherents to the doctrine, but many followed it in large part.

7 Robert E. Wright (1998) offers a different interpretation, but notes that Burr pushed the bill through at the end of a busy legislative session so that many legislators voted on the bill without having read it thoroughly

Citation: Bodenhorn, Howard. “Antebellum Banking in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 26, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/antebellum-banking-in-the-united-states/

Historical Anthropometrics

Timothy Cuff, Westminster College

Historical anthropometrics is the study of patterns in human body size and their correlates over time. While social researchers, public health specialists and physical anthropologists have long utilized anthropometric measures as indicators of well-being, only within the past three decades have historians begun to use such data extensively. Adult stature is a cumulative indicator of net nutritional status over the growth years, and thus reflects command over food and access to healthful surroundings. Since expenditures for these items comprised such a high percentage of family income for historical communities, mean stature can be used to examine changes in a population’s economic circumstances over time and to compare the well-being of different groups with similar genetic height potential. Anthropometric measures are available for portions of many national populations as far back as the early 1700s. While these data often serve as complements to standard economic indicators, in some cases they provide the only means of assessing historical economic well-being, as “conventional” measures such as per capita GDP, wage and price indices, and income inequality measures have been notoriously spotty and problematic to develop. Anthropometric-based research findings to date have contributed to the scholarly debates over mortality trends, the nature of slavery, and the outcomes of industrialization and economic development. Height has been the primary indicator utilized to date. Other indicators include height-standardized weight indices, birth weight, and age at menarche. Potentially even more important, historical anthropometrics broadens the understanding of “well-being” beyond the one dimensional “ruler” of income, providing another lens through which the quality of historical life can be viewed.

This article:

  • provides a brief background of the field including a history of human body measurement and analysis and a description of the biological foundations for historical anthropometrics,
  • describes the current state of the field (along with methodological issues) and future directions, and
  • provides a selective bibliography.

Anthropometrics: Historical and Bio-Medical Background

The Evolution of Body Measurement and Analysis in Context

The measurement and description of the human form in the West date back to the artists of classical civilizations, but the rationale for systematic, large-scale body measurement and record keeping emerged out of the needs of early modern military organizations. By the mid-eighteenth century height commonly provided a means of classifying men into and of identifying them within military units and the procedures for measuring individuals entering military service were well established. The military’s need to identify recruits has provided most historical measurements of young men.

Scientific curiosity in the eighteenth century also spurred development of the first textbooks on human growth, although they were more concerned with growth patterns throughout life than with stature differences across groups or over time. In the nineteenth century class differences in height were easily observable in England. The moral outrage generated by the “tiny children” (Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twists”) along with the view that medicine had a preventive as well as a curative function, meant that anthropometry was directed primarily at the poor, especially children toiling in the factories of English and French industrial cities. Later, fear in Britain over the “degeneration” of its men and their potential as an effective fighting force provided motivation for large-scale anthropometric surveys, as did efforts evolving out of the child-welfare movement. The early-twentieth century saw the establishment of a series of longitudinal population surveys (which follow individuals as they age) in North America and in Europe. In some cases this work was directed toward the generation of growth standards, while other efforts evaluated social-class differences among children. Such studies can be seen as transitional steps between contemporary and historical anthropometrics. Since the 1950s, anthropometry has been utilized for a variety of purposes in both the developed and underdeveloped world. Population groups have been measured in order to refine growth standards, to monitor the nutritional status of individuals and populations during famines and political disturbances, and to evaluate the effectiveness of economic development programs.

Anthropometric studies today can be classified as one of three types. Auxologists perform basic research, collecting body measurements over the human life cycle to further detail standards of physical development for twenty-first century populations. The second focus, a continuation of nineteenth century work, documents the living standards of children often supporting regulatory legislation or government aid policies. The third direction is historical anthropometrics. Economists, historians, and anthropologists specializing in this field seek to assess, in physical terms, the well-being of previous societies and the factors which influenced it.

Human Growth and Development: The Biological Foundations of Historical Anthropometrics

While historical anthropometric research is a relatively recent development, an extensive body of medical literature relating nutrition and epidemiological conditions to physical growth provides a strong theoretical underpinning. Bio-medical literature, along with the World Health Organization, describes mean stature as one of the best measures of overall health conditions within a society.

Final attained height and height by age both result from a complex interaction of genetic endowment and environmental effects. At the level of the individual, genetics is a strong but not exclusive influence on the determination of final height and of growth patterns. Genetics is most important when net nutrition is optimal. However, when evaluating differences among groups of people in sub-optimal nutritional circumstances environmental influences predominate.

The same nutritional regime can result in different final stature for particular individuals, because of genetic variation in the ability to continue growing in the face of adverse nutritional circumstances, epidemiological environments, or work requirements. However, the genetic height potential of most Europeans, Africans, and North Americans of European or African ancestry is comparable; i.e., under equivalent environmental circumstances the groups have achieved nearly identical mean adult stature. For example, in many parts of rural Africa, mean adult heights today are similar to those of Africans of 150 years ago, while well-fed urban Africans attain final heights similar to current-day Europeans and North Americans of European descent. Differences in nutritional status do result in wide variation in adult height even within populations of the same genetic make-up. For example, individuals from higher socio-economic classes tend to be taller than their lower class counterparts whether in impoverished third-world countries or in the developed nations.

Height is the most commonly utilized, but not the only, anthropometric indicator of nutritional status. The growth profile is another. Environmental conditions, while affecting the timing of growth (the ages at which accelerations and decelerations in growth rates occur), do not affect the overall pattern (the sequence in which growth/maturation events occur). The body seems to be self-stabilizing, postponing growth until caloric levels will support it and maintaining genetically programmed body proportions more rigidly than size potential. While final adult height and length of the growth period are not absolutely linked, populations which stop growing earlier usually, although not universally, end up being taller. Age at menarche, birth weight, and weight-for-height are also useful. Age at menarche (i.e. the first occurrence of menstruation) is not a measure of physical size, but of sexual maturation. Menarche generally occurs earlier among well-nourished women. Average menarcheal age in the developed West is about 13 years, while in the middle of the nineteenth century it was between 15 and 16 years among European women. Areas which have not experienced nutritional improvement over the past century have not witnessed decreases in the age at menarche. Infant birth weight, an indicator of long-term maternal nutritional status, is influenced by the mother’s diet, work intensity, quality of health care, maternal size and the number of children she has delivered, as well as the mother’s health practices. The level of economic inequality and social class status are also correlated with birth weight variation, although these variables reflect some of the factors noted above. However, because the mother’s diet and health status are such strong influences on birth weight, it provides another useful means of monitoring women’s well-being. Height-for-weight indices, particularly the body mass index (BMI), have seen some use by anthropometric historians. Contemporary bio-medical research which links BMI levels and mortality risk hints at the promise which this measure might hold for historians. However, the limited availability of weight measurements before the mid-nineteenth century will limit the studies which can be produced.

Improvements in net nutritional status, both across wide segments of the population in developed countries and within urban areas of less-developed countries (LDCs), are generally accepted as the most salient influence on growth patterns and final stature. The widely experienced improvement in net nutrition which was apparent in most of the developed world across most of the twentieth century and more recently in the “modern” sector of some LDCs has lead to a secular trend, the unidirectional trend toward greater stature and faster maturation. Before the twentieth century, height cycling without a distinct direction was the dominant historical pattern. (Two other sources of stature increase have been hypothesized but have garnered little support among the medical community: the increased practice of infantile smallpox vaccination and heterosis (hybrid vigor), i.e. varietal cross-breeding within a species which produces offspring who are larger or stronger than either parent.)

The Definition and Determination of Nutritional Status

“Nutritional status” is a term critical to an understanding of anthropometrics. It encompasses more than simply diet, i.e. the intake of calories and nutrients, and is thus distinct from the more common term “nutrition.” While nutrition refers to the quantity and quality of food inputs to the human biological system, it makes no reference to the amounts needed for healthy functioning resulting from nutrient demand placed on the individual. Nutritional status, or synonymously “net nutrition,” refers to the summing up of nutrient input and demand on those nutrients. While work intensity is the most obvious demand, it is just one of many. Energy is required to resist infection. Pregnancy adds caloric and nutrient demands, as does breast-feeding. Calories expended in any of these fashions are available neither for basal metabolism, nor for growth. The difference between nutrition and nutritional status/net nutrition is important for anthropometrics, because it is the latter, not the former, for which auxological measurements are a proxy.

Human biologists and medical scientists generally agree that within genetically similar populations net nutrition is the primary determinant of adult physical stature. Height, as Bielicki notes, is “socially induced variation.” Figure 1 indicates the numerous channels of influence on the final adult stature of any individual. Anthropometric indicators reflect the relative ease or difficulty of acquiring sufficient nutrients to provide for growth in excess of the immediate needs of the body. Nutritional status and physical stature clearly are composite measures of well-being linked to economic processes. However, the link is mediated through a variety of social circumstances, some volitional, others not. Hence, anthropometric historians must evaluate each situation within its own economic, cultural, and historical context.

In earlier societies, and in some less developed countries today, access to nutrients was determined primarily by control of arable land. As markets for food developed and urban living became predominant, for increasing percentages of the population, access to nutrients depended upon the ability to purchase food, i.e. on real income. Additionally, food allocation within the family is not determined by markets but by intra-household bargaining as well as by tastes and custom. For example, in some cultures households distribute food resources so as to ensure nutritional adequacy for those family members engaged in income or resource-generating activity in order to maximize earning power. The handful of studies which include historical anthropometric data for women reveal that stature trends by gender do not always move in concert. Rather, in periods of declining nutritional status, women often exhibited a reduction in stature levels before such changes appeared among males. This is somewhat paradoxical because biologists generally argue that women’s growth trajectories are more resistant to a diminution in nutritional status than are those of men. Though too little historical research has been done on this issue to speak with certainty, the pattern might imply that, in periods of nutritional stress, women bore the initial brunt of deprivation.

Other cultural practices, including the high status accorded to the use of certain foods, such as white flour, polished rice, tea or coffee may promote greater consumption of nutritionally less valuable foods among those able to afford them. This would tend to reduce the resultant stature differences by income. Access to nutrients also depends upon other individual choices. A small landholder might decide to market much of his farm’s high-value, high-protein meat and dairy products, reducing his family’s consumption of these nutritious food products in order to maximize money income. However, while material welfare would increase, biological welfare, knowingly or unknowingly, would decline.

Disease-exposure variation occurs as a result of some factors under the individual’s control and other factors which are determined at the societal level. Pathogen prevalence and potency and the level of community sanitation are critical factors which are not directly affected by individual decision making. However, housing and occupation are often individually chosen and do help to determine the extent of disease exposure. Once transportation improvements allow housing segregation based on socio-economic status to occur within large urban areas, residence location can become an important influence. However, prior to such, for example in mid-nineteenth century United States, urban childhood mortality levels were more influenced by the number of children in a family than by parental occupation or socio-economic status. The close proximity of the homes of the wealthy and the poor seems to have created a common level of exposure to infectious agents and equally poor sanitary conditions for children of all economic classes.

Work intensity, another factor determining nutritional status, is a function of the age at which youth enter the labor force, educational attainment, the physical exertion needed in a chosen occupation, and the level of technology. There are obvious feedback effects from current nutritional status to future nutritional status. A low level of nutritional status today might hinder full-time labor-force participation, and result in low incomes, poor housing, and substandard food consumption in subsequent periods as well, thereby reinforcing the cycle of nutritional inadequacy.

Historical Anthropometrics

Early Developments in the Field

Le Roy Ladurie’s studies of nineteenth-century French soldiers published in the late 1960s and early 1970s are recognized as the first works in the spirit of modern historical anthropometrics. He documented that stature among French recruits varied with their socio-economic characteristics. In the U.S., the research was carried forward in the late 1970s, much based on nineteenth-century records of U.S. slaves transported from the upper to the lower South. Studies of Caribbean slaves followed.

In the 1980s numerous anthropometric works were generated in connection with a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) directed study of American and European mortality trends from 1650 to the present, coordinated by Robert W. Fogel. Motivated in great part by the desire to evaluate Thomas McKeown’s hypothesis that improvements in nutrition were the critical component in mortality declines in the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, the project has lead to the creation of numerous large anthropometric data bases. These have been the starting point for the analysis of trends in physical stature and net nutritional status on both sides of the Atlantic. While most historical anthropometric studies published in the U.S. during the early and mid-1980s were either outgrowths of the NBER project or were conducted by students of Robert Fogel, such as Richard Steckel and John Komlos, mortality trends were no longer the sole focus of historical anthropometrics. Anthropometric statistics were used to analyze the effect of industrialization on the populations experiencing it, as well as the characteristics of slavery in the United States. The data sources were primarily military records or documents relating to slaves. As the 1980s became the 1990s the geographic range of stature studies moved beyond Europe and North American to include Asia, Australia, and Africa. Other data sources were utilized. These included records from schools and utopian communities, certificates of freedom for manumitted slaves, voter registration cards, newspaper advertisements for runaway slaves and indentured servants, insurance applications, and a variety of prison inmate records. The number of anthropometric historians also expanded considerably.

Findings to Date

Major achievements to date in historical anthropometrics include 1) the determination of the main outlines of the trend in physical stature in Europe and North America between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, and 2) the emergence of several well-supported, although still debated, hypotheses pertaining to the relationship between height and the economic and social developments which accompanied modern economic growth in these centuries.

Historical research on human height has indicated how much healthier the New World environment was compared to that of Europe. Europeans who immigrated to North America, on average, obtained a net nutritional status far better than that which was possible for them to attain in their place of birth. Eighteenth century North Americans attained mean heights not achieved by Europeans until the twentieth century. The combination of lower population density, lower levels of income inequality, and greater food resources bestowed a great benefit upon those growing up in North America. This advantage is evident not only in adult heights but also in the earlier timing of the adolescent growth spurt, as well as the earlier attainment of final height.

Table 1
Mean Heights of Adult Males (in inches)

Table 1
Mean Heights of Adult Males (in inches)–>

North America Europe
European Ancestry African Ancestry Hungary England Sweden
1775 – 1783 1861 – 1865 1943 – 1944 1811 – 1861 1943 – 1944 1813 – 1835 1816 – 1821 1843 – 1886
68.1 68.5 68.1 67.0 67.9 64.2 65.8 66.3

Sources: U.S. whites, 1775-1783: Kenneth L. Sokoloff and Georgia C. Villaflor, “The Early Achievement of Modern Stature in America,” Social Science History 6 (1982): 453-481. U.S. whites, 1861-65: Robert Margo and Richard Steckel, “Heights of Native-Born Whites during the Antebellum Period,” Journal of Economic History 43 (1983): 167-174. U.S. whites and blacks, 1943-44: Bernard D. Karpinos, “Height and Weight of Selective Service Registrants Processed for Military Service during World War II,” Human Biology 40 (1958): 292-321, Table 5. U.S. blacks, 1811-1861: Robert Margo and Richard Steckel, “The Height of American Slaves: New Evidence on Slave Nutrition and Health,” Social Science History 6 (1982): 516-538, Table 1. Hungary: John Komlos. Nutrition and Economic Development in the Eighteenth Century Habsburg Monarchy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989, Table 2.1, 57. Britain: Roderick Floud, Kenneth Wachter, and Annabel Gregory, Height, Health, and History: Nutritional Status in the United Kingdom, 1750-1980, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, Table 4.1, 148. Sweden: Lars G. Sandberg and Richard Steckel, “Overpopulation and Malnutrition Rediscovered: Hard Times in 19th-Century Sweden,” Explorations in Economic History 25 (1988): 1-19, Table 2, 7.

Note: Dates refer to dates of measurement.

Stature Cycles in Europe and America

The early finding that there was not a unidirectional upward trend in stature since the 1700s startled researchers, whose expectations were based on recent experience. Extrapolating backward, Floud, Wachter, and Gregory note that such surprise was misplaced, for if the twentieth century’s rate of height increase had been occurring for several centuries, medieval Europeans would have been dwarfs or midgets. Instead, in Europe cycles in height were evident. Though smaller in amplitude than in Europe, stature cycling was a feature of the American experience, as well. At the time of the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II, the mean height of adult, native-born white males was a fraction over 68 inches (Table 1), but there was some variation in between these periods with a small decline in the years before the Civil War and perhaps another one from 1860 into the 1880s. Just before the turn of the twentieth century, mean stature began its relatively uninterrupted increase which continues to the present day. These findings are based primarily on military records drawn from the early national army, Civil War forces, West Point Cadets, and the Ohio National Guard, although other data sets show similar trends. The free black population seems to have experienced a downturn in physical stature very similar to that of whites in the pre-Civil War period. However, an exception to the antebellum diminution in nutritional status has been found among slave men.

Per Capita Income and Height

In addition to the cycling in height, anthropometric historians have documented that the intuitively anticipated positive correlation between mean height and per capita income holds at the national level in the twentieth century. Steckel has shown that, in cross-national comparison, the correlation between height and per capita income is as high as .84 to .90. However, since per capita income is highly correlated with a series of other variables that also affect height, the exact pathway through which income affects height is not fully clear. Among the factors which help to explain the variation are better diet, medicine, improvements in sanitary infrastructure, longer schooling, more sedentary life, and better housing. Intense work regimes and psycho-social stress, both of which affect growth negatively, might also be mitigated by greater per capita income. However, prior to the twentieth century the relationship between height and income was not monotonic. U.S. troops during the American Revolution were nearly as tall as U.S. soldiers sent to Europe and Japan in the 1940s, despite the fact that per capita income in the earlier period was substantially below that in the latter. Similarly, while per capita income in the U.S. in the late 1770s was below that of the British, the American troops had a height advantage of several inches over their British counterparts in the War of Independence.

Height and Income Inequality

The level of income inequality also has a powerful influence on mean heights. Steckel’s analysis of data for the twentieth century indicates that a 0.1 decrease in the Gini coefficient (indicating greater income equality) is associated with a gain in mean stature of about 3.7 cm (1.5 inches). In societies with great inequality, increases in per capita income have little effect on average stature if the gains accrue primarily to the wealthier segments of the society. Conversely, even without changes in average national per capita income, a reduction in inequality can have similar positive impact upon the stature and health of those at the lower rungs of the income ladder.

The high level of social inequality at the onset of modern economic growth in England is exemplified by the substantial disparity between the height of students of the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, an elite institution, and the Marine Society, a home for destitute boys in London. The difference in mean height at age fourteen exceeded three inches in favor of the gentry. In some years the gap was even greater. Komlos has documented similar findings elsewhere: regardless of location, boys from “prestigious military schools in England, France, and Germany were much taller than the population at large.” A similar pattern existed in the nineteenth-century U.S. However, the social gap in the U.S. was miniscule compared to that prevailing in the Old World. Stature also varied by occupational groups. In eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and North America, white collar and professional workers tended to be significantly taller than laborers and unskilled workers. However, farmers, being close to the source of nutrients and with fewer interactions with urban disease pools, tended to be the tallest, though their advantage disappeared by the twentieth century.

Regional and Rural-Urban Differences

Floud, Wachter, and Gregory have shown that, in early nineteenth century Britain, regional variation in stature dwarfed occupational differences. In 1815, Scotsmen, rural and urban, as well as the Irish, were about one-half an inch taller than the non-London urban English of the day. The rural English were slightly shorter, on average, than Englishmen born in small and medium sized towns. Londoners, however, had a mean height almost one-third of an inch less than other urban dwellers in England and more than three-quarters of an inch below the Irish or the Scots. A similar pattern held among convicts transported to New South Wales, Australia, except that the stature of the rural English was well above the average for all other English transported convicts. Floud, Wachter, and Gregory show a trend of convergence in height among these groups after 1800. The tendency for low population density rural areas in the nineteenth century to be home to the tallest individuals was apparent from the Habsburg Monarchy to Scotland, and in the remote northern regions of late nineteenth-century Sweden and Japan as well. In colonial America the rural-urban gradient did not exist. As cities grew, the rural born began to display a stature advantage over their urban brethren. This divergence persisted into the nineteenth century, and disappeared in the early twentieth century, when the urban-born gained a height advantage.

The Early-Industrial-Growth and Antebellum Puzzles

These patterns of stature variation have been put into a framework in both the European and the American contexts. Respectively they are known as the “early-industrial-growth puzzle” and the “Antebellum puzzle.” The commonality which has been identified is that in the early stages of industrialization and/or market integration, even with rising per capita incomes, the biological well-being of the populations undergoing such change does not, necessarily, improve immediately. Rather, for at least some portions of the population, biological well-being declined during this period of economic growth. Explanations for these paradoxes (or puzzles) are still being investigated and include: rising income inequality, the greater spread of disease through more thoroughly developed transportation and marketing systems and urban growth, the rising real price of food as population growth outstripped the agricultural system’s ability to provide, and the choice of farmers to market rather than consume high value/high protein crops.

Slave Heights

Research on slave heights has provided important insight into the living standards of these bound laborers. Large differences in stature have been documented between slaves on the North American mainland and those in the Caribbean. Adult mainland slaves, both women and men, were approximately two inches taller than those in the West Indies throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Steckel argues that the growth pattern and infant mortality rates of U.S. slave children indicate that they were moderately to severely malnourished, with mean heights for four to nine year olds below the second percentile of modern growth standards and with mortality rates twice those estimated for the entire United States population. Although below the fifth percentile throughout childhood, as adults these slaves were relatively tall by nineteenth-century standards, reaching about the twenty-fifth percentile of today’s height distribution, taller than most European populations of the time.

Height’s Correlation with Other Biological Indicators

The evaluation of McKeown’s hypothesis that much of the modern decline in mortality rates could be traced to improvements in nutrition (food intake) was one of the early rationales for the modern study of historical stature. Subsequent work has presented evidence for the parallel cycling of height and life expectancy in the United States during the nineteenth century. The relationship between the body-mass index, morbidity, and mortality risk within historical populations has also been documented. Along a similar line, Sandberg and Steckel’s data on Sweden have pointed out the parallel nature of stature trends and childhood mortality rates in the mid-nineteenth century.

Economic and social history are not the only two fields which have felt historical anthropometrics’ impact. North American slave height-by-age profiles developed by Steckel have been used by auxologists to exemplify the range of possible growth patterns among humans. Based on findings within the biological sciences, historical studies of stature have come full circle and are providing those same sciences with new data on human physical potential.

