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The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War

Author(s):Gordon, Robert J.
Reviewer(s):Margo, Robert A.

Published by EH.Net (July 2016)

Robert J. Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016. vii + 762 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-14772-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Robert A. Margo, Department of Economics, Boston University.

This is the age of blockbuster books in economics. By any metric, Robert Gordon’s new tome qualifies.  It tackles a grand subject, the productivity slowdown, by placing the slowdown in the context of the historical evolution of the American standard of living.  Gordon, who is the Stanley G. Harris Professor in the Social Sciences at Northwestern University, needs no introduction, having long been one of the most famous macroeconomists on planet Earth.

The Rise and Fall of American Growth is divided into three parts.  Part One (chapters 2-9) examines various components of the standard of living, in levels and changes from 1870 to 1940.  Part Two (chapters 10-15) does the same from 1940 to the present, maintaining the same relative order of topics (e.g. transportation appears after housing in both parts).  Part Three (chapters 16-18) provides explanations and offers predictions up through 2040.  There are brief interludes (“Entre’acte”) between parts, a Postscript, and a detailed Data Appendix.

Chapter 1 is an overview of the focus, approach, and structure of the book.  Gordon’s focus is on the standard of living of American households from 1870 to the present.  The approach is both quantitative — familiar to economists — and qualitative — familiar to historians.  As already noted, the organization is symmetric — Part One considers the pre-World War II period, and Part Two, the post-war.  The fundamental point of the book is that that some post-1970 slowdown in growth was inevitable, because so much of what was revolutionary about technology in the first half of the twentieth century was revolutionary only once.

Chapter 2 draws a bleak picture of the standard of living ca. 1870, the dawn of Robert Gordon’s modern America.  From the standpoint of a household in 2016, conditions of life in 1870 would appear to be revolting.  The diet was terrible and monotonous to boot; homemade clothing was ill-fitting and crudely made; transportation was dependent principally on the horse, which generated phenomenal amounts of waste; indoor plumbing was all but non-existent; rural Americans lived their lives largely in isolation of the wider world.  In Gordon’s view, much of this is missing from conventional real GNP estimates.  Chapter 3 continues the initial story, focusing on changes in food and clothing consumption.  Gordon contends there was not much change in underlying quality but he argues that, by the 1920s, consumers were paying lower prices for food — having shifted to lower-priced sources (chain stores as opposed to country merchants) — and that most clothing was store-bought rather than homemade.

Chapter 4 studies housing quality.  As with other consumer goods, housing also improved sharply in quality from 1870 to 1940.  Gordon argues that much farm housing was poor in quality, while new urban housing was typically larger and more durably built.  Indoor plumbing, appliances and, ultimately, electrification dramatically enhanced the quality of life while people were indoors.  As elsewhere in the book, reference is made to hedonic estimates of the value of these improvements as revealed in higher rents. Chapter 5 details improvements in transportation between 1870 and 1940. These are grouped into three categories.  The first is improvement in inter-city and inter-regional transportation in rail.  This occurs chiefly through improvements in the density of lines and in the speed of transit. The second is intra-city which occurred with the adoption of the electric streetcar.  The third, and most important arguably, is the internal combustion engine and its use in the automobile (and bus).  Gordon especially highlights improvements in the quality of automobiles, noting that the car is not reflected in standard price indices until the middle of the Great Depression.

Chapter 6 details advances in communication from 1870 to 1940.  By current standards, the relevant changes — the telegraph, telephone, the phonograph, and the radio — might not seem like much but from the point of view of a household in 1870, these technologies enabled Americans to dramatically reduce their isolation.  As Gordon points out, one could phone a neighbor