Methodological Issues

Accuracy problems in military-based data sets arise predominantly from carelessness of the measurer or from intentional misreporting of data rather than from lack of orthodox practice. Inadequate concern for accuracy can most often be noticed in heaping (height observations rounded to whole feet, six inch increments, or even numbered inches) and lack of fractional measurements. These “rounding” errors tend to be self-canceling. Of greater concern is intentional misreporting of either height or age, because minimum stature and age restrictions were often applied to military recruits. Young men, eager to discover the “romance” of military life or receive the bounty which sometimes accompanied enlistment, were not impervious to slight fabrication of their age. Recruiting officers, hoping to meet their assigned quotas quickly, might have been tempted to round measurements up to the minimum height requirement. Hence, it is not uncommon to find height and age heaping at either the age or stature minima.

For anthropometric historians, the issue of the representativeness of the population under study is similar to that for any social historian, but several specific caveats are appropriate when considering military samples. In time of peace military recruits tend to be less representative of the general population than are wartime armies. The military, with fewer demands for personnel, can be more selective, often instituting more stringent height minima, and occasionally maxima, for recruits. Such policies, as well as the self-interested behaviors noted above, require those who would use military data sets to evaluate and potentially adjust the data to account for the observations missing due to either left or right tail truncation. A series of techniques to account for such difficulties in the data have been developed, although there is still debate over the most appropriate technique. Other data sets also exhibit selectivity biases, although of different natures. Prison registers clearly do not provide a random sample of the population. The filter, however, is not based on size or desire for “exciting” work – rather on the propensity for criminal activity and on the enforcement mechanism of the judicial system. The representativeness of anthropometric samples can also be affected by previous selection by the Grim Reaper. Within Afro-Caribbean slave populations in Trinidad, death rates were significantly higher for shorter individuals (at all ages) than for the taller ones. The result is that a select group of more robust and taller individuals remained alive for eventual measurement.

One difficulty faced by anthropometric historians is the association of this research, more imagined than real, with previous misuses of body measurement. Nineteenth century American phrenologists used skull shape and size as a means of determining intelligence and as a way of justifying the enslavement of African-Americans. The Bertillon approach to evaluating prison inmates included the measurement and classification of lips, ears, feet, nose, and limbs in an effort to discern a genetic or racial basis for criminality. The Nazis attempted to breed the perfect race by eliminating what they perceived to be physically “inferior” peoples. Each, appropriately, has made many squeamish in regard to the use of body measurements as an index of social development. Further, while the biological research which supports historical anthropometrics is scientifically well founded and fully justifies the approach, care must be exercised to ensure that the impression is not given that researchers either are searching for, or promoting, an “aristocracy of the tall.” Being tall is not necessarily better in all circumstances, although recent work does indicate a series of social and economic advantages do accrue to the tall. However, for populations enduring an on-going sub-optimal net nutritional regime, an increase in mean height does signify improvement in the net nutritional level, and thus the general level of physical well-being. Untangling the factors responsible for change in this social indicator is complicated and height is not a complete proxy for the quality of life. However, it does provide a valuable means of assessing biological well-being in the past and the influence of social and economic developments on health.

Future Directions

Historical anthropometrics is maturing. Over the past several years a series of state-of-the-field articles and anthologies of critical works have been written or compiled. Each summarizes past accomplishments, consolidates isolated findings into more generalized conclusions, and/or points out the next steps for researchers. In 2004, the editors of Social Science History devoted an entire volume to anthropometric history, drawing upon both current work and remembrances of many of the field’s early and prominent researchers, including an integrative essay by Komlos and Baten. Anthropometric history now has its own journal, as John Komlos, who has literally established a center for historical anthropometrics in Munich, created Economics and Biology, “devoted to the exploration of the effect of socio-economic processes on human beings as biological organisms.” Early issues highlight the wide geographic, temporal, and conceptual range of historical anthropometric studies. Another project which shows the great range of current effort is Richard Steckel’s work with anthropologists to characterize very long term patterns in the movement of mean human height. Already this collaboration has produced, The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere, a compilation of essays documenting the biological well-being of New World populations beginning in 5000 B.C. using anthropological evidence. Its findings, consistent with those of some other recent anthropological studies, indicate a decline in health status for members of Western Hemisphere cultures in the pre-Columbian period as these societies began the transition from economies based on hunting and gathering to ones relying more heavily on settled agriculture. Steckel has been working to expand this approach to Europe via a collaborative and interdisciplinary project funded in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation, titled, “A History of Health in Europe from the Late Paleolithic Era to the Present.”

Yet even with these impressive steps, continued work, similar to early efforts in the field, is still needed. Expansion of the number and type of samples are important steps in the confirmation and consolidation of early results. One of the field’s on-going frustrations is that, except for slave records, few data sets contain physical measurements for large numbers of females. To date, female slaves and ex-slaves, some late nineteenth century U.S. college women, along with transported female convicts are the primary sources of female historical stature. Generalizations of research findings to entire populations are hindered by the small amount of data on females and the knowledge, from that data which are extant, that stature trends for the two sexes do not mimic each other. Similarly, upper class samples of either sex are not common. Future efforts should be directed at locating samples which contain data on these two understudied groups.

As Riley noted, the problem which anthropometric historians seek to resolve is not the identification of likely influences on stature. The biological sciences have provided that theoretical framework. The task at hand is to determine the relative weight of the various influences or, in Fogel’s terms, to perform “an accounting exercise of particularly complicated nature, which involves measuring not only the direct effect of particular factors but also their indirect effects and their interactions with other factors.”

More localized studies, with sample sizes adequate statistical analysis, are needed. These will allow the determination of the social, economic, and demographic factors most closely associated with human height variation. Other key areas of future investigation include the functional consequences of differences in biological well-being proxied by height, including differences in labor productivity and life expectancy. Even with the strides that have been made, in some corners, skepticism remains about the approach. To combat this, researchers must be careful to stress repeatedly what anthropometric indicators proxy, what their limits are, and how knowledge of anthropometric trends can appropriately influence our understanding of economic and social history as well as inform social policy. The field promises many future insights into the nature of and influences on historical human well-being and thus clues about how human well-being, the focus of economics generally, can be more fully and more widely advanced.

Selected Bibliography

Survey/Overview Publications

Engerman, Stanley. “The Standard of Living Debate in International Perspective: Measures and Indicators.” In Health and Welfare during Industrialization, edited by Richard H. Steckel and Roderick Floud, 17-46. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Floud, Roderick, and Bernard Harris. “Health, Height, and Welfare: Britain 1700-1980.” In Health and Welfare during Industrialization, edited by Richard H. Steckel and Roderick Floud, 91-126. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Floud, Roderick, Kenneth Wachter, and Annabelle Gregory. “The Heights of Europeans since 1750: A New Source for European Economic History.” In Stature, Living Standards, and Economic Development: Essays in Anthropometric History, edited by John Komlos, 10-24. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Floud, Roderick, Kenneth Wachter, and Annabelle Gregory. Height, Health, and History: Nutritional Status in the United Kingdom, 1750-1980. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Fogel, Robert W. “Nutrition and the Decline in Mortality since 1700: Some Preliminary Findings.” In Long-Term Factors in American Economic Growth, edited by Stanley Engerman and Robert Gallman, 439-527. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Haines, Michael R. “Growing Incomes, Shrinking People – Can Economic Development Be Hazardous to Your Health? Historical Evidence for the United States, England, and the Netherlands in the Nineteenth Century.” Social Science History 28 (2004): 249-70.

Haines, Michael R., Lee A. Craig, and Thomas Weiss. “The Short and the Dead: Nutrition, Mortality, and the ‘Antebellum Puzzle’ in the United States.” Journal of Economic History 63 (June 2003): 382-413.

Harris, Bernard. “Health, Height, History: An Overview of Recent Developments in Anthropometric History.” Social History of Medicine 7 (1994): 297-320.

Harris, Bernard. “The Height of Schoolchildren in Britain, 1900-1950.” In Stature, Living Standards and Economic Development: Essays in Anthropometric History, edited by John Komlos, 25-38. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Komlos, John, and Jörg Baten. The Biological Standard of Living in Comparative Perspectives: Proceedings of a Conference Held in Munich, January 18-23, 1997. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1999.

Komlos, John, and Jörg Baten. “Looking Backward and Looking Forward: Anthropometric Research and the Development of Social Science History.” Social Science History 28 (2004): 191-210.

Komlos, John, and Timothy Cuff. Classics of Anthropometric History: A Selected Anthology, St. Katharinen, Germany: Scripta Mercaturae, 1998.

Komlos, John. “Anthropometric History: What Is It?” Magazine of History (Spring 1992): 3-5.

Komlos, John. Stature, Living Standards, and Economic Development: Essays in Anthropometric History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Komlos, John. The Biological Standard of Living in Europe and America 1700-1900: Studies in Anthropometric History. Aldershot: Variorum Press, 1995.

Komlos, John. The Biological Standard of Living on Three Continents: Further Essays in Anthropometric History. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995.

Steckel, Richard H., and J.C. Rose. The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Steckel, Richard H., and Roderick Floud. Health and Welfare during Industrialization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Steckel, Richard. “Height, Living Standards, and History.” Historical Methods 24 (1991): 183-87.

Steckel, Richard. “Stature and Living Standards in the United States.” In American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John J. Wallis, 265-310. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Steckel, Richard. “Stature and the Standard of Living.” Journal of Economic Literature 33 (1995): 1903-40.

Steckel, Richard. “A History of the Standard of Living in the United States.” In EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples, http://www.eh.net/encyclopedia/contents/steckel.standard.living.us.php

Seminal Articles in Historical Anthropometrics

Aron, Jean-Paul, Paul Dumont, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. Anthropologie du Conscrit Francais. Paris: Mouton, 1972.

Eltis, David. “Nutritional Trends in Africa and the Americas: Heights of Africans, 1819-1839.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 12 (1982): 453-75.

Engerman, Stanley. “The Height of U.S. Slaves.” Local Population Studies 16 (1976): 45-50.

Floud, Roderick and Kenneth Wachter. “Poverty and Physical Stature, Evidence on the Standard of Living of London Boys 1770-1870.” Social Science History 6 (1982): 422-52.

Fogel, Robert W. “Physical Growth as a Measure of the Economic Well-being of Populations: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” In Human Growth: A Comprehensive Treatise, second edition, volume 3, edited by F. Falkner and J.M. Tanner, 263-281. New York: Plenum, 1986.

Fogel, Robert W., Stanley Engerman, Roderick Floud, Gerald Friedman, Robert Margo, Kenneth Sokoloff, Richard Steckel, James Trussell, Georgia Villaflor and Kenneth Wachter. “Secular Changes in American and British Stature and Nutrition.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 14 (1983): 445-81.

Fogel, Robert W., Stanley L. Engerman, and James Trussell. “Exploring the Uses of Data on Height: The Analysis of Long-Term Trends in Nutrition, Labor Welfare, and Labor Productivity.” Social Science History 6 (1982): 401-21.

Friedman, Gerald C. “The Heights of Slaves in Trinidad.” Social Science History 6 (1982): 482-515.

Higman, Barry W. “Growth in Afro-Caribbean Slave Populations.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 50 (1979): 373-85.

Komlos, John. “The Height and Weight of West Point Cadets: Dietary Change in Antebellum America.” Journal of Economic History 47 (1987): 897-927.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel, N. Bernageau, and Y. Pasquet. “Le Conscrit et l’ordinateur: Perspectives de recherches sur les Archives Militaries du XIXieme siecle Francais.” Studi Storici 10 (1969): 260-308.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. “The Conscripts of 1868: A Study of the Correlation between Geographical Mobility, Delinquency and Physical Stature and Other Aspects of the Situation of the Young Frenchmen Called to Do Military Service That Year.” In The Territory of the Historian. Translated by Ben and Sian Reynolds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Margo, Robert and Richard Steckel. “Heights of Native Born Whites during the Antebellum Period.” Journal of Economic History 43 (1983): 167-74.

Margo, Robert and Richard Steckel. “The Height of American Slaves: New Evidence on Slave Nutrition and Health.” Social Science History 6 (1982): 516-38.

Steckel, Richard. “Height and per Capita Income.” Historical Methods 16 (1983): 1-7.

Steckel, Richard. “Slave Height Profiles from Coastwise Manifests.” Explorations in Economic History 16 (1979): 363-80.

Articles Addressing Methodological Issues

Heintel, Markus, Lars Sandberg and Richard Steckel. “Swedish Historical Heights Revisited: New Estimation Techniques and Results.” In The Biological Standard of Living in Comparative Perspective, edited by John Komlos and Jörg Baten, 449-58. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1998.

Komlos, John, and Joo Han Kim. “Estimating Trends in Historical Heights.” Historical Methods 23 (1900): 116-20.

Riley, James C. “Height, Nutrition, and Mortality Risk Reconsidered.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 24 (1994): 465-92.

Steckel, Richard. “Percentiles of Modern Height: Standards for Use in Historical Research.’ Historical Methods 29 (1996): 157-66.

Wachter, Kenneth, and James Trussell. “Estimating Historical Heights.” Journal of the American Statistical Association 77 (1982): 279-303.

Wachter, Kenneth. “Graphical Estimation of Military Heights.” Historical Methods 14 (1981): 31-42.

Publications Providing Bio-Medical Background for Historical Anthropometrics

Bielecki, T. “Physical Growth as a Measure of the Economic Well-being of Populations: The Twentieth Century.” In Human Growth, second edition, volume 3, edited by F. Falkner and J.M. Tanner, 283-305. New York: Plenum, 1986.

Bogin, Barry. Patterns of Human Growth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Eveleth, Phyllis B. “Population Differences in Growth: Environmental and Genetic Factors.” In Human Growth: A Comprehensive Treatise, second edition, volume 3, edited by F. Falkner and J.M. Tanner, 221-39. New York: Plenum, 1986.

Eveleth, Phyllis B. and James M. Tanner. Worldwide Variation in Human Growth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Tanner, James M. “Growth as a Target-Seeking Function: Catch-up and Catch-down Growth in Man.” In Human Growth: A Comprehensive Treatise, second edition, volume 1, edited by F. Falkner and J.M. Tanner, 167-80. New York: Plenum, 1986.

Tanner, James M. “The Potential of Auxological Data for Monitoring Economic and Social Well-Being.” Social Science History 6 (1982): 571-81.

Tanner, James M. A History of the Study of Human Growth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

World Health Organization. “Use and Interpretation of Anthropometric Indicators of Nutritional Status.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 64 (1986): 929-41.

Predecessors to Historical Anthropometrics

Bowles, G. T. New Types of Old Americans at Harvard and at Eastern Women’s Colleges. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952.

Damon, Albert. “Secular Trend in Height and Weight within Old American Families at Harvard, 1870-1965.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 29 (1968): 45-50.

Damon, Albert. “Stature Increase among Italian-Americans: Environmental, Genetic, or Both?” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 23 (1965) 401-08.

Gould, Benjamin A. Investigations in the Military and Anthropological Statistics of American Soldiers. New York: Hurd and Houghton [for the U.S. Sanitary Commission], 1869.

Karpinos, Bernard D. “Height and Weight of Selective Service Registrants Processed for Military Service during World War II.” Human Biology 40 (1958): 292-321.

Publications Focused on Nonstature-Based Anthropometric Measures

Brudevoll, J.E., K. Liestol, and L. Walloe. “Menarcheal Age in Oslo during the Last 140 Years.” Annals of Human Biology 6 (1979): 407-16.

Cuff, Timothy. “The Body Mass Index Values of Nineteenth Century West Point Cadets: A Theoretical Application of Waaler’s Curves to a Historical Population.” Historical Methods 26 (1993): 171-83.

Komlos, John. “The Age at Menarche in Vienna.” Historical Methods 22 (1989): 158-63.

James M. Tanner. “Trend towards Earlier Menarche in London, Oslo, Copenhagen, the Netherlands, and Hungary.” Nature 243 (1973): 95-96.

Trussell, James, and Richard Steckel. “The Age of Slaves at Menarche and Their First Birth.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 8 (1978): 477-505.

Waaler, Hans Th. “Height, Weight, and Mortality: The Norwegian Experience.” Acta Medica Scandinavica, supplement 679, 1984.

Ward, W. Peter, and Patricia C. Ward. “Infant Birth Weight and Nutrition in Industrializing Montreal.” American Historical Review 89 (1984): 324-45.

Ward, W. Peter. Birth Weight and Economic Growth: Women’s Living Standards in the Industrializing West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Articles with a Non-western Geographic Focus

Cameron, Noel. “Physical Growth in a Transitional Economy: The Aftermath of South African Apartheid.” Economic and Human Biology 1 (2003): 29-42.

Eltis, David. ‘Welfare Trends among the Yoruba in the Early Nineteenth Century: The Anthropometric Evidence.” Journal of Economic History 50 (1990): 521-40.

Greulich, W.W. “Some Secular Changes in the Growth of American-born and Native Japanese Children.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 45 (1976): 553-68.

Morgan, Stephen. “Biological Indicators of Change in the Standard of Living in China during the Twentieth Century.” In The Biological Standard of Living in Comparative Perspective, edited by John Komlos and Jörg Baten, 7-34. Struttart: Franz Steiner, 1998.

Nicholas, Stephen, Robert Gregory, and Sue Kimberley. “The Welfare of Indigenous and White Australians, 1890-1955.” In The Biological Standard of Living in Comparative Perspective, edited by John Komlos and Jörg Baten, 35-54. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner: 1998.

Salvatore, Ricardo D. “Stature, Nutrition, and Regional Convergence: The Argentine Northwest in the First Half of the Twentieth Century.” Social Science History 28 (2004): 297-324.

Shay, Ted. “The Level of Living in Japan, 1885-1938: New Evidence.’ In The Biological Standard of Living on Three Continents: Further Explorations in Anthropometric History, edited by John Komlos, 173-201. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995.

Articles with a North American Focus

Craig, Lee, and Thomas Weiss. “Nutritional Status and Agriculture Surpluses in antebellum United States.” In The Biological Standard of Living in Comparative Perspective, edited by John Komlos and Jörg Baten, 190-207. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1998.

Komlos, John, and Peter Coclanis, “On the ‘Puzzling’ Antebellum Cycle of the Biological Standard of Living: The Case of Georgia,” Explorations in Economic History 34 (1997): 433-59.

Komlos, John. “Shrinking in a Growing Economy? The Mystery of Physical Stature during the Industrial Revolution,” Journal of Economic History 58 (1998): 779-802.

Komlos, John. “Toward an Anthropometric History of African-Americans: The Case of the Free Blacks in Antebellum Maryland.” In Strategic Factors in Nineteenth Century American Economic History: A Volume to Honor Robert W. Fogel, edited by Claudia Goldin and Hugh Rockoff, 267-329. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Murray, John. “Standards of the Present for People of the Past: Height, Weight, and Mortality among Men of Amherst College, 1834-1949.” Journal of Economic History 57 (1997): 585-606.

Murray, John. “Stature among Members of a Nineteenth Century American Shaker Commune.” Annals of Human Biology 20 (1993): 121-29.

Steckel, Richard. “A Peculiar Population: The Nutrition, Health, and Mortality of American Slaves from Childhood to Maturity.” Journal of Economic History 46 (1986): 721-41.

Steckel, Richard. “Health and Nutrition in the American Midwest: Evidence from the Height of Ohio National Guardsmen, 1850-1910.” In Stature, Living Standards, and Economic Development: Essays in Anthropometric History, edited by John Komlos, 153-70. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Steckel, Richard. “The Health and Mortality of Women and Children.” Journal of Economic History 48 (1988): 333-45.

Steegmann, A. Theodore Jr. “18th Century British Military Stature: Growth Cessation, Selective Recruiting, Secular Trends, Nutrition at Birth, Cold and Occupation.” Human Biology 57 (1985): 77-95.

Articles with a European Focus

Baten, Jörg. “Economic Development and the Distribution of Nutritional Resources in Bavaria, 1797-1839.” Journal of Income Distribution 9 (2000): 89-106.

Baten, Jörg. “Climate, Grain production, and Nutritional Status in Southern Germany during the XVIIIth Century.” Journal of European Economic History 30 (2001): 9-47.

Baten, Jörg and John Murray “Heights of Men and Women in the Nineteenth-century Bavaria: Economic, Nutritional, and Disease Influences.” Explorations in Economic History 37 (2000): 351-69.

Komlos, John. “Stature and Nutrition in the Habsburg Monarchy: The Standard of Living and Economic Development in the Eighteenth Century.” American Historical Review 90 (1985): 1149-61.

Komlos, John. “The Nutritional Status of French Students.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 24 (1994): 493-508.

Komlos, John. “The Secular Trend in the Biological Standard of Living in the United Kingdom, 1730-1860.” Economic History Review 46 (1993): 115-44.

Nicholas, Stephen and Deborah Oxley. “The Living Standards of Women during the Industrial Revolution, 1795-1820.” Economic History Review 46 (1993): 723-49.

Nicholas, Stephen and Richard Steckel. “Heights and Living Standards of English Workers during the Early Years of Industrialization, 1770-1815.” Journal of Economic History 51 (1991): 937-57.

Oxley, Deborah. “Living Standards of Women in Prefamine Ireland.” Social Science History 28 (2004): 271-95.

Riggs, Paul. “The Standard of Living in Scotland, 1800-1850.” In Stature, Living Standards, and Economic Development: Essays in Anthropometric History, edited by John Komlos, 60-75. Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1994.

Sandberg, Lars G. “Soldier, Soldier, What Made You Grow So Tall? A Study of Height, Health and Nutrition in Sweden, 1720-1881.” Economy and History 23 (1980): 91-105.

Steckel, Richard H. “New Light on the ‘Dark Ages’: The Remarkably Tall Stature of Northern European Men during the Medieval Era.” Social Science History 28 (2004): 211-30.

Citation: Cuff, Timothy. “Historical Anthropometrics”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 29, 2004. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/historical-anthropometrics/

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Money in the Medieval English Economy: 973-1489

Author(s):Bolton, Jim
Reviewer(s):Munro, John

Published by EH.Net (June 2013)

Jim Bolton, Money in the Medieval English Economy: 973-1489.? Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.? xv + 317 pp.? $35 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-7190-5040-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by John Munro, Department of Economics, University of Toronto.

Embracing a most impressive range of research, cogently organized, penetrating in its analysis of all aspects of the medieval English economy related to money, and elegant in its prose, Bolton?s Money in the Medieval English Economy: 973-1489 is one of the most important books published in English medieval economic history during the past two decades.? Indeed, I do not know of any other comparable and equally comprehensive study of English medieval monetary history. The book is cast into two unequal parts.? Part I (pp. 3-86) is theoretical, beginning with the Fisher Identity and the relationships between money, population, and prices in the medieval economy, followed by uniformly excellent chapters on the roles of money in a developing market economy: in terms of? bullion supplies, coinage, and credit instruments.? The longer Part II (pp.? 87-309), analyses the changes in coinage and other forms of money, and then in more detail the changing roles of money in the actual economy, sector by sector, over three distinct eras: 973-1158, 1158-1351, and 1351-1489.
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This section thus begins with the monetary reforms of Edgar of Mercia, first to be crowned and remain king of England, in 973; and it ends with Henry VII?s issue of the first gold sovereign coin, representing the value of one pound sterling, in October 1489 (the shilling came later).? A far more logical end-point would have been the onset of Henry VIII?s Great Debasement in 1542-44, as in Martin Allen?s recent, magisterial Mints and Money in Medieval England (2012), to which Bolton acknowledges his great indebtedness. Manchester University Press?s severe space limitations evidently prevented Bolton from extending his study beyond 1489, and also from including his 25-page bibliography, now available only online (URL on p.? 310).
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Beyond the general objectives just outlined, Bolton?s book has two other major goals.? The first is achieved with great success: to prove, in chapters 6 and 7, that England did not acquire a fully-developed money economy until the era from 1158 to 1351, i.e., up to the onset of the Black Death.? In his fully justifiable view, a money economy essentially meant a well-functioning market economy, one that required not only a considerable expansion in the circulating coinage but also rapid population growth and the concomitant development of towns and villages with urban and regional fairs, the establishment of effective forms of royal taxation, the development of the requisite commercial, financial and legal institutions, especially those needed for various forms of credit; and for the latter, the spread of both literacy and numeracy.? He demonstrates that, while population growth from 1086 (Domesday Book) to 1300 at least doubled and may have tripled (from 2.0/2.5 million to 5.0/6.0 million), the money supply expanded by 27 to 40 fold: from ?25,000/?37,500 to more than ?1.0 million ? most of that from the 1220s, though attributing the major increases in coinage to the Central European silver mining booms of ca. 1160 to ca. 1230.? He cites Mayhew?s estimates (2004) that per capita GDP rose from ?0.18 in 1086 to ?0.78 in 1300 (and to ?1.52 in 1470: Table 9.2, p. 295). Depending on sources,? methodology, and population estimates, he contends that per capita supplies of silver coin rose from 3.2d/6.0d in 1042-1066 to 65.5d/101.3d in 1310 (Table 2.2, pp. 25-27).? Thereafter, the introduction of gold coinages (from 1343-51) created significant problems for both our estimates of money supplies and the well-being of the English domestic economy, especially since the English government consistently and seriously overvalued gold to the severe detriment of silver coinage supplies (in effect, England exported silver to acquire gold), given that silver coin was the chief mechanism for transacting domestic trade, wages, and other such payments.
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That problem, however, leads us to his second goal, for which he is much less successful: to refute the current ?monetarist? views that later fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England experienced severe monetary scarcities (whether seen in terms of stocks or flows), most especially in silver coin supplies.? A disclaimer is in order: I am evidently one of those so-called monetarists under attack.? The tenor of the book becomes most evident in his statement (p. 75) that: ?It [the money supply] was not the sole determining factor [of price levels] as monetarist historians argue.?? I do not know of anyone who now does so.? That negative viewpoint may be deduced from his lengthy discussion, in his opening chapter, of the well-known and much abused Fisher Identity: M.V = P.T.? Thus, if one accepts the view that changes in V (velocity) and T (volume of transactions) cancel each other out, one might deduce that the price level P ? usually measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) ? is directly and proportionately a function of changes in M.?? But, even if some historians still use this antiquated formula, few if any economists do so, preferring? the modernized version in the form M.V = P.y (the occasionally-used equation M.V = GNP is unacceptable as an analytical tool). In this version, y, representing real net national income (or output), thus replaces the completely unmeasurable T; and V thus becomes the income velocity of high-powered money (however defined). Most economists now prefer even more to use the Cambridge ?cash balances? approach, with a demand-for-money equation: M = k.P.y, in which M, P, and y remain the same, while k represents that proportion of national income that the public collectively chooses to hold in non-earning real cash balances, according to determinants of liquidity preference, so that k is often sensitive to changes in interest rates.? Mathematically k is the reciprocal of V.

As may be deduced from either (revised) formula, an expansion in M may have been offset by some decline in V (with a lesser need to economize on coin use) and thus by some increase in k, and also by an increase in y:? especially if an increased M led to a decline in interest rates (with no changes in liquidity preference) and to a greater stimulus for investment and trade, so that P would have risen less than proportionately, if at all.? But the converse was not necessarily true, for the various forces contracting monetary stocks may also have constricted monetary flows: i.e., also reducing V and thereby increasing k.? These revised formulae clearly demonstrate that any analysis of changes in the price levels requires a detailed understanding of changes in both money stocks and money flows (especially liquidity preferences) but also changes in the real economy, as represented by y:? i.e., changes in population, technology, economic organizations, real capital investments, etc.? In my recent publications involving coinage debasements, I have sought to prove that in late-medieval and early-modern Europe, increases in M never resulted in proportional increases in the price level, even during Henry VIII?s Great Debasement (Munro 2011, 2012a, 2012b). None of this constitutes the supposed ?monetarism? that Bolton portrays, except to indicate that ?money matters? (a proposition that Bolton admittedly never denies).
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Bolton?s specific goal, in the final two chapters, 8 and 9, is to prove that increases in the supply and use of various credit instruments fully offset the two supposed ?bullion famines?: those from ca. 1375 to ca. 1420 and from ca. 1440 to ca. 1480.? Indeed, his focus on the expanding role of credit allows him fully to accept the nature and extent of these two ?bullion famines? as portrayed by so-called ?monetarists,? in contrast to the published views of the current group of ?anti-monetarist? historians (such as Sussman 1990, 1993, 1995, 1998, 2003).? He thus accepts the three prevailing theses to explain that coinage scarcity: a severe decline in outputs of European silver and gold mines; the disruptions in the trans-Saharan African gold trade to the Mediterranean; and increased bullion outflows to the East, particularly for purchases of Asian spices and other luxury goods.? But this third thesis seems inconsistent with his view that late-medieval England always enjoyed a surplus in its balance of payments with the continent. I myself am far from convinced that any payments deficit with the East, so chronic from Roman times, became proportionately worse during the later-Middle Ages, especially because the specific evidence adduced in favor of this thesis (from Ashtor 1971, 1983) comes from the 1490s, when the Central European mining boom, having commenced in the 1460s (peaking in the 1530s) was supplying vast new quantities of silver to promote increased Venetian trade with the Levant (Munro 2003a).? The more significant of these factors, therefore, may have been the reduction in European inflows of African gold, from the 1370s: a trade that the Portuguese later sought to restore, from the 1440s, and with considerable success from the 1470s.
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What Bolton neglects to consider as a major factor in these ?bullion famines? is changes in Cambridge k (and thus in V): i.e., an increased liquidity preference in the form of hoarding ? not by burying precious metals in the ground but by converting them into plate and jewelry, readily changeable back to coin, in times of war-induced taxation.? The one (other) historian who has given such emphasis to changes in liquidity preference and hoarding (?thesaurisation?), as a reaction to general economic pessimism and risk aversion in times of chronic plague, other forms of depopulation, economic contraction and periodic depressions, is Peter Spufford (1988); but Spufford still places greater emphasis on the roles of the European mining slump and bullion outflows to the East.

Bolton obviously does not wish to entertain the Spufford thesis ? which necessarily implies a decrease in the income velocity of money ? because he seeks to show that an increased use of credit fully offset the bullion famines by increasing either V or M or both.? In this debate, on the role of credit, his chief opponent is Pamela Nightingale (1990, 1997, 2004, 2010), and indeed the two have continued this debate is recent issues of the British Numismatic Journal (2011, 2013).? I continue to support Nightingale.? That might seem obvious for one accused of being a ?monetarist,? so that readers of this review must judge for themselves by a careful examination of their respective publications (and the others cited here).? In my view, Bolton fails to refute or contradict Nightingale?s two major propositions.? The first, and most important, is that the supply of credit remained essentially a function of the coined money supply, because most (if not all) credit transactions depended on the use of coin, and especially on the creditor?s confidence of being fully repaid in coin:? so that credit generally expanded with increases in the coined money supply and conversely contracted with any decline in the supply or circulation of coined money, often disproportionately.? On this important issue, Nightingale receives full support from many other monetary historians: Peter Spufford (1988), Nicholas Mayhew (1974, 1987, 1995, 2004), Reinhold Mueller (1984: for Italy), Frank Spooner (1972: for France), and most recently (if less strongly) Chris Briggs (for England: 2008, 2009).? Nightingale?s? second proposition, also endorsed by most of these historians, is that the wide variety of credit instruments used in late-medieval England were not yet negotiable, and thus, while affecting velocity (V), they did could not and did not add to the money supply (M) ? though the differences between the two may here be moot.? To be sure, many of these credit instruments were, and long had been, assignable ? transferable to third parties.? But as Eric Kerridge (1988) ? whom Bolton cites for other purposes ? long ago stressed: ?transferability is not negotiability,? a point that Michael Postan had also earlier made (1928, 1930), despite Bolton?s assertions to the contrary. The fully developed legal institutions required for secure negotiability of commercial bills, in protecting the full rights of assignees and bearers to claim and enforce payment on redemption, were first established in the Habsburg Netherlands by imperial legislation enacted in 1537 and 1541, as Herman Van der Wee has clearly demonstrated (1963, 1967, 1975, 2000),? Not until the early seventeenth century do we find comparable full-fledged English acceptance of negotiability and no national legislation until the Promissory Notes Act of 3 & 4 Anne c. 8 (1704).
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Equally essential for full negotiability was the legal acceptance of discounting, a problem related to the issue of usury, given short shrift not only by Bolton but also by Nightingale and most other financial historians (except, notably, De Roover 1967, also in Kirschner 1974).? To be sure, we may fairly assume that many medieval creditors did disguise interest in a loan by increasing the amount stipulated for repayment; but disguising such implicit interest was far more difficult to achieve in discounting (selling a bill for less than face value before redemption).? As Van der Wee has also demonstrated for the Habsburg Netherlands, discounting, along with multiple transfers by endorsement, spread only after an imperial ordinance, issued in October 1540, explicitly permitted interest payments on commercial loans up to 12%.? He also demonstrated that nominal interest rates in the Netherlands dropped sharply in this era, by almost half: from 20.5% in 1511-15 to 11.0% in 1566-70; real rates dropped even further with the inflation of the Price Revolution.? Similarly, according Norman Jones (1989), an even sharper fall in English interest rates on commercial bills took place after Elizabeth I, in 1571, restored her father?s abortive statute (1545) permitting interest payments up to 10%: from about 30% in the 1560s to 10% by 1600, with further declines in the seventeenth century, to about 5% (see also Homer and Sylla 1997, pp. 89-143; Munro 2012c).? Bolton has also not taken account of the significantly increased restrictions on the use of credit in fifteenth century England, from both anti-usury and bullionist legislation, and also the prevailing social attitudes that remained deeply imbedded until the early Stuart era. As Lawrence Stone (1965) so aptly commented on Elizabethan England: ?Money will never become freely or cheaply available in a society which nourishes a strong moral prejudice against the taking of any interest at all. ? If usury on any terms, however reasonable, is thought to be a discreditable business, men will tend to shun it, and the few who practise it will demand a high return for being generally regarded as moral lepers.?
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If we were to accept, instead, Bolton?s contentions that an increased use of credit fully offset the coined money scarcity evident in the two bullion famines, then we would then be hard pressed to explain the sharp deflation of these two periods.? Bolton evidently sees no need to do so, for his book, most surprisingly, contains no tables or graphs on the price level (CPI); he provides only one price graph, on relative prices for just wheat and oxen, from 1160 to 1350 (p. 183).? Demographic decline cannot itself explain the periods of deflation (apart from its possible impact on V).? For note that the Black Death (1348-49), quickly reducing population by about 40%, was followed by three decades of rampant inflation: when the Phelps Brown and Hopkins CPI (1451-75 = 100) rose from a quinquennial mean of 85.53 in 1341-45 to one of 136.40 in 1366-70, falling slightly to 127.35 in 1371-75.? Thereafter, the CPI fell to a low of 103.70 in 1421-25, for an overall decline of 23.94%, despite the 16.67% silver debasement of 1411-12.? Rising thereafter to a peak of 124.22 in 1436-40, the CPI fell by 25.40 % during the second ?bullion famine?: to a nadir of 92.667 in 1476-80, again despite the 20.0% silver debasement of 1464.? Recent alternative historical consumer prices indexes ? those by Robert Allen (2001) and Gregory Clark (2004, 2007), neither cited by Bolton ? show the same patterns of inflation and deflation demonstrated in the older Phelps Brown and Hopkins Composite Price index (1956, 1981: revised by Munro).
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Bolton consequently does not take full account of the negative economic consequences of deflation.? If all relative prices had moved together in tandem, with proportional changes, then neither deflation nor inflation would matter. But price changes have never done so, especially factor prices in relation to commodity prices.? In general, deflation raises the burden of factor costs for borrowers and entrepreneurs, while inflation reduces that cost burden.? The most familiar such phenomenon is downward nominal-wage stickiness ? so widespread throughout Western Europe, unaffected by demographic factors, and persistent in England itself until 1920 (Smith 1776/1937; Phelps Brown and Hopkins 1955/1981; Munro 2003b).? But nominal interest rates and land rents were generally also sticky in this era, especially when defined by contracts, though for much shorter periods.? Thus all these real factor costs rose, at least in the short run, with the fall in the Consumer Price Index. If creditors were more reluctant to lend in times of monetary scarcity and depression, for fear of non-payment, debtors were also reluctant to borrow more in facing prospects of higher real costs in payments of both interest and the principal.? For both creditors and debtors that reluctance, in especially the mid fifteenth century, may have been due as much to the adverse circumstances of the commercial depressions that accompanied that bullion ?famine? and deflation (Hatcher 1996; Nightingale 1997; Bois 2000).
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A final problem, and one that pervades much of the book, concerns the proper distinctions between bullion, coinage, and moneys-of-account, and the closely related problem of coin debasements.? Bolton ought to have followed the model set forth long ago by Sir Albert Feavearyear (1931/1963), whose absence from the bibliography is astonishing.? By this model, silver and gold coins, bearing the official stamp of the ruler, generally circulate by tale (official face value), commanding an agio or premium over bullion.? That agio represents the sum of the minting costs of brassage (for the mint-master) and seigniorage (a tax for the ruler), added to the mint?s bullion price; but also, for the public, it represents their savings on transaction costs in not having to weigh the coins and assay their proper fineness.? As Douglass North (1984, 1985) has demonstrated, transaction costs are always subject to considerable scale economies: thus they are a major burden in small-scale, low-valued silver transactions in retail trade and wage payments, but far less so in very large volume, high-valued transactions, especially those involving gold in wholesale and foreign trade and major debt transactions.? Bolton is very ambiguous on whether coins circulated by weight or by tale, ignoring the scale economies of transactions, but seemingly supporting the former view (despite his evidence presented on pp. 120-21).?
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An increased tendency for coins to be accepted only by weight, in higher-valued transactions, arose when the quality of the circulating coinage inevitably deteriorated over the years and decades following a general recoinage: when its silver contents diminished through normal wear and tear, but especially when? the coinage became more and more corrupted by the nefarious practices of clipping, ?sweating? and counterfeiting ? none of which would? have been profitable had coins earlier circulated by weight. Such deterioration, the loss of public confidence, and growing refusals to accept coins by tale meant that all coins lost their former agio, with four consequences.? First, merchants, still accepting coins by tale, sought compensation for perceived silver losses by raising their prices; second, good, higher-weight coins were culled and hoarded or exported, often in exchange for foreign counterfeits (Gresham?s Law); and third, bullion ceased to flow to the mints, so that the king lost? his seigniorage revenues.? Fourth, the king consequently had no alternative but to debase his coinage to bring it in alignment with the current depreciated circulation, thereby restoring the agio and resuming the flow of bullion to the mints.? In Feavearyear?s view, this purely defensive reaction to coinage deterioration explains all English silver debasements before Henry VIII?s Great Debasement of 1542-52: in particular, the 10.00% silver reduction of 1351; the 16.66% reduction of 1411/12; the 20.00% reduction of 1464; and the 11.11% reduction of 1526 ? so that fine silver content of the penny fell from 1.332 g in 1279 to just 0.639 g in 1526.? Henry VIII?s Great Debasement was undertaken, however, for purely fiscal motives (as had long been the continental pattern): to augment seigniorage revenues. But the evidence on seigniorage rate changes indicates that such fiscal motives had also prevailed in Edward IV?s silver and gold debasements of 1464-65 (Munro 2011).
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None of this analysis or any credible explanation for debasement can be readily found in Bolton, who even denies that English kings debased their coinages before the Great Debasement, on the overly literal grounds that the sterling silver fineness (92.5%) was always maintained (except for the 1336 issue of 10 dwt halfpence = 83.33% silver halfpence).? Almost all monetary historians define debasement instead as the reduction of the quantity of fine silver or gold in the money-of-account unit (pence, pound). That was achieved by a diminution in fineness (adding more base metal), and/or by a reduction in weight ? but also, for gold coins, by an increase in their official exchange rates.? Thus Edward IV?s initial debasement of gold in August 1464 was achieved by increasing the value of the traditional, physically-unchanged gold noble, from 6s 8d to 8s 4d.? In this respect, I also regret the absence, for a book on money in the medieval economy, of tables on English mint outputs (except for one graph on the Calais mint), in both pounds sterling and kilograms of fine metals, with related details on specific coinage issues in terms of weight, fineness, and mint charges ? though much of that information can be found in both Christopher Challis (1992) and Martin Allen (2011, 2012). ???
Other readers may, however, place much less emphasis on the issues raised in this review; and some, suspecting an unwarranted ?monetarist? bias in this review, may well support Bolton?s views, especially on the role of credit in the late-medieval economy.? Indeed, I must stress the significant contributions that Bolton has made in this field, especially those based on his ongoing research on the Borromei bankers (Milan), and the roles of other Italian merchant-banking firms in both English foreign and domestic trade, i.e. in London. As I indicated at the outset of the review, this book is one of the most important published in English economic history in the past two decades, and one in which the virtues well outweigh the defects.? I recommend that you buy it; if so, get the online bibliography now, before it disappears from the web.

References:

Allen, Martin (2011), ?Silver Production and the Money Supply in England and Wales, 1086 – c. 1500,? Economic History Review, 64: 114-31.
???
Allen, Martin (2012), Mints and Money in Medieval England. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
??? ???
Allen, Robert (2001), ?The Great Divergence in European Wages and Prices from the Middle Ages to the First World War,? Explorations in Economic History, 38: 411-47.

Ashtor, Eliyahu (1971), Les m?taux pr?cieux et la balance des payements du Proche-Orient ? la basse ?poque.? Paris: S.E.P.E.N.

Ashtor, Eliyahu (1983), Levant Trade in the Later Middle Ages.? Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bois, Guy (2000), La grande d?pression m?di?vale: XIVe – XVe si?cles: le pr?c?dent d?une crise syst?mique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Bolton, James (2011), ?Was There a ?Crisis of Credit? in Fifteenth-Century England?? British Numismatic Journal, 81: 146-64.

Briggs, Chris (2008), ?The Availability of Credit in the English Countryside, 1400-1480,? Agricultural History Review, 56: 1-24.

Briggs, Chris (2009), Credit and Village Society in Fourteenth-Century England. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Challis, Christopher (1992), ed., A New History of the Royal Mint. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clark, Gregory (2004), ?The Price History of English Agriculture, 1209-1914,? Research in Economic History, 22: 125-81.

Clark, Gregory (2007), ?The Long March of History: Farm Wages, Population, and Economic Growth:? England, 1209-1869,? Economic History Review, 60: 97-135.

De Roover, Raymond (1967), ?The Scholastics, Usury, and Foreign Exchange,? Business History Review, 41: 257-71.
???
Feavearyear, Albert (1931/1963), The Pound Sterling: A History of English Money, 2nd rev. edn. by E. V. Morgan. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

Hatcher, John (1996), ?The Great Slump of the Mid-Fifteenth Century,? in Progress and Problems in Medieval England, ed. Richard Britnell and John Hatcher.? Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 237-72.

Homer, Sidney, and Sylla, Richard, A History of Interest Rates, 3rd rev. edn.? New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996, pp. 89-143

Jones, Norman (1989), God and the Moneylenders: Usury and Law in Early Modern England.? Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Kerridge, Eric (1988), Trade and Banking in Early Modern England. Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Kirshner, Raymond (1974), ed., Business, Banking, and Economic Thought in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Selected Studies of Raymond de Roover. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Mayhew, Nicholas (1974), ?Numismatic Evidence and Falling Prices in the Fourteenth Century,? Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 27:? 1-15.

Mayhew, Nicholas (1987), ?Money and Prices in England from Henry II to Edward III,? Agricultural History Review, 35: 121-32.

Mayhew, Nicholas (1995), ?Population, Money Supply, and the Velocity of Circulation in England, 1300-1700,? Economic History Review, 48: 238-57.

Mayhew, Nicholas (2004), ?Coinage and Money in England, 1086 – 1500,? in Medieval Money Matters, ed. Diana Wood. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 72-86.

Mueller, Reinhold (1984), ??Chome l’ucciello di passegio?: la demande saisonni?re des esp?ces et le march? des changes ? Venise au moyen ?ge,? in ?tudes d’histoire mon?taire, XIIe-XIXe si?cles, ed. John Day.? Lille: Presses universitaires de Lille, pp. 195-220.

Munro, John (2003a), ?The Monetary Origins of the ?Price Revolution?:? South German Silver Mining, Merchant-Banking, and Venetian Commerce, 1470-1540,? in Global Connections and Monetary History, 1470-1800, ed. Dennis Flynn, Arturo Gir?ldez, and Richard von Glahn.? Aldershot and Brookfield, Vt: Ashgate Publishing, pp. 1-34.

Munro, John (2003b), ?Wage-Stickiness, Monetary Changes, and Real Incomes in Late-Medieval England and the Low Countries, 1300-1500:? Did Money Matter?? Research in Economic History, 21: 185-297.

Munro, John (2011), ?The Coinages and Monetary Policies of Henry VIII (r. 1509-47),? in The Collected Works of Erasmus: The Correspondence of Erasmus, Vol. 14:? Letters 1926 to 2081, A.D. 1528, trans. Charles Fantazzi and ed. James Estes.? Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 423-76.

Munro, John (2012a), ?The Technology and Economics of Coinage Debasements in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: with Special Reference to the Low Countries and England,? in Money in the Pre-Industrial World: Bullion, Debasements and Coin Substitutes, ed. John Munro, Financial History Series no. 20. London: Pickering & Chatto Ltd., pp. 15-32, 185-89 (endnotes).

Munro, John (2012b), ?Coinage Debasements in Burgundian Flanders, 1384-1482: Monetary or Fiscal Policies?? in Comparative Perspectives on History and Historians: Essays in Memory of Bryce Lyon (1920-2007), ed. David Nicholas, James Murray, and Bernard Bacharach.? Medieval Institute Publications, University of Western Michigan: Kalamazoo, pp. 314-60.

Munro, John (2012c), ?Usury, Calvinism and Credit in Protestant England: From the Sixteenth Century to the Industrial Revolution,? in Religione e istituzioni religiose nell?economia europea, 1000 -1800/ Religion and Religious Institutions in the European Economy, 1000 -1800, ed. Francesco Ammannati. Florence: Firenze University Press, pp. 155-84.
???
Munro, John, The Phelps Brown and Hopkins ?Basket of Consumables? Commodity Price Series and Craftsmen?s Wage Series, 1265-1700: Revised by John Munro, available online in Excel, at www.economics.utoronto.ca/munro5/ResearchData.html.

Nightingale, Pamela (1990), ?Monetary Contraction and Mercantile Credit in Later Medieval England,? Economic History Review, 43: 560-75.

Nightingale, Pamela (1997), ?England and the European Depression of the Mid-Fifteenth Century,? Journal of European Economic History, 26: 631-56.

Nightingale, Pamela (2004), ?Money and Credit in the Economy of Late Medieval England,? in Medieval Money Matters, ed. Diana Wood.? Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 51-71.

Nightingale, Pamela (2010), ?Gold, Credit, and Mortality:? Distinguishing Deflationary Pressures on the Late Medieval English Economy,? Economic History Review, 63: 1081-1104.

Nightingale, Pamela (2013), ?A Crisis of Credit in the Fifteenth Century – Or of Historical Interpretation?? British Numismatic Journal, 83 (forthcoming).

North, Douglass (1984), ?Government and the Cost of Exchange in History,? Journal of Economic History, 44: 255-64.

North, Douglass (1985), ?Transaction Costs in History,? Journal of European Economic History, 14: 557-76.

Phelps Brown, E.H., and Hopkins, Sheila V. (1955), ?Seven Centuries of Building Wages,? Economica, 22 (87): 195-206; reprinted Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1981), A Perspective of Wages and Prices. London: Methuen, pp. 1-12

Phelps Brown, E. Henry; and Hopkins, Sheila V. (1956), ?Seven Centuries of the Prices of Consumables, Compared with Builders? Wage Rates,? Economica, 23 (92): 296-314: reprinted in Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1981), A Perspective of Wages and Prices.? London:? Methuen, pp. 13-39 (with price indexes not in the original).

Postan, Michael (1928), ?Credit in Medieval Trade,? Economic History Review, 1st ser., 1 (1928), 234-61, reprinted in Michael Postan (1973), Medieval Trade and Finance.? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1?27.

Postan, Michael (1930), ?Private Financial Instruments in Medieval England,? Vierteljahrschrift f?r Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte, 22 (1930), reprinted in Michael Postan (1973), Medieval Trade, pp. 28-64.

Smith, Adam (1776), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. with introduction and notes by Edwin Cannan (1937), New York: Modern Library.

Spufford, Peter (1988), Money and Its Use in Medieval Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 339-62.

Spooner, Frank (1972), The International Economy and Monetary Movements in France, 1493-1725. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stone, Lawrence (1965), The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641, Oxford: Clarendon Press; reissued 1979, with some corrections.

Sussman, Nathan (1990), ?Missing Bullion or Missing Documents: A Revision and Reappraisal of French Minting Statistics: 1385-1415,? Journal of European Economic History, 19:147 -62.

Sussman, Nathan (1995), ?Minting Trends in France and the Bullion Famine Hypothesis: Regional Evidence (1384-1415),? in Fra spezio e tempo: studi in onore di Luigi de Rosa, ed. I. Zili. Naples: Edizione scientifiche Italiane.

Sussman, Nathan (1998), ?The Late Medieval Bullion Famine Reconsidered,? Journal of Economic History, 58: 126-54.

Sussman, Nathan, and Zeria, Joseph (2003), ?Commodity Money Inflation: Theory and Evidence from France in 1350-1430,? Journal of Monetary Economics, 50: 1769-93.

Van der Wee, Herman (1967), ?Anvers et les innovations de la technique financi?re aux XVIe et XVIIe si?cles,? Annales: E.S.C., 22: 1067-89, republished as ?Antwerp and the New Financial Methods of the 16th and 17th Centuries,? in Van der Wee, Herman (1993), The Low Countries in the Early Modern World , trans. by Lizabeth Fackelman, Variorum Series: Aldershot, pp. 145-66.

Van der Wee, Herman (1975), ?Monetary, Credit, and Banking Systems,? in The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, Vol. V: The Economic Organization of Early Modern Europe, ed. E. E. Rich and Charles Wilson.? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 290-393.

Van der Wee, Herman (2000), ?European Banking in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period (476-1789),? in A History of European Banking, 2nd edn., ed. Herman Van der Wee and G. Kurgan-Van Hentenrijk,? Antwerp: Mercator, pp. 152-80.

John Munro is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Toronto, specializing in the economic history of the late-medieval Low Countries and England, with a focus on money and textiles.? His recent publications in monetary history (2011 – 2012) are listed in the bibliography above; he has also recently published:? ?The Rise, Expansion, and Decline of the Italian Wool-Based Cloth Industries, 1100 -1730:? A Study in International Competition, Transaction Costs, and Comparative Advantage,? Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, 3rd series, 9 (2012), 45-207.

Copyright (c) 2013 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 2013). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

Surviving Large Losses: Financial Crises, the Middle Class, and the Development of Financial Markets

Author(s):Hoffman, Philip T.
Postel-Vinay, Gilles
Rosenthal, Jean-Laurent
Reviewer(s):Bodenhorn, Howard

Published by EH.NET (July 2007)

Philip T. Hoffman, Gilles Postel-Vinay and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, Surviving Large Losses: Financial Crises, the Middle Class, and the Development of Financial Markets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. viii + 263 pp. $28 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-674-02469-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Howard Bodenhorn, Department of Economics, Lafayette College.

Those of us who knew some financial history were not surprised by the Enron and WorldCom collapses in 2001 and 2002. We may have been taken aback by the magnitude of the losses and empathized with Enron employees who saw comfortable retirements evaporate before their eyes, but I can recall more than one dire prediction as Y2K approached and not because anyone really believed that confused computers would turn out the lights. Rather, some of us had genuine concerns that the equity market mania in 1999 resembled that of 1929 and hoped that the Fed would get it right the second time around. Optimism reigned at cocktail parties, however, and statements about unsustainably high equity prices were casually dismissed as just one more example of economists’ collectively predicting 11 of the past 10 recessions. History warned us that the collapse was not a matter of “if.” It was a matter of “when.” While this sense of inevitability now sounds like so much “I-told-you-so” hindsight, Surviving Large Losses makes a case that the then minority opinion was reasonable. The book makes the case that financial crises are inevitable. What is not inevitable is how societies respond as the pieces are picked up after the crisis.

Philip T. Hoffman (Caltech), Gilles Postel-Vinay (?cole des Hautes ?tudes en Sciences Sociales) and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal (Caltech) recognize their debts to the finance-growth literature, exemplified by Ross Levine’s many and influential cross-country studies, and the equally influential La Porta, Lopez-de-Silanes, Shleifer and Vishny (LLSV) “law and finance” literature, which holds that a country’s financial system is heavily influenced by the legal protections offered to equity and debt holders.[1] As influential as the related Levine and LLSV literatures are, cross-country analyses labor under two fundamental shortcomings. First, they ignore the powerful historical forces that shape a country’s financial institutions and infrastructure, the “colonial origins” argument at the center of LLSV notwithstanding. For a host of reasons, many of which are explored in this book, countries become prisoners of their own pasts, but the story is far more complex than colonial origins. Second, both literatures identify, but cannot explain a growth nexus, though some progress on that front has recently appeared.[2] That is, the size and structure of a country’s financial system matters for long-run growth, but the analyses fail to explain why and how they matter and, more importantly, why and how they change. If success can be had by simply copying the successful, why have so many economies failed to do so? The short answer, of course, is that institutional change is not costless. No matter how inefficient an existing financial system, its costs and benefits are capitalized by economic actors who will resist change absent some outside impetus that alters the calculus.

Surviving Large Losses provides an original and provocative hypothesis that offers an interpretation of financial reform: historically, one of the most important moving forces behind financial evolution has been the financial crisis. It is a fact that financial crises are virtually inevitable in modern economies ? a source of sleepless nights, if not outright dread, for even the most sophisticated, well-hedged investor. Despite the enormous human costs of financial crises, “they often prove to be turning points in the evolution of financial markets and long-term economic growth” (p. 2). Because crises are followed by searches for culprits and insistent calls for change, they afford politically opportune moments to reform financial institutions. In the U.S., for example, the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, two fundamental building blocks of the twentieth century U.S. banking edifice, emerged as post-crisis reforms. These reforms demonstrate that something new and functional can be built on the ashes of the old and broken.

Although the authors offer a political economy model of post-crisis financial reform, they do not arrive at their conclusions by analyzing historical data ? though they have performed such analyses elsewhere. Instead, they take a decidedly low-tech, narrative approach to appeal to the widest possible audience. After providing a verbal explanation of their political economy model, the authors rely on their extensive historical knowledge of about four centuries of financial crises to support their interpretations.

The substantive chapters of the book open with a fundamental question: Why is it that some states protect savers and investors while others plunder? Every state, no matter how wealthy or democratic is capable of plunder, but those that resist grow over the long term. What increases the probability of plunder is the size of the public debt relative to the state’s ability to service it. Countries with small debts and low taxes relative to GDP are less likely to prey on financial markets (p. 12-13). Countries mired in public debt and with already heavy tax burdens have few politically viable options during a crisis other than default or confiscation. In many societies, preying on the military or a hungry electorate instead of the rentiers is a sure ticket for a short reign (p. 14-15).

In issuing public debt the state plays a critical role at the extremes. At one extreme is the state whose issuance of debt leads to the emergence of debt markets with institutions suitable to and organizations capable of trading private claims. So long as the state restrains itself, an entrepreneurial class gains access to an expanding web of finance with positive consequences for long-term economic development.[3] At the other extreme is the state that piles up enormous debts and pays for them by preying on financial markets. To avoid the predator, investment capital hides or flees with obvious negative consequences for long-term growth.

How do crises matter in this process? Financial markets shrink during a crisis and investors call for change in the aftermath. Whether change occurs, how change is initiated, and who initiates it ? government or private actors ? are issues determined through the interaction of political economy and historical accident. Part of the answer depends on who demands post-crisis change and whether the demands for change are translated into productive and efficient institutions (the preferred outcome) or whether losers use the political system to confiscate from winners however defined (the undesirable outcome) or something in between.

Hoffman, Postel-Vinay and Rosenthal argue that the outcome turns on the behavior of three actors ? the middle class, financial intermediaries, and the government. Casual observers might think that the wealthy would be the driving force behind post-crisis reform. But, as the authors note, it is a broad, relatively egalitarian middle that drives financial development, as well as the political economy of reform. Entrepreneurs tend to emerge from the middle. The middle has collateral. The middle relies on local financial institutions. The middle is most vulnerable to crises.

Although the middle’s favored short-term post-crisis strategy might be a bailout and redistribution, enough members of the group usually recognize that institutional reforms that strengthen the financial system and insulate it from transient shocks are the preferable long-term strategy. A more vibrant, more efficient financial system benefits them directly (diversification) and indirectly (spurring macroeconomic growth). Whether the middle class realizes their calls for reform depends on its size and its political clout relative to the wealthy. Egalitarian societies with a broad middle are most likely to initiate useful reform because the benefits of confiscation are small ? mostly because the middle will be confiscating from itself ? and because the benefits of crisis-averting innovation are large.

Whether the middle succeeds depends on the objectives of the second principal player: financial intermediaries. It is in this arena that a society’s wealthy play an important role. Because the wealthy have (very nearly by definition) large portfolios, they are able to spread the fixed costs of innovative new products across a raft of customized financial products. But once financial intermediaries have designed products for the wealthy, it is only a matter of time before they are made available to consecutively less wealthy investors until they are eventually redesigned to suit the needs of the middle. A recent example of increasing regulatory concern is the growing upper-middle class fascination with hedge funds.

Crises, as Hoffman, Postel-Vinay and Rosenthal note, have many causes, including government predation, herd behavior, asymmetric information, and inadequate diversification. If intermediaries see post-crisis profit opportunities and can expect governmental or legal support for reforms and new products that reduce the negative consequences of information asymmetries (i.e., new reporting requirements imposed by stock exchanges for listing companies) and enhance diversification (i.e., mutual funds), they will push for reform.

Government is the third principal player in the drama. Government differs from private actors because a private actor must realize a profit from any innovation or it will be driven from the market. Governments face no such constraint and can, in fact, impose taxes and other regulatory costs to pursue the changes it deems appropriate. Government has a prominent role in financial markets ? from enforcing contracts to subsidizing deposit insurance to overcoming some types of market failures ? but there is a constant fear of governmental overreach, predation, and the encouragement of rent seeking. Governmental intervention is successful when the net social benefits of a proposed reform outweigh its costs and when the rents created are small relative to the benefits of resolving the market failure (p. 169).

What is the authors’ interpretation of massive state intervention in financial markets in modern Western-style economies? They argue that it was an outgrowth of the bloody and tumultuous twentieth century. Governments intervened on a modern scale during the First World War when national survival seemingly demanded planning boards, rationing and conscription of men and materiel, including middle-class savings. The Great Depression induced a second wave of massive intervention and regulation. The Second World War, post-war reconstruction and the Cold War elicited even greater government intervention. Thus, the period between 1914 and 1990 was one of massive and increasing governmental regulation.

How did the Western-style economies realize their remarkable rates of growth in the twentieth century if financial markets labored under the ever increasing weight of government regulations? The authors argue that these countries “got away with it” because, as the century opened, they already had good institutions in place and governments, while highly regulatory, were rarely predatory. Low-income and low-growth developing countries that copied, or tried to copy, the regulatory structures of the West failed because they did not begin with the same pro-growth institutions.

In the end, then, Surviving Large Losses, while more historically nuanced than the finance-growth and law-and-finance literatures from which it springs leaves us in much the same place. Political economy takes us only so far. A large part of the story of good finance is historical contingency, which makes for a less parsimonious tale than that offered by LLSV and others, but one more satisfying to economic historians. Nevertheless, we are left to wonder how the financial institutions that matter emerge and thrive. The authors’ explanation hangs mostly on the existence of a middle class but that, too, depends on a preexisting set of “good” social, political, economic and governmental institutions. Surviving Large Losses is, therefore, probably best viewed as a low-tech contribution to the literature attempting to unbundle institutions. It is certainly thought provoking and leaves as many questions as answers. Before its interpretations carry the day, however, much more theoretical and empirical work will need to be done. Although the conclusions drawn from many historical episodes will appeal to economic historians and general readers, I suspect that mainstream banking and finance types will withhold judgment until many more formal tests are provided. I look forward to seeing those tests and expect the authors of Surviving to be notable contributors.

Notes: 1. See Ross Levine, “Financial Development and Economic Growth: Views and Agenda,” Journal of Economic Literature 35:2 (June 1997), 688-726 and Ross Levine and Thorsten Beck, “Stock Markets, Banks and Growth: Panel Evidence,” Journal of Banking and Finance 28:3 (March 2004), 423-42; Rafael La Porta, Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes, Andrei Shleifer and Robert W. Vishny, “Law and Finance,” Journal of Political Economy 106:6 (December 1998), 1113-55.

2. Thorsten Beck, Asli Demirguc-Kunt, and Ross Levine, “Law and Finance: Why Does Legal Origin Matter?” Journal of Comparative Economics 31:4 (December 2003), 653-75; and Rafael La Porta, Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes, and Andrei Shleifer, “What Works in Securities Laws,” Journal of Finance 61:1 (February 2006), 1-32.

3. Richard Sylla, “U.S. Securities Markets and the Banking System, 1790-1840,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review 80:3 (May 1998), 83-98 makes the case for the early U.S.

Howard Bodenhorn, professor of economics at Lafayette College and Research Associate at NBER, has written extensively on banking history. Among his recent articles is “Usury Ceilings, Relationships and Bank Lending Behavior: Evidence from the Nineteenth Century,” Explorations in Economic History (2007).

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):18th Century

American Treasure and the Price Revolution in Spain, 1501-1650

Author(s):Hamilton, Earl J.
Reviewer(s):Munro, John

Classic Reviews in Economic History

Earl J. Hamilton, American Treasure and the Price Revolution in Spain, 1501-1650. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934. xii + 428 pp.

Review Essay by John Munro, Department of Economics, University of Toronto.

Hamilton and the Price Revolution: A Revindication of His Tarnished Reputation and of a Modified Quantity Theory

Hamilton and the Quantity Theory Explanation of Inflation

As Duke University’s website for the “Earl J. Hamilton Papers on the Economic History of Spain, 1351-1830” so aptly states: Hamilton “helped to pioneer the field of quantitative economic history during a career that spanned 50 years.”[1]   Certainly his most important publication in this field is the 1934 monograph that is the subject of this “classic review.”  It provided the first set of concrete, reliable annual data on both the imports of gold and silver bullion from Spain’s American colonies — principally from what is now Bolivia (Vice Royalty of Peru) and Mexico (New Spain) — from 1503 to 1660 (when bullion registration and thus the accounts cease); and on prices (including wages) in Spain (Old and New Castile, Andalusia, Valencia), for the 150 year period from 1501 to 1650.[2]  His object was to validate the Quantity Theory of Money: in seeking to demonstrate that the influx of American silver was chiefly, if not entirely, responsible for the inflation of much of the Price Revolution era, from ca.  1520 to ca. 1650: but, principally only for the specific period of ca. 1540 to ca. 1600.  Many economic historians (myself included, regrettably) have misunderstood Hamilton on this point, concerning both the origins and conclusion of the Price Revolution.  Of course the Quantity Theory of Money, even in its more refined modern guise, is no longer a fashionable tool in economic history; and thus only a minority of us today espouse a basically monetary explanation for the European Price Revolution (ca. 1515/20-1650) — though no such explanation can be purely monetary.[3]

If inflations had been frequent in European economic history, from the twelfth century to the present, the Price Revolution was unique in the persistence and duration of inflation over a period of at least 130 years.[4]  Furthermore, if commodity money — i.e., gold and especially silver specie — was not the sole monetary factor that explains the Price Revolution that commodity money certainly played a relatively much greater role than it did in the subsequent inflations (of much shorter duration) from the mid-eighteenth century to the present.  The role of specie, and specifically Spanish-American silver, in “causing” the Price Revolution was a commonplace in Classical Economics and Hamilton cites Adam Smith’s statement in _The Wealth of Nations_ (p. 191) that “the discovery of abundant mines of America seems to have been the sole cause of this diminution in the value of silver in proportion to that of corn [grain].”[5]

 The Comparative Roles of Spanish-American Silver and Coinage Debasements: The Bodin Thesis

According to Hamilton (p. 283) — and indeed to most authorities to this very day — the very first scholar to make this quantity-theory link between the influx of American “treasure” and the Price Revolution was the renowned French philosopher Jean Bodin, in his 1568 response to a 1566 treatise by the royal councilor Jean Cherruyt de Malestroit on the explanations for the then quite evident rise in French prices over the previous several decades.  Malestroit had contended that coinage debasements were the chief culprit — as indeed they most certainly had been in the periodic inflations of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.[6] Bodin responded by dismissing those arguments and by contending that the growing influx of silver from the Spanish Americas was the primary cause of that inflation.[7]

Hamilton (in chapter 13) was therefore astounded to find, after voluminous and meticulous research in many Spanish treatises, letters, and other relevant documents, that no Spanish writer of the sixteenth century had voiced similar opinions, all evidently ignorant of Bodin’s views.  Hamilton, however, had neglected to find (as Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson did, much later) one such Spanish treatise, produced in 1556 — i.e., twelve years before Bodin — in which Azpilcueta Navarra, a cleric of the Salamanca School, noted that:  “even in Spain, in times when money was scarcer, saleable goods and labor were given for very much less than after the discovery of the Indies, which flooded the country with gold and silver.”[8]

Hamilton also erred, if forgivably so, in two other respects.  First, in utilizing what were then, and in many cases still are, imperfect price indexes for many countries — France, England, Germany, Italy (but not for the Low Countries) — Hamilton (1934, pp. 205-10) concluded that the rise in the general level of prices during the Price Revolution was the greatest in Spain.  In fact, more recent research, based on the Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1956) Composite Price Index for England and the Van der Wee (1975) Composite Price Index (hereafter: CPI) for Brabant, in the southern Low Countries,  reveals the opposite to be true.  If we adopt a common base of 1501-10 = 100, in comparing the behavior of the price levels in Spain, England, and Brabant, for the period 1511-1650, we find that the Hamilton’s CPI for Spain rose from a quinquennial mean of 98.98 in 1511-15 to one of 343.36 in 1646-50 (for silver-based prices only: a 3.47 fold rise); in southern England, the CPI rose from a quinquennial mean of 103.08 in 1511-15 to one of 697.54 (a 6.77 fold rise); and in Brabant, the CPI rose from a quinquennial mean of 114.80 in 1511-15 to one of 845.07 (a 7.36 fold rise).[9] Both the Phelps Brown and Hopkins and the Van der Wee price indexes are, it must be noted, weighted, with roughly the same weights (80 percent foodstuffs in the former and 74 percent in the latter).  Hamilton, while fully admitting that “only index numbers weighted according to the expenditures of the average family accurately measure changes in the cost of living,” was forced to use a simple unweighted arithmetic mean (or equally weighted for all commodities), for he was unable to find any household expenditure budgets or any other reliable guides to produce such a weighted index.[10]

Undoubtedly, however, the principal if not the only explanation for the differences between the three sets of price indexes — to explain why the Spanish rose the least and the Brabantine the most — is the one offered by Malestroit: namely, coinage debasements.  Spain, unlike almost all other European countries of this era, underwent no debasements of the gold and silver coinages (none from 1497 to 1686),[11] but in 1599 the new Spanish king Philip III (1598-1621) did introduce a purely copper “vellon” coinage, a topic that requires a separate and very necessary analysis.  The England of Henry VIII (1509-1547) is famous — or infamous — for his “Great Debasement.”  He had begun modestly in 1526, by debasing Edward IV’s silver coinage by 11.11% (reducing its weight and silver contents from 0.719 to 0.639 grams of fine silver); but in 1542, he debased the silver by another 23.14% (to 0.491 grams of fine silver).  When the Great Debasement had reached its nadir under his successor (Northumberland, regent for Edward VI), in June 1553, the fine silver contents of the penny had been reduced (in both weight and fineness) to just 0.108 grams of fine silver: an overall reduction in the silver content of 83.1% from the 1526 coinage.  In November 1560, Elizabeth restored the silver coinage to traditional sterling fineness (92.5% fine silver) and much of the weight: so that the penny now contained 0.480 grams of fine silver (i.e., 75.1% of the silver in the 1526 coinage).  The English silver coinage remained untouched until July 1601, when its weight and fine silver contents were reduced by a modest 3.23%.  Thereafter the English silver coinage remained untouched until 1817 (when the silver contents were reduced by another 6.06%).  Thus for the entire period of the Price Revolution, from ca. 1520 to 1650, the English silver coinage lost 35.5% of its silver contents.[12] In the southern Low Countries (including Brabant), the silver coinage was debased — in both fineness and weight — a total of twelve times from 1521 to 1644: from 0.33 grams to 0.17 grams of fine silver in the penny, for an overall loss of 48.5%.[13]

 A New Form of Debasement: The New “Fractional” Copper or _Vellon_ Coinages in Spain and Elsewhere

In terms of the general theme of coinage debasement, a very major difference between Spain and these other two countries, from 1599, was the issue of a purely copper coinage called _vellon_, to which Hamilton devotes two major chapters.[14]  Virtually all countries in late medieval and early modern Europe issued a series of petty or low-denomination “fractional” coins — in various fractions of the penny, chiefly to enable the populace to buy such low-priced commodities as bread and beer (or wine).  But in all later-medieval countries the issues of the petty, fractional coinage almost always accounted for a very small proportion of total mint outputs (well under 5% of the aggregate value in Flanders).[15] They were commonly known as _monnaie noire_ (_zwart geld_ in Flemish): i.e., black money, because they contained so much copper, a base metal.  Indeed all coins– both silver and gold — always required at least some copper content as a hardening agent, so that the coins did not suffer too much erosion or breakage in circulation.

The term “debasement” is in fact derived from the fact that the most common mechanism for reducing the silver contents of a coin had been to replace it with more and more copper, a great temptation for so many princes who often derived substantial seigniorage revenues from the increased mint outputs that debasements induced (in both reminting current coin and in attracting bullion from abroad).  In this respect, England was an exception — apart from the era of the Great Debasement (1542-1553) — for its government virtually always maintained sterling silver fineness (92.5% silver, 7.5% copper), and reduced the silver contents for all denominations equally, by reducing the size and weight of the coin.  In continental Europe, the extent of the debasement, whether by fineness or by weight, or by both together, did vary by the denomination (to compensate for the greater labor costs in minting the greater number of lower-valued coins); but the petty “black money” coins — also known (in French) as _billon_, linguistically related to _vellon_, always contained some silver, and always suffered the same or roughly similar proportional reduction of silver as other denominations during debasements until 1543.  In that year, the government of the Habsburg Netherlands was the first to break that link: in issuing Europe’s first all-copper coin.  France followed suit with an all copper _denier_ (1 d tournois) in 1577; but England did not do so until 1672.[16]

Hamilton gives the erroneous impression that Spain (i.e., Castile) was the first to do so, in issuing an all copper _vellon_ coin in 1599.  Previously, Spanish kings (at least from 1471) had issued a largely copper fractional coinage called _blancas_ , with a nominal money-of-account value of 0.5 maravedí, but with a very small amount of silver — to convince the public that it was indeed precious-metal “money.”  The _blanca_ issued in 1471 had a silver fineness of 10 grains or 3.47% (weighing 1.107g).[17] In 1497, that fineness was reduced to 7 grains (2.43% fine); in 1552, to 5.5 grains (1.909% fine); in 1566, to 4 grains (1.39% fine).  In 1597, Philip II (1556-1598) had agreed to the issue of a maravedí coin itself, with, however, only 1 grain of silver (0.34% fine), weighing 1.576g.; but whether any were issued is not clear.[18]

Hamilton commends Philip II on his resolute stance on the issue _vellon_ coinages: for, in “believing that it could be maintained at parity only by limitation of its quantity to that required for change and petty transactions, he was exceedingly careful to restrict the supply.”[19] That is a very prescient comment, in almost exactly stating the principle of maintaining a sound system of fractional or petty coinage that Carlo Cipolla (1956) later enunciated,[20] in turn inspiring the recent monograph on this subject by Sargent and Velde (2002).[21] But neither of them gave Hamilton (1934) any credit for this fundamentally important observation, one whose great importance Hamilton deduced from the subsequent, seventeenth-century history of copper coinages in Spain.

Thus, as indicated earlier, in the year following the accession of the aforementioned Philip III, 1599, the government issued Spain’s first purely copper coin (minted at 140 per copper _marc_ of 230.047 g), and from 1602 at 280 per marc: i.e., reducing the weight by half from 1.643 g to 0.8216 g).[22] Certainly some of the ensuing inflation in seventeenth-century Spain, with a widening gap between nominal and silver-based prices, ranging from 4.0 percent in 1620 to 104.2 percent in 1650, has to be explained by such issues of a purely copper coinage.  Indeed, in Hamilton’s very pronounced view, the principal cause of inflation in the first half of the seventeenth century lay in such _vellon_ issues — more of a culprit than the continuing influx of Spanish American silver.[23]

If, however, we use Hamilton’s own CPI based on the actual nominal prices produced with the circulation of the _vellon_ copper coinage, from 1599-1600, we find that this index rose only 4.61 fold from the quinquennial mean of 1511-15 (98.98) to the mean of 1646-50 (457.07) — again well less than the overall rise of the English and Brabant composite price indexes.  Nevertheless, the differences between the silver-based and vellon-based price indexes in Spain for the first half of the seventeenth century are significant.  For the former (silver), the CPI rose from a mean of 320.98 in 1596-1600 to one of 343.36 in 1646-50, an overall rise of just 6.97%.  For the latter (vellon-based) index, the CPI rose to 457.09 in 1646-50, for a very substantial overall rise of 41.41%.  What certainly did now differentiate Spain from the other two, and indeed almost all other European countries in this period, is that in all the latter countries the purely copper petty coinage formed such a very much smaller, indeed minuscule, proportion of the total coined money supply.[24]

 The Evidence on Spanish-American Silver Mining and Silver Imports into Seville to 1600

What this discussion of the _vellon_ coinage makes crystal clear is that Hamilton did not attribute all of the inflation of the Price Revolution era to the “abundant mines of the Americas.”  Nevertheless many economic historians, after carefully examining Hamilton’s data on prices and imports of Spanish American bullion, noted — as Hamilton himself clearly demonstrated — that the Price Revolution had begun as early as the quinquennium 1516-20, long before, decades before, any significant amounts of Spanish American silver had reached Seville.  Virtually none was imported in the 1520s; and an annual mean of only 5,090.8 kg in 1531-35.[25]   The really substantial imports took place only after by far the two most important silver mines were brought into production: those of Potosi in “Peru” (modern-day Bolivia) in 1545, and Zacatecas, in Mexico, the following year, 1546.  From that quinquennium of 1546-50, mean annual silver imports into Seville rose from 18,698.8 kg to 273,704.5 kg in the quinquennium of 1591-95, marking the peak of the silver imports.  Between these two quinquennia, the total mined silver outputs of Potosi and Zacatecas (unknown to Hamilton) rose from an annual mean of 64,848.9 kg to one of 219,457.4 kg (indicating that silver was coming from other sources than just these two mines).[26] Even then, their production began to boom only with the application of the mercury amalgamation process (which Hamilton barely mentioned — only on p. 16), greatly aided by abundant local supplies of mercury — at Zacatecas, from about 1554-57, and at Potosi, from 1572.[27]

 The Alternative Explanation for the Price Revolution: Population Growth

If all this evidence does indeed prove that the influx of Spanish silver was certainly not the initial cause of the European Price Revolution, surely the data should indicate that the subsequent influx of that silver, especially from the 1550s, very likely did play a significant role in fueling an ongoing inflation. But so many of the anti-monetarist historians leapt to an alternative — and in my view — false conclusion that population growth was the initial and the prime-mover in “causing” the Price Revolution.[28] My objections to this demographic-oriented thesis are two-fold.

In the first place, the now available evidence on demographic recovery and growth in England and the southern Low Countries (Brabant) does not at all correspond to the statistical evidence on inflation during the early phase of the Price Revolution — in the early sixteenth century. For England the best estimate of population in the early 1520s, when the Price Revolution was already underway, is 2.25 or 2.30 million, about half of the most conservative estimate for England’s population in 1300: about 4.5 million — an estimate still rejected by the majority of medieval economic historians, who prefer the more traditional estimate of 6.0 million.[29] If England in the early 1520s was obviously still very unpopulated, compared to its late-medieval peak, and if its population had just begun to recover, how could any such renewed growth, from such a very low level, have so immediately sparked inflation: how could it have caused a rise in the CPI (Phelps Brown and Hopkins) from a quinquennial mean of 96.70 (1451-75 = 100) in 1496-1500 to one of 146.05 in 1521-25?

We find a similar demographic situation in Brabant.  From the 1437 census to the 1496 census, the number of registered households fell from 92,738 to just 75,343: a fall of 18.76 percent.[30] If we further assume that a fall in population also involved a decline in the average family or household size, the demographic decline would have been much greater than these data indicate.  According to Herman Van der Wee (1963), Brabant, like England, did not commence its demographic recovery until the early sixteenth century; and his estimated average annual rate of population growth from 1496 to 1526 was 0.96%.[31]  For this same period, Van der Wee’s CPI for Brabant shows a rise from 115.35 in 1496-1500 (again 1451-75 = 100) to one of 179.94 in 1521-25.  How can any such renewed population growth explain that inflation?

In the second place, the arguments and analyses supplied involve faulty economics: an erroneous transfer of micro-economic analysis to macro-economics.  One can well argue, for early-modern western Europe, that the effect of sustained population growth for the agrarian sector, with necessary additions of “marginal lands” that were generally inferior in fertility and more distant from markets, and without a widespread diffusion of technological changes to offset diminishing returns in this sector, inevitably led to sharply rising marginal costs.  That in turn resulted in price increases for grains and other agricultural commodities (including timber) that were greater than those for non-agrarian and especially industrial commodities, certainly in both England and the southern Low Countries during the course of the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth century.[32]  But that basically micro-economic model concerning individual, relative commodity prices is, however, very different from a macro-economic model contending that population growth by itself led to an overall increase in the level of prices — i.e., in the CPI.

We should remember that, almost 35 years ago, Donald McCloskey (1972), in a review of Ramsey (1971), responded to these demographic-oriented explanations of the Price Revolution by contending that, if both monetary variables (M and V) were held constant, then population growth (if translated into an increased T or y, in MV = Py) should have led to a fall in P, in the CPI.  Nevertheless, there is some validity to the argument that population growth and changes in the demographic structures may have influenced the role of another monetary factor in the Price Revolution: namely changes in the income velocity of money, to be discussed as a separate topic later in this review.

 Hamilton’s Explanations for the Origins of the Price Revolution before the Influx of Spanish Treasure: The Roles of Gold, South German Silver Mining, and Changes in Credit

How then did Hamilton — and how do we — explain the origins of the Spanish and indeed European-wide Price Revolution,  in the early sixteenth century, i.e., for the period well before any significant influxes of American silver, and also before there was any significant population growth (at least in England and the Low Countries).  Was Hamilton that ignorant of the implications of his own data?  Certainly not.  On p. 299, in his chapter XIII entitled “Why Prices Rose,” he stated that: “the gold imports from the Antilles significantly influenced Andalusian and New Castilian prices even in the first two decades of the sixteenth century,” without, however, elaborating that point any further.[33]  More important are his observations on p. 301, where he explicitly moderates his emphasis on the role of Spanish-American treasure imports, in stating that:  “Only at the beginning of  the sixteenth century, when, as has been shown, colonial demand, credit expansion, and the increased output of German silver made themselves felt, and at the end of the century, when a devastating epidemic, and an over issue of vellon coinage took place, did other factors play important roles in the price upheaval [i.e., the Price Revolution].”  Indeed, in his own view, the paramount role of the influxes of Spanish-American bullion apply to only, at most, 65 years of the 130 years of the Price Revolution era, i.e., to just half the era — from ca. 1535 to 1600, though the evidence for that role seems to be more clear for just the half-century 1550-1600.

It is most regrettable that Hamilton himself failed to elaborate the role of any these factors, principally monetary, in producing inflation in early-sixteenth century Spain.  Had he done so, surely he would have been spared the subsequent and really unfair criticism that he was offering a simplistic monocausal explanation of the Price Revolution, and one in the form of a very crude Quantity Theory of Money.  The most important of “initial causes” that Hamilton lists was surely the question of “German silver,” or more specifically, the South-German and Central European silver-copper mining boom from about the 1460s to the 1540s.  Where he derived his information is not clear, but from other footnotes it was presumably from the publications of two much earlier German economic historians, Adolf Soetbeer and Georg Wiebe.  The latter was, in fact, the first to write a major monograph on the Price Revolution (_Geschichte der Preisrevolution des XVI.  und XVII.  Jahrhunderts_), and he seems to have coined (so to speak) the term.[34]  The former, though a pioneer in trying to quantity both European and world supplies of precious metals, providing a significant influence on Wiebe,  produced seriously defective data on German mining outputs in the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, greatly underestimating total outputs, as  John Nef demonstrated in a seminal article published in 1941, subsequently elaborated in Nef (1952).[35] In Nef’s view, this South German mining boom may have quintupled Europe’s supply of silver by the 1530s, and thus before any major influx of Spanish-American silver.[36]

Since then a number of economic historians, me included, have published their research on this South German-Central European silver-copper mining boom.[37] These mountainous regions contained immensely rich ores bearing these two metals, which, however were largely inaccessible for two reasons: first, there was no known method of separating the two metals in smelting the argentiferous-cupric ores; and second, the ever-present danger of flooding in the regions containing these ore bodies made mined extraction very difficult and costly.  In my view, the very serious deflation that Europe experienced during the second of the so-called “bullion famines,” from the 1440s to the 1460s, provided the profit incentive for the necessary technological changes to resolve these two problems.  Consider that since virtually all of Europe’s money-of-account pricing system was based on, tied to, the silver coinage, deflation (low prices) _ipso facto_ meant a corresponding rise in the real value of silver, gram per gram (just as inflation means a fall in the real value of silver, per gram).  The solutions lay in innovations in both mechanical engineering and chemical engineering.  The first was the development of water-powered or horse-powered piston vacuum pumps (along with slanted drainage adits in the mountain sides) to resolve the water-flooding problem.  The second was the so-called _Saigerhütten_ process by which lead was added to the ore-bodies in smelting (also using hydraulic machinery and the new blast furnaces) — during the smelting process the lead combined with the silver to precipitate the copper, and the silver-lead amalgam was then resmelted to remove the lead.

Both processes were certainly in operation by the 1460s; and by my very conservative estimates, certainly incomplete, the combined outputs of mines in Saxony, Thuringia, Bohemia, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Tyrol rose from a quinquennial mean of 12,973.4 kg in 1471-75 (when adequate output data can first be utilized) to a peak production in 1536-40 (thus later than Nef’s estimates), with a quinquennial mean output of 55,703.8 kg — a  4.29-fold increase overall (i.e.. 329.36% increase) — close enough to Nef’s five-fold estimate, given the likely lacunae in the data.[38]  Consider that this output, for the late 1530s, was not exceeded by Spanish-American silver influxes until a quarter of a century later, in 1561-65, when, thanks to the recently applied mercury amalgamation process, a quinquennial mean import of 83,373.92 kg reached Seville (compared to a mean import of just 27,145.03 in 1556-60).[39]

But where did all this Central European silver go?  Historically, from the mid-fourteenth century, most of the German silver-mining outputs had been sent to Venice, whose merchants re-exported most of that silver to the Levant, in exchange for Syrian cotton and Asian spices and other luxury goods.  Two separate factors helped to reverse the direction of that flow, down the Rhine, to Antwerp and the Brabant Fairs.  The first was Burgundian monetary policy: debasements in 1466-67, which, besides attracting silver in itself, reversed a half-century long pro-gold mint policy to a pro-silver policy, offering a relative value for silver (in gold and in goods) higher than anywhere else in Europe.[40] Thus the combined Flemish and Brabantine mint outputs, measured in kilograms of fine silver rose from nil (0) in 1461-65 to 9,341.50 kg in 1476-80 — though much of that was recycled silver coin and bullion in quite severe debasements.  But in 1496-1500, after the debasements had ceased, the mean annual output in that quinquennium was 4,872.96 kg; and in 1536-40, at the peak of the mining boom (and, again, before any substantial Spanish-American imports) the mean output was 5,364.99 kg.[41]

The second factor in altering the silver flows was increasingly severe disruptions in Venice’s Levant trade with the now major Ottoman conquests in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean, from the 1460s (and especially from the mid-1480s) culminating (if not ending) with the Turkish conquest of the Mamluk Levant (i.e., Egypt, Palestine, Syria) itself in 1517 (along with conquests in Arabia and the western Indian Ocean). While we have no data on silver flows, we do have data for the joint-product of the Central European mining boom — copper, a very important export as well to the Levant.  In 1491-95, 32.13% of the Central European mined copper outputs went to Venice, but only 5.22% went to Antwerp; by 1511-15, the situation was almost totally reversed: only 3.64% of the mined copper went to Venice, while 58.36% was sent to Antwerp.  May we conjecture that there was a related shift in the flows of silver?  By the 1530s, the copper flows to Venice, which now had more peaceful relations with the Turks, had risen to 11.07%, but 53.88% of the copper was still being sent to the Antwerp Fairs.[42]  Of course, by this time the Portuguese, having made Antwerp the European staple for their recently acquired Indian Ocean spice trade (1501), were shipping significant (if unmeasurable) quantities of both copper and silver to the East Indies.  Then in 1549, the Portuguese moved their staple to Seville, to gain access to the now growing imports of Spanish-American silver.

 The Early Sixteenth-century “Financial Revolutions”: In Private and Public Credit

The other monetary factor that Hamilton mentioned — but never discussed — to help explain the rise of prices in early sixteenth-century Spain was the role of credit.  Indeed, as Herman Van der Wee (1963, 1967, 1977, 2000) and others have now demonstrated, the Spanish Habsburg Netherlands experienced a veritable financial revolution involving both negotiability and organized markets for public debt instruments.  As for the first, the lack of legal and institutional mechanisms to make medieval credit instruments fully negotiable had hindered their ability to counteract frequent deflationary forces; and at best, such credit instruments (such as the bill of exchange) could act only to increase — or decrease — the income velocity of money.[43] The first of two major institutional barriers was the refusal of courts to recognize the legal rights of the “bearer” to collect the full proceeds of a commercial bill on its stipulated redemption date: i.e., the financial and legally enforceable rights of those who had purchased or otherwise licitly acquired a commercial bill from the designated payee before that redemption date.  Indeed, most medieval courts were reluctant to recognize the validity of any “holograph” bill: those that not been officially notarized and registered with civic authorities.  The second barrier was the Church’s usury doctrine: for, any sale and transfer  of a credit instrument to a third party before the stipulated redemption date would obviously have had to be at some rate of discount — and that would have revealed an implicit interest payment in the transaction. Thus this financial revolution, in the realm of private credit, in the Low Countries involved the role of urban law courts (law-merchant courts), beginning with Antwerp in 1507, then most of other Netherlander towns, in guaranteeing such rights of third parties to whom these bills were sold or transferred.  Finally, in the years 1539-1543, the Estates General of the Habsburg Netherlands firmly established, with national legislation, all of the legal requirements for full-fledged negotiability (as opposed to mere transferability) of all credit instruments: to protect the rights of third parties in transferable bills, so that bills obligatory and bills of exchange could circulate from hand to hand, amongst merchants, in commercial and financial transactions.  One of the important acts of the Estates-General, in 1543 — possibly reflecting the growing influence of Calvinism — boldly rejected the long-held usury doctrine by legalizing the payment of interest, up to a maximum of 12% (so that anything above that was now “usury”).[44]  England’s Protestant Parliament, under Henry VIII, followed suit two years later, in 1545, though with a legal maximum interest of 10%.[45] That provision thereby permitted the openly public discounting of commercial credit instruments, though this financial innovation was slow to spread, until accompanied, by the end of the sixteenth century, with the much more common device of written endorsements.[46]

The other major component of the early-sixteenth century “financial revolution” lay in public finance, principally in the Spanish Habsburg Netherlands, France, much of Imperial Germany, and Spain itself — in the now growing shift from interest-bearing government loans to the sale of annuities, generally known as _rentes_ or _renten_ or (in Spain) _juros_, especially after several fifteenth-century papal bulls had firmly established, once and for all, that they were not loans (a _mutuum_, in both Roman and canon law), and thus not subject to the usury ban.[47] Those who bought such _rentes_ or annuities from local, territorial, or national governments purchased an annual stream of income, either for a lifetime, or in perpetuity; and the purchaser could reclaim his capital only by finding some third party to purchase from him the _rente_ and the attached annuity income.  That, therefore, also required both the full legal and institutional establishment of negotiability, with now organized financial markets.

In 1531, Antwerp, now indisputably the commercial and financial capital of at least northern Europe, provided such an institution with the establishment of its financial exchange, commonly known as the _beurse_ (the “purse” — copied by Amsterdam in 1608, and London in 1695, in its Stock Exchange).  Thanks to the role of the South German merchant-bankers — the Fuggers, Welsers, Höchstetters, Herwarts, Imhofs, and Tuchers — the Antwerp _beurse_ played a major role in the international marketing of such government securities, during the rest of the sixteenth century, in particular the Spanish _juros_, whose issue expanded from 3.586 million ducats (_escudos_ of 375 maravedís) in 1516 to 80.040 million ducats in 1598, at the death of Philip II — a 22.4-fold increase.  Most these perpetual and fully negotiable _juros_ were held abroad.[48] According to Herman Van der Wee (1977), this sixteenth-century “age of the Fuggers and [then] of the Genoese [merchant-bankers, who replaced the Germans] was one of spectacular growth in public finances.”[49] Finally, it is important to note the relationship between changes in money stocks and issues of credit.  For, as Frank Spooner (1972) observed (and documented in his study of European money and prices in the sixteenth century), even anticipated arrivals of Spanish treasure fleets would induce these South German and Genoese merchant-bankers to expand credit issues by some multiples of the perceived bullion values.[50]

 The Debate about Changes in the Income Velocity of Money (or Cambridge “k”)

The combined effect of this “revolution” in both private and public finance was to increase both the effective supply of money — in so far as these negotiable credit instruments circulated widely,  as though they were paper money — and also, and even more so, the income velocity of money.  This latter concept brings up two very important issues, one involving Hamilton’s book itself, in particular his interpretation of the causes of the Price Revolution.  Most postwar (World War II) economic historians, myself included (up to now, in writing this review), have unfairly regarded Hamilton’s thesis as a very crude, simplistic version of the Quantity Theory of Money.  That was based on a careless reading (mea culpa!) of pp. 301-03 in his Chapter XIII on “Why Prices Rose,” wherein he stated, first, in explaining the purpose his Chart 20,[51] that:

The extremely close correlation between the increase in the volume of [Spanish-American] treasure imports and the advance of commodity prices throughout the sixteenth century, particularly from 1535 on, demonstrates beyond question that the “abundant mines of America” [i.e., Adam Smith’s description] were the principal cause of the Price Revolution in Spain.

We should note, first, that the “close correlation” is only a visual image from the graph, for he never computed any mathematical correlations (few did in that prewar era).  Second, Ingrid Hammarström was perfectly correct in noting that Hamilton’s correlation between the _annual_ values of treasure imports (gold and silver in pesos of 450 marevedis) and the composite price index is not in accordance with the quantity theory, which seeks to establish a relationship between aggregates: i.e., the total accumulated stock of money (M) and the price level (P).[52]  But that would have been an impossible task for Hamilton.  For, if he had added up the annual increments from bullion exports in order to arrive at some estimate of accumulated bullion stocks, he would have had to deduct from that estimate the annual outflows of bullion, for which there are absolutely no data.  Furthermore, estimates of net (remaining) bullion stocks are not the same as estimates of the coined money stock; and the coined money stock does not represent the total supply of money.[53]

Third, concerning Hamilton’s views on the Quantity Theory itself, his important monetary qualifications concerning the early sixteenth century and first half of the seventeenth century have already been noted.  We should now note his further and very important qualification (p. 301), as follows: “The reader should bear in mind that a graphic verification of that crude form of the quantity theory of money which takes no account of the velocity of circulation is not the purpose of Chart 20.”  He did not, however, discuss this issue any further; and it is notable that his bibliography does not list Irving Fisher’s classic 1911 monograph, which had thoroughly analyzed his own concepts of the Transactions Velocity of Money.[54]

Most economics students are familiar with Fisher’s Equation of Exchange, to explain the Quantity Theory of Money in a much better fashion than nineteenth-century Classical Economists had done: namely, MV = PT.   If many continue to debate the definition of M, as high-powered money, and of P — i.e., on how to construct a valid weighted CPI — the most troublesome aspect is the completely amorphous and unmeasurable “T” — as the aggregate volume of total transactions in the economy in a given year.  Many have replaced T with Q: the total volume of goods and services produced each year.  But the best substitute for T is “y” (lower case Y: a version attributed to Milton Friedman) — i.e., a deflated measure of Keynesian Y, as the Net National Product = Net National Income (by definition).[55]

The variable “V” thus becomes the income velocity of money (rather than Fisher’s Transactions Velocity) — of the unit of money in the creation of the net national income in the course of a year.   It is obviously derived mathematically by this equation: V = Py/M (and Py of course equals the current nominal value of NNI).  Almost entirely eschewed by students (my students, at least), but much preferred by most economists, is the Cambridge Cash Balances equation: whose modernized form would similarly be M = kPy, in which Cambridge “k” represents that share of the value of Net National Income that the public chooses to hold in real cash balances, i.e., in high-powered money (a straight tautology, as is the Fisher Equation).  We should be reminded that both V and k are mathematically linked reciprocals in that: V = 1/k and thus k = 1/V.  Keynesian economists would logically (and I think, rightly) contend that _ceteris paribus_ an increase in the supply of money should lead to a reduction in V and thus to an increase in Cambridge “k.”  If V represents the extent to which society collectively seeks to economize on the use of money, the necessity to do so would diminish if the money supply rises (indeed, to create an “excess”).  But this result and concept is all the more clear in the Cambridge Cash Balances approach.  For the opportunity cost of “k” — of holding cash balances — is to forgo the potential income from its alternative use, i.e., by investing those funds.  If we assume that the Liquidity Preference Schedule is (in the short run) fixed — in terms of the transactions, precautionary, and speculative motives for holding money — then a rightward shift of the Money Supply schedule along the fixed or stationary LP schedule should have led to a fall in the real rate of interest, and thus in the opportunity cost of holding cash balances.  And if that were so, then “k” should rise (exactly reflecting the fall in V).

 What makes this theory so interesting for the interpretation of the causes of at least  the subsequent inflations of the Price Revolution — say from the 1550s or 1560s — is that several very prominent economic historians have argued that  an equally or even more powerful force for inflation was a continuing rise in V, the income velocity of money (i.e., and thus to a fall in “k”): in particular, Harry Miskimin (1975), Jack Goldstone (1984, 1991a, 1991b), and Peter Lindert (1985).  Furthermore, all three have related this role of “V” to structural changes in the economy brought about by population growth.  Their theories are too complex to be discussed here, but the most intriguing, in summary, is Goldstone’s thesis.  He contended, in referring to sixteenth-century England, that its population growth was accompanied by a highly disproportionate growth in urbanization, a rapid and extensive development of commercialized agriculture, urban markets, and an explosive growth in the use of credit instruments.  In such a situation, with a rapid growth “in occupationally specialized linked networks, the potential velocity of circulation of coins grows as the square of the size of the network.”  Lindert’s somewhat simpler view is that demographic growth was also accompanied by a two-fold set of changes: (1) changes in relative prices — in the aforementioned steep rise in agricultural prices, rising not only above industrial prices, but above nominal wages, thus creating severe household budget constraints; and (2) in pyramidal age structures, and thus with changes in dependency ratios (between adult producers and dependent children) that necessitated both dishoarding and a rapid reduction in Cambridge “k” ( = rise in V).

Those arguments and the apparent contradiction with traditional Keynesian theory on the relationships between M and V (or Cambridge “k”) intrigued and inspired Nicholas Mayhew (1995), a renowned British medieval and early-modern monetary historian, to investigate these propositions over a much longer period of time: from 1300 to 1700.[56]  He found that in all periods of monetary expansion during these four centuries, the Keynesian interpretation of changes in V or “k” held true, with one singular anomalous exception: the sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Price Revolution.  That anomaly may (or may not) be explained by the various arguments set forth by Miskimin, Goldstone, and Lindert.

The Debates about the Spanish and European Distributions of Spanish American “Treasure” and the Monetary Approach to the Balance of Payments Theorem

We may now return to Hamilton’s own considerations about the complex relationships between the influx of Spanish-American silver and its distribution in terms of various factors influencing (at least implicitly) the “V” and “y” variables, in turn influencing changes in P (the CPI).  He contends first (pp. 301-02) that “the increase in the world stock of precious metals during the sixteenth century was probably more than twice — possibly as much as four times — as great as the advance of prices” in Spain.  He speculates, first, that some proportion of this influx was hoarded or converted, not just by the Church, in ecclesiastical artifacts, but also by the Spanish nobility (thus leading to a rise in “k”), while a significantly increasing proportion was exported in trade with Asia, though mentioning only the role of the English East India Company (from 1600), surprisingly ignoring the even more prominent contemporary role of the Dutch, and the much earlier role of the Portuguese (from 1501, though the latter used  principally South German silver).  We now estimate that of the total value of European purchases made in Asia in late-medieval and early modern eras, about 65-70 percent were paid for in bullion and thus only 25-30 percent from the sale of European merchandise in Asia.[57]  Finally, Hamilton also fairly speculated that “the enhanced production and exchange of goods which accompanied the growth of population, the substitution of monetary payments for produce rents [in kind] … and the shift from wages wholly or partially in kind to monetary remunerations for services, and the decrease of barter tended to counteract the rapid augmentation of gold and silver money:”  i.e., a combination of interacting factors that affected both Cambridge “k” and Friedman’s “y.”  Clearly Hamilton was no simplistic proponent of a crude Quantity Theory of Money.

From my own studies of monetary and price history over the past four decades, I offer these observations, in terms of the modernized version of Fisher’s Equation of Exchange, for the history of European prices from ca. 1100 to 1914.   An increase in M virtually always resulted in some degree of inflation, but one that was usually offset by some reduction in V (increase in “ k”) and by some increase in y, especially if and when lower interest rates promoted increased investment.[58]  Thus the inflationary consequences of increasing the money supply are historically indeterminate, though usually the price rise was, for these reasons, less than proportional to the increase in the monetary stock, except when excessively severe debasements created a veritable “flight from coinage,” when coined money was exchanged for durable goods (i.e., another instance in which an increase in M was accompanied by an increase in V).[59]

One of the major issues related to this debate about the Price Revolution is the extent to which the Spanish-American silver that flowed into Spain soon flowed out to other parts of Europe (i.e., apart from the aggregate European bullion exports to Asia and Russia).  There is little mystery in explaining how that outflow took place.  Spain, under both Charles V (I of Spain) and Philip II, ruled a vast, far-flung empire: including not only the American colonies and the Philippines, but also the entire Low Countries, and major parts of Germany and Italy, and then Portugal and its colonies from 1580 to 1640.  Maintaining and defending such a vast empire inevitably led to war, almost continuous war, with Spain’s neighbors, especially France.  Then, in 1568, most of  the Low Countries (Habsburg Netherlands) revolted against Spanish rule, a revolt that (despite a truce from 1609 to 1621) merged into the Thirty Years War (1618-48), finally resolved by the Treaty of Westphalia.  As Hamilton himself suggests (but without offering any corroborative evidence — nor can I), vast quantities of silver (and gold) thus undoubtedly flowed from Spain into the various military theaters, in payment for wages, munitions, supplies, and diplomacy, while the German and then Genoese bankers presumably received considerable quantities of bullion (or goods so purchased) in repayment of loans.[60]  Other factors that Hamilton suggested were: adverse trade balances, or simply expanding imports, especially from Italy and the Low Countries (with an increased marginal propensity to import); and operations of divergent bimetallic mint ratios.  What role piracy and smuggling actually played in this international diffusion of precious metals cannot be ascertained.[61]

But Outhwaite (1969, 1982), in analyzing the monetary factors that might explain the Price Revolution in Tudor and early Stuart England, asserted (again with no evidence) that: “Spanish silver … appears to have played little or no part before 1630 and a very limited one thereafter.”[62]  That statement, however, is simply untrue.  For, as Challis (1975) has demonstrated, four of the five extant “Melting Books,” tabulating the sources of bullion for London’s Tower Mint, between 1561 and 1599, indicate that Spanish silver accounted for proportions of total bullion coined that ranged from a low of 75.0% (1561-62) to a high of 86.3% (1584-85).  The “melting books” also indicate that almost all of the remaining foreign silver bullion brought to the Tower Mint came from the Spanish Habsburg Low Counties (the southern Netherlands, which the Spanish had quickly reconquered).[63]  Furthermore, if we ignore the mint outputs during the Great Debasement (1542-1553) and during the Elizabethan Recoinage (1561-63), we find that the quantity of silver bullion coined in the English mints rose from a quinquennial mean of 1,089.012 kg in 1511-15 (at the onset of the Price Revolution) to a peak of 18,653.36 kg in 1591-95, after almost four decades of stable money: a 17.13 fold increase.  Over this same period, the proportion of the total value of the aggregate mint outputs accounted for by silver rose from 12.32% to 90.35% — and (apart from the Great Debasement era) without any significant change in the official bimetallic ratio.[64]

Those economists who favor the Monetary Approach to the Balance of Payments Theorem in explaining inflation as an international phenomenon would contend that we do not have to explain any specific bullion flows between individual countries, and certainly not in terms of a Hume-Turgot price-specie flow mechanism.[65]  In essence, this theorem states that world bullion stocks (up to 1914, with a wholesale shift to fiat money) determine the overall world price level; and that individual countries, through international arbitrage and  the “law of one price,” undergo the necessary adjustments in establishing a commensurate domestic price level and the requisite money supply (in part determined by changes in private and public credit) — not just through international trade in goods and services, but especially in capital flows (exchanging assets for money) at existing exchange rates, without specifically related bullion flows.

Nevertheless, in the specific case of sixteenth century England, we are naturally led to ask:  where did all this silver come from; and why did England shift from a gold-based to a silver-based economy during this century?   More specifically, if Nicholas Mayhew (1995) is reasonably close in his estimates of England’s Y = Gross National Income (Table I, p. 244), from 1300 to 1700, as measured in the silver-based sterling money-of-account, that it rose from about  £3.5 million pounds sterling in 1470 (with a population of 2.3 million) to £40.88 million pound sterling in 1670 (a population of 5.0 million) — an 11.68-fold increase — then we again may ask this fundamental question.   Where did all these extra pounds sterling come from in maintaining that latter level of national income?   Did they come from an increase in the stock of silver coinages, and/or from a vast increase in the income velocity of money?  Indeed that monetary shift from gold to silver may have had some influence on the presumed increase in the income velocity of money since the lower-valued silver coins had a far greater turnover in circulation than did the very high-valued gold coins.[66]

 Statistical Measurements of the Impact of Increased Silver Supplies: Bimetallic Ratios and Inflation

There are two other statistical measures to indicate the economic impact within Europe itself of the  influx of South German and then Spanish American silver during the Price Revolution era, i.e., until the 1650s.  The first is the bimetallic ratio.  In England, despite the previously cited evidence on its relative stability in the sixteenth-century, by 1660, the official mint ratio had risen to 14.485:1 (from the low of 10.333:1 in 1464).[67]  In Spain, the official bimetallic ratio had risen from 10.11:1 in 1497 to 15.45:1 in 1650; and in Amsterdam, the gold:silver mint ratio had risen from 11.21 in 1600 to 13.93:1 in 1640 to 14.56:1 in 1650.[68]  These ratios indicate that silver had become relatively that much cheaper than gold from the early sixteenth to mid-seventeenth century; and also that, despite very significant European exports of silver to the Levant and to South Asia and Indonesia in the seventeenth century, Europe still remained awash with silver.[69]  At the same time, it is also a valid conjecture that the greatest impact of the influx of Spanish American silver (and gold) in this era was to permit a very great expansion in European trade with Asia, indeed inaugurating a new era of globalization.

The second important indicator of the change in the relative value of silver is the rise in the price level:  i.e., of inflation itself.  As noted earlier, the English CPI experienced a 6.77-fold from 1511-15 to 1646-50, at the very peak of the Price Revolution; and the Brabant CPI experienced a 7.36-fold rise over the very same period (expressed in annual means per quinquennium).[70] Since these price indexes are expressed in terms of silver-based moneys-of-account, that necessarily meant that silver, gram per gram, had become that much cheaper in relation to tradable goods (as represented in the CPI) — though, as noted earlier, the variations in the rates of change in these CPI are partly explained by differences in their respective coinage debasements.

A Comparison of the Data on Spanish-American Mining Outputs and Bullion Imports (into Seville)

Finally, how accurate are Hamilton’s data on the Spanish-American bullion imports?   We can best gauge that accuracy by comparing the aggregate amount of fine silver bullion entering Seville with the now known data on the Spanish-American silver-mining outputs, for the years for which we have data for both of these variables: from 1551 to 1660.[71]  One will recall that the Potosi mines were opened only in 1545; and those of Zacatecas in 1546; and recall, furthermore, that production at both began to boom only with the subsequent application of the mercury amalgamation process (not fully applied until the 1570s).  The comparative results are surprisingly close.  In that 110-year period permitting this comparison, total imports of fine silver, according to Hamilton, amounted to 16,886,815.3 kg; and the combined outputs from the Potosi and Zacatecas mines was very close to that figure: 17,057,938.2 kg.[72]  It is also worth noting that the outputs from the Spanish-American mines and the silver imports both peak in the same quinquennium: 1591-95, when the annual mean mined silver output was 219,457.4 kg and the annual mean silver import was 272,704.5 kg.  By 1626-30, the mean annual mined output had fallen 18.7% to 178,490.0 kg and the mean annual import had fallen even further, by 24.7%, to 206,045.26 kg (both sets of data indicate that the silver imports for these years were not based just on these two mines).  Thereafter, the fall in imports is much more precipitous: declining by 86.4%, to an annual mean import of just 27,965.33 kg in the final quinquennium of recorded import data, in 1656-60.  The combined mined output of the Potosi and Zacatecas mines also fell during this very same period, but not by as much: declining by 27.1%, with a mean output of 130,084.23 kg in 1656-60: i.e., a mean output that was 4.65 times more than the mean silver imports into Seville in that quinquennium.

The decline in the Spanish-American mining outputs of silver can be largely attributed to the expected rate of diminishing returns in a natural-resource industry without further technological changes.  The differences between the two sets of data, on output and imports, were actually suggested by Hamilton himself (even though he lacked any knowledge of the Spanish-American production figures for this era): a higher proportion of the silver was being retained in the Spanish Americas for colonial economic development, and also for export (from Acapulco, in Mexico) across the Pacific to the Philippines and China, principally for the silk trades.  Indeed, as TePaske (1983) subsequently demonstrated, the share of pubic revenues of the Viceroyalty of Peru retained for domestic development rose from 40.8% in 1591-1600 to a peak of 98.9% in 1681-90.  We have no comparable statistics for the much less wealthy Mexico (in New Spain); but TePaske also supplies data on its silver exports to the Philippines. Those exports rose from an annual mean of 1,191.2 kg in 1591-1600 (4.8% of Mexican total silver outputs) to a peak of 9,388.2 kg in 1631-40 (29.6% of the total silver outputs).  Though declining somewhat thereafter, such exports then recovered to 4,990.0 kg in 1681-90 (29.0% of the total silver outputs).[73]

 The Morineau Challenge to Hamilton’s Data: Speculations on Post-1660 Bullion Imports and Deflation

Hamilton’s research on Spanish-American bullion imports into Seville ceased with the year, 1660, because that latter date marked “the termination of compulsory registration of treasure” at Seville.[74] Subsequently, the French economic historian Michel Morineau (1968, 1985) sought to remedy the post-1660 lacuna of bullion import data by extrapolating statistics from Dutch gazettes and newspapers.  In doing so, contended that Spanish-American bullion imports strongly revived after the 1660s, a view that most historians have uncritically accepted.[75]  But his two publications on this issue present a number of serious problems.  First, there is the problem of comparing Spanish apples (actual data on bullion imports) with Dutch oranges (newspaper reports, many being speculations).  Second, the statistics in the two publications differ strongly from each other.  Third, except for one difficult-to-decipher semi-logarithmic graph, they do not provide specific data that allow us to distinguish clearly between gold and silver imports, either by weight or value.[76]  Fourth, the statistics on bullion imports are vastly larger in kilograms of metal than those recorded for Spanish American mining outputs, and also differ radically in the trends recorded for the Spanish-American mining output data.[77]

Nevertheless, these Spanish American mining output data do indicate some considerable recovery in production in the later seventeenth century.  Thus,  while the output of the Potosi mines continued to fall in the later seventeenth century (to a mean of 56,884.9 kg in 1696-1700, and to one of just 30,990.86 kg in 1711-15), those at Zacatecas recovered from the low of 26,373.4 kg in 1656-60 to more than double, reaching an unprecedented peak of 64,139.87 kg in 1676-80.  Then, shortly after, a new and very important Mexican silver mine was developed at Sombrerete, producing an annual mean output of 30,492.83 kg in 1681-85.  Thus the aggregate (known) Spanish-American mining output rose from a low 101,533.96 kg in 1661-65 (mean annual output) to a high of 143,212.93 kg in 1686-90: a 1.41-fold increase.[78]

Whatever are the actual figures for the imports of Spanish-American silver between the 1660s and the 1690s, we are in fact better informed about the export of precious metals, primarily silver, by the two East India Companies: in those four decades, the two companies exported a total of 1,3345,342.0 kg of fine silver to Asia.[79]  An indication of some relative West European scarcity of coined silver money, from the 1660s to the 1690s, can be found in the Consumer Price Indexes for both England and Brabant.  In England, the quinquennial mean CPI (1451-75=100) fell from the Price Revolution peak of 734.39 in 1646-50 to a low of 547.58 in 1686-90: a fairly dramatic fall of 25.43%.  By that time, however, the London Goldsmiths’ development of deposit and transfer banking, with fully negotiable promissory notes and rudimentary paper bank notes, was providing a financial remedy for any such monetary scarcity — as did the subsequent vast imports of gold from Brazil.[80] Similarly, in Brabant, the quinquennial mean CPI (1451-75=100) fell from the aforementioned peak of 1015.138 in 1646-50 to a low of 652.217 — an even greater fall of 35.8% — similarly in 1686-90.  In Spain (New Castile), the deflation commenced somewhat later, according to Hamilton (1947), who, for this period, used a CPI whose base is 1671-80=100.  From a quinquennial mean peak of 103.5 in 1676-80 (perhaps reflecting the ongoing vellon inflation), the CPI fell to a low 59.0 in 1686-90 (an even more drastic fall of 43.0%): i.e., the very same period for deflationary nadir experienced in both England and Brabant.

These data are presented in Hamilton’s third major monograph (1947), which appeared thirteen years later, shortly after World War II, covering the period 1651-1800: in Table 5, p. 119.  In between these two, Hamilton (1936), published his second monograph: covering the period 1351-1500 (but excluding Castile)  One might thus be encouraged to believe that, thanks to Hamilton, we should possess a continuous “Spanish” price index from 1351-1800.  Alas, that is not the case, for Hamilton kept shifting his price-index base for each half century over this period, without providing any overlapping price indexes or even similar sets of prices (in the maravedís money-of-account) to permit (without exhaustive labor) the compilation of such a continuous price index.[81]  That, perhaps, is my most serious criticism of Hamilton’s scholarship in these three volumes (though not of his journal articles), even if he has provided an enormous wealth of price data for a large number of commodities over these four and one-half centuries (and also voluminous wage data).[82]

 Supplementary Criticisms of Hamilton’s Data on Gold and Silver Imports

One of the criticisms leveled against Morineau’s monetary data — that they do not allow us to distinguish between the influxes of gold and silver — can also be made, in part, against Hamilton’s 1934 monograph. The actual registrations of Spanish American bullion imports into Seville, from 1503 to 1660, were by the aggregate value of both gold and silver, in money-of-account pesos that were worth 450 marevedis, each of which represented 42.29 grams pure silver (for the entire period concerned, in which, as noted earlier, no silver debasements took place).  Those amounts, for both public and private bullion imports, are recorded in Table 1 (p. 34), in quinquennial means.  His Table 2 (p. 40) provides his estimates — or speculations — of the percentage distribution of gold and silver imports, by decade, but by weight alone: indicating that from the 1530s to the 1550s, about 86% was in silver, and thereafter, to 1660, from 97% to 99% of the total was consistently always in silver.[83]  His table 3 (p. 42) provides his estimate of total decennial imports of silver and gold in grams.  What is lacking, however, is the distribution by value, in money-of-account terms, whether in maravedís, pesos, or ducats (worth 375 maravedís).  Since these money-of-account values remained unchanged from 1497 to 1598, and with only a few changes in gold thereafter (to 1686), Hamilton should have calculated these values as well, utilizing as well his Table 4 gold:silver bimetallic ratios (p. 71).  Perhaps this is a task that I should undertake — but not now, for this review.  A more challenging task to be explored is to analyze the impact of gold inflows, especially of Brazilian gold from the 1690s, on prices that are expressed almost everywhere in Europe in terms of a silver-based money of account (e.g., the pound sterling).  Obviously one important consequence of increased gold inflows was the liberation of silver to be employed elsewhere in the economy: i.e., effectively to increase the supply of silver for the economy.

At the same time, we should realize that the typical dichotomy of the role of the two metals, so often given in economic history literature — that gold was the medium of international trade while silver was the medium of domestic trade — is historically false, especially when we view Europe’s commercial relations with the Baltic, Russia, the Levant, and most of Asia.[84]

Conclusions

EH.Net’s Classic Reviews Selection Committee was certainly justified in selecting Hamilton’s _American Treasure and the Price Revolution in Spain, 1501-1650_ as one of the “classics” of economic history produced in the twentieth century; and Duke University’s website (see note 1) was also fully justified in declaring that Hamilton was one of the pioneers of quantitative economy history.  In his preface, Hamilton noted (p. xii) that he and his wife spent 30,750 hours in collecting and processing this vast amount of quantitative data on Spanish bullion imports and prices and wages, “entirely from manuscript material,” with another 12,500 hours of labor rendered by hired research assistants — all of this work, about three million computations, done without electronic calculators, let alone computers.  Who today would even contemplate undertaking such an enormous task without powerful modern computers and a bevy or research assistants?  For this task, this truly pioneering task, Hamilton deserves full praise.

How much praise does he deserve for the goals that he pursued?  In his introduction he expressed his hope that all these data “may afford a partial verification of the quantity theory and also throw new light upon the related question of the connection between prices and the supply of precious metals;” but he also stated (pp. 4-5) that “the last lesson concerning the quantity theory has not been drawn from this phenomenon; nor is the final word likely to be spoken before greater knowledge of the history of banking and the contemporary influence of credit on prices becomes available.”

As I have sought to demonstrate in this review, necessarily with very detailed evidence, Hamilton did achieve this more modestly defined goal, certainly as well as any pioneering economic historian could have been expected to achieve in the 1930s.  Of course, a contemporary economic historian, utilizing the vast amount of research conducted on these questions in the past seventy years, and using much more sophisticated techniques of economic analysis and econometrics would have produced a very different book — but possibly one lacking Hamilton’s own insights.  Given the current disfavor into which even the more refined, modern version of the Quantity Theory has fallen, the major goal of this review has been to demonstrate at least a qualified validity of this approach to understanding inflations and deflations, and the Price Revolution in particular.  Thus the complementary goal has been to rescue Hamilton’s reputation, given in particular his frequent use of infelicitous phrases, such as the statement that “American gold and silver precipitated the Price Revolution,” which Hamilton himself demonstrated was clearly not the truth.  Finally, given the enormous importance of the Price Revolution — a truly unique historical experience — in shaping the economy and society of early-modern Europe, and in establishing a more truly global economy, I have also sought to supply data unavailable to Hamilton in demonstrating how and why the behavior of prices during the Price Revolution era was related to the complex combination of changes in the money supplies (including credit), changes in the income velocity of money, and changes in national incomes; and also to explain why (as Hamilton did not) inflation in the Price Revolution era was an international (or at least a European-wide) phenomenon.

 A Biographical Note on Hamilton:[85]

Earl Jefferson Hamilton (1899-1989), born in Houlka, Mississippi, received his B.S. (Honors) from Mississippi State University in 1920; his M.A., from the University of Texas in 1924; and his Ph.D., from Harvard University in 1929.  He was an Assistant Professor of Economics at Duke University from 1927 to 1929, and then Professor of Economics there until 1944, when he became Professor of Economics at Northwestern (to 1947), and finally Professor Economics at the University of Chicago, until retiring in 1967.  He was also the editor of the _Journal of Political Economy_ from 1948 to 1954; and he served as President of the Economic History Association in 1951-52.

 

Notes:

 

  1. URL: http://www.scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/economists/hamilton/hama.htm. See also the University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center, Guide to the Earl J. Hamilton Papers:

http://marklogic.lib.uchicago.edu:8002/view.xqy?id=ICU.SPCL.HAMILTON&c=h.

And also on EH.Net: http://www.eh.net/pipermail/hes/1996-October/005291.html

  1. The prices for individual commodities for each year, from 1501 to 1650, are given in Hamilton (1934), Appendices III-V, pp. 319-58; wages, in Appendix VII, pp. 393-402.

 

  1. For my publications on the Price Revolution, see Munro (1991, 1994a, 1998, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, and 2007 forthcoming). The non-monetary variable is “y,” in the modernized version of the Fisher Identity: MV. = Py; and in the Cambridge Cash Balances equation: M = kPy. It is also the deflated or “real” Keynesian Y = NNI = NNP.

 

  1. See my online review online review: http://eh.net/bookreviews/library/0146.shtml, 24 February 1999, of Fischer (1996).

 

  1. Smith (1776/1937), pp. 191-92. Hamilton might have better cited Smith’s passage on p. 34: “The discovery of the mines of American diminished the value of gold and silver in Europe” (i.e. as expressed in silver-based money-of-account prices); and also other similar passage on pp. 198, 236, 241, and 415-16.

 

  1. See Spufford (1988), chapter 13, “The Scourge of Debasement,” pp. 289-318; Munro (1973); and the various studies in Munro (1992).

 

  1. Both published in Le Branchu (1934) and Moore (1946).

 

  1. Grice-Hutchinson (1952), Appendix III, p. 95.

 

  1. For Spain: Hamilton (1934), Appendix VIII, p. 403; for Brabant, Van der Wee (1975), pp. 413-47; for southern England: Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1956, 1981). Using the Phelps Brown worksheets, now housed in the Archives of the British Library for Political and Economic Sciences (LSE), I have corrected many of their statistical data.

 

  1. By constructing various hypothetical “trial” budgets, Hamilton (1934, pp. 273-79) hypothesized that his unweighted index numbers may have underestimated rises in the cost of living by perhaps as much as ten percent in the later sixteenth century, but by perhaps only two percent in the first half of the seventeenth century. See also Hamilton (1947), pp. 113-14, where he more explicitly states: “The contemporaneous account books have failed to yield an inductive basis for weighting the index numbers of commodity prices, and it seemed unlikely that any system of arbitrary weights would give me more accurate results than simple indices. A detailed comparison of unweighted and crudely-weighted index numbers for New Castile in 1651-1700 tended to confirm this hypothesis.”

 

  1. From 1497 to 1686, the Spanish crown consistently minted (with one exceptional, minor deviation in 1642-43) two silver coins at 93.06 percent fineness: the _Real_, with 3.195g pure silver (67 cut from an alloyed marc of 230.0465 g., with a silver fineness of 11 _dineros_ and 4 grains = 93.056%) and a nominal money-of-account value of 34 maravedís (375 to the ducat money of account; 350 to the peso money of account). In fact, it differed from the earlier _Real_ , struck from 1471, only in its money-account-value, having been raised from 31 to 34 maravedís. Also struck from 1497 was the heavy-weight Real known as the “piece of eight” (real de a ocho), with just over eight times as much fine silver, 25.997 g, and a value of 272 maravedís. In 1686, it was subjected to a very minor weight reduction that reduced its fine silver content to 25.919 g.  The American dollar can trace its descent from this Spanish coin.  Hamilton (1934), chapter III, pp. 46-72; Hamilton (1947), chapter II, pp. 9-35; Ulloa (1975); Motomura (1994, 1997); Munro (2004a), Vol. 4, pp. 174-84.

 

  1. See Challis (1971, 1978, 1989, 1992a, 1992b); Gould (1970).

 

  1. Van der Wee (1963), Vol. I, pp. 126-29.

 

  1. Hamilton (1934): Chapter IV: “Vellon Inflation in Castile, 1598-1650,” pp. 73-103; and Chapter X: “Prices under Vellon Inflation, 1601-1650,” pp. 211-21.

 

  1. Munro (1988), pp. 387-423: especially for the debasement formula. In medieval and early-modern Flanders the silver penny _groot_ was divided into 24 _mijten_ or _mites_, almost entirely copper in composition.

 

  1. Spooner (1972), Appendix A, p. 332; Challis (1992a), pp. 365-78; Challis (1992b), p. 689.

 

  1. The silver fineness was based on theoretical purity of 12 _dineros_, with 24 grains each, and thus a total of 288 grains. The weight was defined as the number cut from an alloyed marc of 230.0465 grams. See n. 11 above.

 

  1. Hamilton (1934), pp. 49-64.

 

  1. Hamilton (1934), p. 74.

 

  1. Cipolla (1956). He states (p. 27): “Every elementary textbook of economics gives the standard formula for maintaining a sound system of fractional money: [1] to issue on government account small coins having a commodity value lower than their monetary value; [2] to limit the quantity of these small coins in circulation; [3] to provide convertibility with unit money. … Simple as this formula may seem, it took centuries to work out.  In England, it was not applied until 1816, and in the United States it was not accepted before 1853.” Cipolla (p. 29) cites a seventeenth-century Italian treatise, by Geminiano Montanari (a mathematics professor at Padua), who had stated that: “it is not necessary for a prince to strike petty coins having a metallic content equal to their face value, provided [that] he does not strike more of them than is sufficient for the use of his people, sooner striking too few than striking too many.”

 

  1. Sargent and Velde (2002). The title of their book is adapted from the title of chapter 3 in Carlo Cipolla’s book (cited in the previous note): “The Big Problems of the Petty Coins,” pp. 27-37. Sargent and Velde do cite my article on “Deflation and the Petty Coinage Problem” (in n. 15 above), in which I supplied statistical evidence from the Flemish mint accounts, from 1334 to 1484 that the Flemish counts and the Burgundian dukes who succeeded them were always careful to restrict the supply of the petty, copper-based coinages, which rarely accounted for more than 2% of mint outputs by value, during this entire era.

 

  1. Hamilton (1934), p. 75. A marc of copper was worth 34 maravedís.

 

  1. On the _vellon_ based inflation in seventeenth-century Spain, see Sargent and Velde (2002), chapter 14, pp. 230-53; Motomura (1994), pp. 104-27; Motomura (1997), pp. 331-67; Spooner (1972), pp. 41-53 (and for western Europe in general).

 

  1. See n. 15 above.

 

  1. See Munro (2003a): Table 1.2, pp. 4-5: extrapolated from data in Hamilton (1934), Table 1, p. 34, Table 2, p. 40, Table 3, p. 42; and Hamilton (1929a), pp. 436-72.

 

  1. These mining output data do not come from Hamilton, but rather from these following sources: Bakewell (1975), pp. 68-103; Bakewell (1984), pp. 105-51; Garner (1987), pp. 405-30; and Cross (1983), pp. 397-422. The only Spanish-American mining data available to Hamilton was Haring (1915), pp. 433-79, which he cited, but did not use.

 

  1. Spooner (1972), p. 36.

 

  1. See in particular Outhwaite (1982), especially pp. 39-57; and also the introduction and many of the essays in Ramsay (1971), in particular Hammarström (1957) and Brenner (1961). See also the rather hostile review of this collection by McCloskey (1972), pp. 1332-35. Brenner makes the fundamental error in not treating the Fisher Identity in aggregate terms, and thus talking about a relative (i.e., per capita) diminution in Q (= T, or “y”) that presumably resulted from population growth.  Many of the authors engage in another error, one scorned by Anna Jacobson Schwartz (1974), who, in a review of Spooner (1972), p.  253, comments that: “the author subscribes to a familiar fallacy, namely that a monetary explanation to be valid requires that all prices move in unison.”  On this very common error, see Munro (2003c); and n. 58 below.

 

  1. For those favoring the lower bound estimate for 1300 (4.0 to 4.5 million), see Campbell, Galloway, Keene and Murphy (1993); Campbell (2005); Nightingale (1996); Nightingale (1997); Nightingale (2005); Russell (1966); and Harvey (1966). For those favoring the upper-bound estimate (6.0 to 7.0 million), see Postan (1950); Hatcher (1977); Hallam (1988); Mayhew (1995); and Dyer (1989). For population estimates in the early sixteenth century, see Cornwall (1970); and Campbell (1981).

 

30.Cuvelier (1912), vol. I, 432-33, 446-47, 462-77, 484-87; and also pp. cxxxv, clxxvii-viii, and ccxxiii-xviii.

 

  1. Van der Wee (1963), Vol. I: Appendix 49/1, p. 546. In comparison, the average annual rate of population decline from 1480 to 1496 was -0.81%.

 

  1. There is yet another explanation why agrarian prices rose more than did most industrial prices: a household budget constraint, when agricultural prices and the CPI rose more than did money wages, as was almost always the case in the sixteenth century. Thus the share of disposable income spent on foodstuffs (and fuels) would have necessarily reduced the share of such income to be spent on other commodities, and thus the relative demand for most other industrial products. At the same time, most labor-intensive industries, with elastic supply schedules, could have readily hired more labor to expand output without experiencing significant rises in marginal costs, when wages were rising so much less than most commodity prices.  See my online 2006 Working Paper: “Real Wages and the ‘Malthusian Problem’ in Antwerp and South-Eastern England, 1400-1700: A Regional Comparison of Levels and Trends in Real Wages for Building Craftsmen.”

http://repec.economics.utoronto.ca/repec_show_paper.php?handle=tecipa-225

 

  1. Mean annual imports of fine gold rose from 517.24 kg in 1503-05 to 865.93 kg in 1526-30. See n. 25 above, and also Hamilton (1934), p. 45, on the role of gold. For somewhat different figures, but in decennial means, see TePaske (1998).  His estimates of decennial mean New World gold outputs (per year) are 1,209.8 kg in 1501-10 and 1,071.1 kg in 1511-20.  Hamilton, however, made no mention of the much more important Portuguese imports of West African gold: about 17 metric tons, from Sao Jorge da Mina, from about 1460 to 1520 (when other sources of gold, in Africa and Brazil, became more important.  See Wilks (1993).

 

  1. Adolf Soetbeer (1879); and Wiebe (1995), especially pp. 253-321. See the tables on German silver production from 1493 to 1700, on pp. 265 and 267, based on Soetbeer.

 

  1. Nef (1941, 1952).

 

  1. Nef (1941) estimates that aggregate European silver mining outputs in the peak decade 1526-1535 (in his view) ranged between 84,200 kg to 91,200 kg per year.

 

  1. See my own publications in n. 3, above; and also Munro (2007b). See also Hatcher (1996) and Nightingale (1997).

 

  1. See Munro (2003a), Table 1.3, p. 8; and Munro (2007b). By far the most important of the new mines was Joachimsthal in Bohemia (from 1516), which reached its peak production in 1531-35, with a quinquennial mean production of 16,554.81 kg of fine silver.

 

  1. See Munro (2003a), Table 1.2, pp. 4-5, based in part on Hamilton (1934).

 

  1. The ratio was altered from 11.98:1 to 10.83:1 (June 1466), while in England, it was altered in the opposite direction, to become pro-gold: from 10.33:1 to 11.16:1. See Munro (1973), pp. 155-80, 198-211, Tables C-K; and Munro (1983), Table 10, pp. 150-52; Van der Wee (1963), Vol. I, pp. 126-28, Table XV; Vol. II, pp. 80-101.

 

  1. See Munro (2003a), Table 1.4, pp. 12-13.

 

  1. See Munro (2003a), Table 1.7, p. 26, based on Van der Wee (1963), Vol. I, Appendix 44, pp. 522-23.

 

  1. See Munro (1979, 1992); Spufford (1988), pp. 240-66.

 

  1. See Van der Wee (1967, 1977, 2000); Munro (1979, 1991b, 2000, 2003d).

 

  1. See Statutes 37 Henrici VIII, c. 9 of 1545, permitting interest up to 10%; repealed by 5-6 Edwardi VI, c. 20 in 1552, which was in turn repealed in 1571 by 13 Elizabeth I, c. 8, which thus restored 37 Hen. VIII, c. 9, in _Statutes of the Realm_, vol. III, p. 996; and IV.i, pp. 155 and 542, respectively.

 

  1. See Van der Wee (1967, 1977, 2000), and other sources cited in notes 43 and 44.

 

  1. See Munro (2003d); Tracy (1985, 1994, 2003).

 

  1. Van der Wee (1977), pp. 373-76, Table 28. See also Usher (1943), Table 7, p. 169, using older data, which shows a rise in the Spanish funded debt from 4.320 million ducats in 1515 to one of 76.540 million ducats in 1598; and also Spooner (1972), pp. 56-57: “Wherever data [on public borrowing] are available they show that the expansion was certainly spectacular”: in Rome, France, the Low Countries, Germany. In Antwerp, Charles V’s loans rose from about £1.0 million groot Flemish in the 1520s to about £7.0 million in 1557 (on the eve of the Spanish royal bankruptcy). In Genoa, the issue of civic bonds rose from 193,185 _luoghi_ in 1509 to about 500,000 _luoghi_ in 1560 (p.  66).

 

  1. Van der Wee (1977), pp. 375-76; and see the other sources cited in n. 44 above.

 

  1. Spooner (1972), pp. 4, 54-55, stating that: “The structure of credit was, in effect, supported by progressive increases in the stocks of precious metals.” Very similar observations have been made in Nightingale (1990), Mueller (1984), Spufford (1988), p. 347: commenting that “when money [coined specie] is freely available, credit is also; when money is scarce, so is credit.”

 

  1. The title of Hamilton’s Chart 20 (p. 301) is “Total Quinquennial Treasure Imports and Composite Index Numbers of Commodity Prices.”

 

  1. Hammarström (1957). Her other criticisms of Hamilton’s scholarship strike me as being unfounded and thus unfair.

 

  1. Many, many years ago, one of my graduate students did run regressions involving both annual values of treasure imports and estimates of residual Spanish stocks of bullion, and achieved better results (high R-squared and better t-statistics) with the latter regressions.

 

  1. See I. Fisher (1911). The only reference in Hamilton (1934, p. 5, n.6) or in his other publications, to this famous economist is I. Fisher (1927), on index numbers.

 

  1. For various reasons, too complex to discuss here, I prefer to use the Gross National Product – as many economic historians, in fact do, in the absence of reliable figures for Net National Product.

 

  1. Mayhew (1995), p. 240, states that: “My own investigation of velocity in the medieval period up to 1300 also suggests that in periods of growth in terms of money, prices, and economic activity, velocity may be expected to fall rather than rise. … It will be argued here [in this article] that velocity does not rise with increasing urbanization and monetization. Indeed, the increasing use of money usually seems to require an enlarged money supply which will actually permit a reduction in velocity rather than an increase.” His intriguing and exceptionally important article makes some very heroic assumptions about the levels of NNI and of M (the money supply) over this long period, not all of which will earn general consent.

 

  1. See n. 79 below, and also Munro (2007b).

 

  1. See Gould (1964): who contended that inflation itself promoted capital investment during the Price Revolution era by cheapening the cost of previously borrowed capital: i.e., the relative cost of annual interest payments and repayment of the principal. Gould, however, was one of the critics of the Hamilton thesis; and also one of those who promoted the fallacy that the validity of a monetary interpretation would require that all prices move in unison (p. 251). See Schwartz (1974) in n. 28 above.

 

  1. The period of England’s “Great Debasement,” 1542 – 1553, was however, surprisingly, not one such example — nor can any be cited in English monetary history (in contrast to medieval French monetary history). As noted earlier, during the “Great Debasement,” the English penny lost 83.1% of it silver content. The formula for relating a debasement to the potential rise in prices (or the rise in the money-of-account price of silver) is: [ (1 / (1 – x) ] – 1, in which x represents the percentage reduction of fine silver in the penny coin and in the linked money-of-account (sterling). By this formula, prices should have risen by 491.72%; but they did not.  The Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1956) CPI rose from a quinquennial mean of 152.33 in 1536-40 to one of 315.85 in 1556-60: an increase of only 107.34%. See also Gould (1970) and Challis (1971, 1978, 1989, 1992a, 1992b).

 

  1. For shipments of Spanish silver to pay Charles V’s bankers in Antwerp and Genoa, see Spooner (1972), pp. 22-24.

 

  1. See Hamilton, pp. 44-45: but the analysis and evidence is very thin. On p. 19, he states more explicitly that “In view of the popular misconceptions concerning the amounts of treasure taken by the English, French, and Dutch, one who works with the records is impressed by the paucity rather than the plethora of the specie that fell prey to foreign powers.” See also Hamilton (1929a), pp. 436-72.

 

  1. Outhwaite (1982), pp. 31, 36. He is referring to the Anglo-Spanish trade treaty of 1630.

 

  1. Challis (1975). One other account, for June to December 1567 is incomplete, and does not provide the amount of bullion coined, though indicating that Spanish silver may have accounted for only 7.4% of such bullion. Surprisingly, this seminal article is not mentioned in Outhwaite’s second edition of 1982, referring only to Challis (1978).  See also Challis (1984).

 

  1. The bimetallic ratio in 1526-42 was 11.16:1, as it had been from 1465; in 1600, the bimetallic ratio was 11.10:1. For the mint data, see Challis (1978, 1989, 1992a, 1992b).

 

  1. See Flynn (1978), D. Fisher (1989), Frenkel and Johnson (1976), McCloskey and Zecher (1976), and Floyd (1985).

 

  1. In the sixteenth century, apart from the Great Debasement period (1542-1553), gold coins varied in official value from the sovereign worth 20s or £1 (=240d) to the half crown, worth 2s 6 (=30d). The silver coins varied from the farthing (0.25d) to the groat (4d). On this very point about varying circulation velocities on the coinages, see Spooner (1972), p. 74.

 

  1. My own calculations of the official bimetallic mint ratios indicate a rise from 12.109 in 1604 to 13.363 in 1612 to 13.348 in 1623 to 14.485 in 1660 to 15.210 in 1718 (remaining at this level until 1815). Based on data supplied in Challis (1992b), pp. 673-98.

 

  1. Hamilton (1934), Table 4, p. 71.

 

  1. The Dutch East India Company’s exports of fine silver rose from an annual mean 6,959.7 kg in 1600-09 to a mean of 11,563.7 kg in 1660-69. Gaastra (1983), pp. 447-76, especially Appendix 5, p. 475. Spooner (1972), pp. 76-77 and Chart 11, has estimated that Venetian silver exports to the Levant in 1610-14 amounted to 6% of the total Spanish-American silver bullion imports into Seville during those years.

 

  1. See note 9 above for the statistics (for a base of 1501-10), and the sources used to compute the three sets of CPI. If we use the Phelps Brown and Hopkins base (1451-75=100), instead of the earlier base for 1501-10 (to include Spanish prices), we find that the English weighted CPI rose from an annual mean of 108.52 in 1511-15 to one of 734.19, at the peak of the Price Revolution, in 1646-50: an overall rise of 6.77 fold. Similarly, in Brabant, the Van der Wee CPI rose from an annual mean of 137.904 in 1511-15 to one of 1015.14 in 1646-50, also the peak of the Price Revolution in Brabant: an overall rise of 7.36 fold.

 

  1. See note 74, below, for the termination date.

 

  1. See Munro (2003a), Table 1.2, pp. 4-5: and the sources cited in notes 24 and 25 above. In the period 1521 to 1550, total silver imports into Seville amounted to just 263,915.8 kg. During the period from 1551 to 1660, a total of 122,902.24 kg of gold was also imported.

 

  1. TePaske (1983), Tables 2-5, pp. 442-45.

 

  1. Hamilton (1934), p. 11, note 1. Most economic historians have wrongly assumed that Hamilton was forced to end his research on bullion imports with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 — an argument obviously refuted his earlier articles of 1928, 1929a, in which bullion import data cease in 1660.

 

  1. Morineau (1968), p. 196; Morineau (1985), especially Table 83, p. 578; Figure 38, p. 579; Table 84, pp. 580-83; Figure 39, p. 585.

 

  1. Morineau (1985): except for the semi-logarithmic graph, Figure 39, on silver imports and exports, which is very difficult to decipher; and it certainly does not allow to attribute actual values to the small-scale bar chart lines. His Figure 37, p. 563, with imports in millions of pesos, also has estimations for the period 1630-56, not indicated as such in the other tables and graphs.

 

77.The title of his 1986 monograph, _Incroyables gazettes et fabuleux métaux_ seems, in retrospect, to be ironic.  In Morineau (1968), the data presented on p. 196, evidently for the total value of bullion imports in each quinquennium, even when divided by 5, to produce annual means, exceed the data on mined outputs from a minimum of 12.12-fold  to a maximum of 41.07-fold.  In Morineau (1984), Table 83, p. 578, presents decennial means of bullion imports, expressed as equivalent amounts of silver, that, for the period from 1660 to 1700, range from being 3.653 times to 18.684 times greater than the recorded aggregate mined outputs of Spanish-American silver.  (See also his bar-graph, Figure 37, on p. 563, displaying in five-year periods — totals or annual means? — the values of “treasure” imports, expressed in millions of piastres or pesos: those of 272 maravedís or 450 maravedís?)  Hamilton (1929a, 1934) indicated that, in the seventeenth century, up to the cessation of recorded data, in 1660, almost all the imports were in the form of silver.  The great boom in Brazilian gold exports did not really begin until 1700.  See TePaske (1998), pp. 21-32.

 

  1. See the sources in notes 25 and 26 above. The Sombrerete mining outputs, however, began to fall sharply from the 1680s, reaching a low (quinquennial mean) of 3,957.14 kg in 1716-20. Subsequently, by the mid eighteenth century, Mexico experienced another and very major silver-mining boom: See Brading (1970), Garner (1987).

 

  1. Gaastra (1983), Appendix 5, p. 475; Chaudhuri (1968), pp. 497-98. We have no data on the Dutch Company’s exports of merchandise, but we do for the English East India Company. Between 1660 and 1700, it exported a total of 645,486.0 kg of silver (worth £5,795.793.65) and 21,552.0 kg of gold (worth £2,788.035.34), and a total value of £2,593.114.00 in merchandise.   Thus gold and silver “treasure” accounted for 76.80% of total exports to Asia, and merchandise for 23.20%.  Of the total value of bullion exports, silver accounted for 67.52% and gold for 32.48% of the total value.  (For the long period of 1660-1720, silver accounted from 81.35% and gold for 18.65% of the total values of bullion exports).  In the English East India Company’s early history, however, from 1601 to 1624, it exported a total of £753,336 in precious metals (‘treasure’) and £351,236 in merchandise, for an aggregate export value of £1,104,572, so that precious metals then accounted for a somewhat lower percentage of the total value: 68.20%.  Chaudhuri 1963), p. 24.

 

  1. See TePaske (1998), tables, pp. 21-32.

 

  1. Fortunately, for the book under review (Hamilton 1934), he did provide an Appendix (number VIII, pp. 403-04) for “The Composite Index Numbers of Silver Prices, 1501-1650.”

 

  1. My most serious criticism — and one voiced by many other economic historians — is the one concerning his concept of “profit-inflation,” in Hamilton (1929b). His thesis was warmly endorsed by John Maynard Keynes (1930), the following year, Vol. II, pp. 152–63, especially pp. 154-55: “But it is the teaching of this Treatise that the wealth of nations is enriched, not during Income Inflations but during Profit Inflations — at times, that is to say, when prices are running away from costs.” Keynes in fact really coined this term (so to speak).  Subsequently Hamilton published two more articles on this theme — in 1942, and 1952.  The latter was his Presidential Address to the Twelfth Annual Meeting of the Economic History Association.  Since this concept does not appear in the book under review, it would be unfair to criticize this thesis, here, even if space did permit it.  But I have posted on my web site an unpublished Working Paper, entitled “Prices, Wages, and Prospects for ‘Profit Inflation’ in England, Brabant, and Spain, 1501-1670:  A Comparative Analysis”:

http://www.economics.utoronto.ca/ecipa/archive/UT-ECIPA-MUNRO-02-02.html.  It should be noted, however, that Hamilton (1934) did devote his chapter XII, pp. 262-82, to “Wages: Money and Real” and his Appendix VII (pp.  393-402) is devoted to “Money Wages.”  But space limitations have prevented me from discussing this aspect of his monograph.

 

  1. He warns the reader (p. 40) “that these are estimates based on partial information, into which the determination of arbitrary assumptions of correlations have entered, not exact compilations of complete data.”

 

  1. See notes 79 and 80 above.

 

  1. See note 1.

 

 

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Bakewell (1984), Peter, “Mining in Colonial Spanish America,” in Leslie Bethell, ed., _The Cambridge History of Latin America_, Vol. II: _Colonial Latin America_ (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 105-51.

Bordo (1986), Michael D., “Explorations in Monetary History:  A Survey of the Literature,” _Explorations in Economic History_, 23 (1986), 339-415.

Brading (1970), D.A.,   “Mexican Silver Mining in the Eighteenth Century: the Revival of Zacatecas,” _Hispanic American Historical Review_, 50:4 (1970), 665-81.

Braudel (1967), F.P. , and F. Spooner, “Prices in Europe from 1450 to 1750”, in E. E. Rich, ed., _ Cambridge Economic History of Europe_, Vol. IV: _The Economy of Expanding Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 374-486.

Brenner (1962), Y.S., “The Inflation of Prices in Early Sixteenth-Century England,” _Economic History Review_, 2nd ser., 14:2 (1962), pp. 225-39; reprinted in Peter Ramsey, ed., _The Price Revolution in Sixteenth-Century England_, Debates in Economic History series (London, 1971), 69-90

Campbell (1981), Bruce M. S., “The Population of Early Tudor England:  A Re-evaluation of the 1522 Muster Returns and the 1524 and 1525 Lay Subsidies,” _Journal of Historical Geography_, 7 (1981), 145-54.

Campbell (1993), Bruce M. S., James A. Galloway, Derek Keene, and Margaret Murphy, _A Medieval Capital and Its Grain Supply: Agrarian Production and Distribution in the London Region c.  1300_, Institute of British Geographers, Historical Geography Research Series no. 30 (London, 1993).

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Challis (1975), Christopher, “Spanish Bullion and Monetary Inflation in England in the Later Sixteenth Century,” _Journal of European Economic History_, 4 (1975), 381-92.

Challis (1978), Christopher, _The Tudor Coinage_ (Manchester, 1978).

Challis (1984), Christopher, “Les trésors d’Espagne et l’inflation monétaire en Angleterre à la fin du XVIe siècle,” in John Day, ed., _Etudes d’histoire monétaire, XIIe-XIXe siècles_ (Lille, 1984), 179-91.

Challis (1989), Christopher, _Currency and the Economy in Tudor and Early Stuart England_ (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

Challis (1992a), Christopher, “Lord Hastings to the Great Silver Recoinage, 1464-1699,” in Christopher Challis, ed., _A New History of the Royal Mint_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 179-397.

Challis (1992b), Christopher, “Appendix 1: Mint Output, 1220-1985,” in Christopher E. Challis, ed., _A New History of the Royal Mint_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 673-698.

Chaudhuri (1963), K.N., “The East India Company and the Export of Treasure in the Early Seventeenth Century,” _Economic History Review_, 2nd ser., 16:1 (1963), 23-38.

Chaudhuri (1968), K.N., “Treasure and Trade Balances: the East India Company’s Export Trade, 1660-1720,” _Economic History Review_, 2nd ser. 21 (Dec. 1968), 480-502.

Cipolla (1956), Carlo M., _Money, Prices, and Civilization in the Mediterranean World: Fifth to Seventeenth Century_ (Princeton: University Press, 1956; Reissued New York: Gordian Press, 1967).

Cornwall (1970), Julian, “English Population in the Early Sixteenth Century,” _Economic History Review_, 2nd ser. 23:1 (April 1970), 32-44.

Cross (1983), Harry E., “South American Bullion Production and Export, 1550 – 1750”, in John F. Richards, ed., _Precious Metals in the Later Medieval and Early Modern Worlds_ (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1983), 397-422.

Cuvelier (1912), Joseph, _Les dénombrements de foyers en Brabant, XIV-XVIe siècle_, 2 vols.  (Brussels, 1912-14).

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Fisher (1989), Douglas, “The Price Revolution: A Monetary Interpretation,” _Journal of Economic History_, 49 (December 1989), 883 – 902.

Fisher (1911), Irving,   _The Purchasing Power of Money: Its Determination and Relation to Credit, Interest, and Crises_ (New York: Macmillan, 1911; reissued in 1926; and New York: A.M. Kelly, 1963).

Fisher (1927), Irving, _The Making of Index Numbers_ (New York, 1927).

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Munro (1991b),  John, “The International Law Merchant and the Evolution of Negotiable Credit in Late-Medieval England and the Low Countries,” in Dino Puncuh, _Banchi pubblici, banchi privati e monti di pietà nell’Europa preindustriale: amministrazione, tecniche operative e ruoli economici_,   Atti della Società Ligure di Storia Patria, Nouva Serie, Vol. XXXI (Genoa: Società Ligure di Storia Patria, 1991), 49-80; reprinted in John Munro, _Textiles, Towns, and Trade: Essays in the Economic History of Late-Medieval England and the Low Countries_ (Ashgate and Brookfield, NY:  1994).

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Munro (1998), John, “Precious Metals and the Origins of the Price Revolution Reconsidered: The Conjuncture  of Monetary and Real Forces in the European Inflation of the Early to Mid-Sixteenth Century,” in  Clara Eugenia Núñez, ed., _Monetary History in Global Perspective, 1500-1808_, Proceedings of the Twelfth International Economic History Congress at Madrid, August 1998 (Seville, 1998), 35-50.

Munro (2000), John, “English ‘Backwardness’ and Financial Innovations in Commerce with the Low Countries, 14th to 16th centuries,” in Peter Stabel, Bruno Blondé, and Anke Greve, eds.,_ International Trade in the Low Countries (14th – 16th Centuries): Merchants, Organisation, Infrastructure_, Studies in Urban, Social, Economic, and Political History of the Medieval and Early Modern Low Countries (Marc Boone, general editor), no. 10 (Leuven-Apeldoorn: Garant, 2000), 105-67.

Munro, John (2003a), “The Monetary Origins of the ‘Price Revolution’: South German Silver Mining, Merchant-Banking, and Venetian Commerce, 1470-1540,”  in Dennis Flynn, Arturo Giráldez, and Richard von Glahn, eds., _Global Connections and Monetary History, 1470-1800_  (Aldershot and Brookfield, VT:  Ashgate Publishing, 2003), 1-34.

Munro, John (2003b), “Money, Wages, and Real Incomes in the Age of Erasmus: The Purchasing Power of Coins and of Building Craftsmen’s Wages in England and the Southern Low Countries, 1500-1540,” in Alexander Dalzell and Charles G. Nauert, Jr., eds., _The Correspondence of Erasmus_, Vol. 12: _Letters 1658-1801, January 1526- March 1527_ (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), Appendix: 551-699.

Munro (2003c), John, “Wage Stickiness, Monetary Changes, and Real Incomes in Late-Medieval England and the Low Countries, 1300 – 1500:  Did Money Matter?” _Research in Economic History_, 21 (2003), 185-297.

Munro (2003d), John, “The Medieval Origins of the Financial Revolution: Usury, Rentes, and Negotiability,” _The International History Review_, 25:3 (September 2003), 505-62.

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Munro (2007a), John, “The Price Revolution,”  in Steven N. Durlauf and Lawrence  E. Blume, eds., _The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics_, 2nd edition, 6 vols. (London and New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming).

Munro (2007b), John, “South German Silver, European Textiles, and Venetian Trade with the Levant and Ottoman Empire, c. 1370 to c. 1720: A Non-Mercantilist Approach to the Balance of Payments Problem,” in Simonetta Cavaciocchi, ed., _Relazione economiche tra Europa e mondo islamico, seccoli XIII – XVIII_, Atti delle ‘settimana di Studi” e altri convegni, no. 38, Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica, “Francesco Datini” (Florence: Le Monnier, 2007), forthcoming.

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John Munro is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Toronto, where he has taught since 1968, and where, despite mandatory retirement, he continues to teach a full course load in European economic history, both medieval and modern (to 1914).  His publications, in medieval and early modern economic history, are in two fields: (1) money, prices, and wages; and (2) textiles (including labor history and thus wages), which have predominated in his recent years of published output.  In the first field, his recent publications include “Wage Stickiness, Monetary Changes, and Real Incomes in Late-Medieval England and the Low Countries, 1300-1500: Did Money Matter?” _Research in Economic History_, 21 (2003) and “The Medieval Origins of the Financial Revolution: Usury, Rentes, and Negotiability,” _The International History Review_, 25:3 (September 2003). Forthcoming is the entry on “The Price Revolution,” in Steven N. Durlauf and Lawrence  E. Blume, eds., _The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics_, second edition.

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Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):17th Century

Technology Matters: Questions to Live With

Author(s):Nye, David E.
Reviewer(s):Szostak, Rick

Published by EH.NET (June 2006)

David E. Nye, Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. xiv + 282 pp. $28 (cloth), ISBN: 0-262-14093-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Rick Szostak, Department of Economics, University of Alberta.

In this book, David Nye (Professor of Comparative American Studies and History at Warwick University) devotes a chapter each to ten important questions regarding the causes and effects of technological innovation. Most of these questions — including the effects of innovation on the environment, employment, and culture — are subjects of contentious public discourse. The book seems aimed at clarifying these issues for a general audience, though Nye notes that scholars are often guilty of misunderstanding the course of technological change.

The first chapters are the most satisfying. While Nye could have been a bit more precise in answering “what is technology?,” the first chapter does a good job of describing the phenomenon of technological innovation as well as some of the other phenomena to which it is closely linked. The second chapter provides a very good critique of both technological determinism and the idea that the course of technological innovation is inevitable, and the third discusses the severe limitations of technological predictions.

The fourth chapter asks how historians understand technology. Nye may underestimate the size of the minority that fails to follow the set of good practices he suggests. Historians should eschew determinism and predictability. Nye suggests that historians of technology give roughly equal weight to technology, politics, the economy, and society (by which he largely means ‘culture’) in their analyses. He applauds the complementarity between ‘internalist’ (focused on technical developments) and ‘contextual’ history, but does not note that the field of history of technology has swung sharply between these two orientations in the postwar period. He applauds historians for increasingly focusing on incremental innovations and the long process of development, and thus downplaying the role of the ‘heroic inventor.’

At times in the early chapters Nye is too strident in his anti-determinism. In chapter 4, he finally appreciates, following Thomas Hughes, that technological systems once in place constrain further technological and social choices. Only in later chapters does he recognize in passing that even individual innovations provide both constraints and incentives: they do not determine but certainly exert causal influence on a range of individual and societal decisions.

While Nye strives in the first four chapters to provide answers to his questions, the latter chapters tend to provide conflicting arguments regarding the effect of technology on various other phenomena. Though the information provided is useful and accurate, many readers may wish that Nye had more clearly attempted to weigh the relative importance of these arguments. Nye relies throughout the book on powerful examples rather than a careful attempt to delineate the typicality of these, and thus the reader has little guidance in choosing which examples to place greatest confidence in. The lack of subtitles in any of the chapters exacerbates the difficulty of comparing one line of argument to another.

Yet I do not wish to be harsh. Nye’s goal, it seems, is to debunk some strongly held but simplistic views of technology. As noted above, the earlier chapters strive to convince readers that technology is not some inevitable force inexorably shaping our lives (whether to good or evil effect) but rather that human actors shape innovation in a host of ways. Later chapters then provide counter-examples against simplistic beliefs that technology necessarily destroys local cultures, ruins the environment, causes unemployment, and reduces human security. Nye notes that some technologies such as the personal computer work against cultural conformity, while consumers shape the effects of other technologies such as mass production in ways that preserve autonomy. (Again a more careful statement of how technology may limit but not determine choices would have been helpful.) Likewise, technological innovation can at times aid the environment (though most of the chapter on the environment addresses the question of whether humans should lessen their wants rather than expand their production). Nye details how the idea of technological unemployment has been around for centuries but unemployment rates have not risen secularly (he skips over the question of whether medium-term technological unemployment was observed during the Great Depression and 1970s). And Nye notes that technology has freed many humans from the insecurities associated with hunger and disease while creating new sources of insecurity.

A book that covers such a wide scope lends itself to inevitable quibbles. The unwary reader may be needlessly confused in the first chapter between the essence of technology and the causal relationships of which it is part. Nye’s discussion of predictability clearly distinguishes between major and incremental innovations, but leaves the impression that the latter are virtually as unpredictable as the former. Nye’s discussion of culture largely misses the key question of how strong the link is between the available range of consumer goods and the beliefs and attitudes that lie at the heart of culture: those who decry cultural homogenization are often guilty of implying that what one wears and eats defines who one is. The chapter on the environment skips the entire debate between optimists and pessimists. The chapter on employment discusses (uncritically) how work effort has increased in some ways in recent years, but largely ignores the amazing decline in the length of the workweek in previous centuries. And the chapter on whether technology should be regulated fails to suggest any criteria for distinguishing cases such as new pharmaceuticals where some sort of oversight may be a good idea from other technologies where markets can best adjudicate.

This is a handy book to recommend to students (or colleagues) who need an antidote to the more simplistic versions of technological determinism, environmentalism, or cultural decline that circulate on university campuses. The range of detailed historical examples utilized by Nye is quite impressive. Many students will be encouraged by the book to a more nuanced perspective, and guided to further reading. Others, unfortunately, may find it hard to integrate the information provided into a coherent understanding of the issues at stake.

Rick Szostak is Professor of Economics at the University of Alberta, and will be visiting the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute in Florence during 2006-7. He intends to write a book, Exogenous Growth: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Recent publications include Technology and American Society: A History (with Gary Cross, second edition, 2004), Classifying Science: Phenomena, Data, Theory, Method, Practice (2004); “Evaluating the Historiography of the Great Depression: Explanation or Single-Theory Driven?” (Journal of Economic Methodology, 2005); “Allocating Scarce Shoreline: Institutional Change in the Newfoundland Inshore Fishery” (with Ken Norrie, Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, 2005) and “Economic History as It Is and Should Be” (Journal of Socio-Economics, 2006). He has recently completed a book manuscript, Restoring Human Progress: Transcending the Postmodern Condition.

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative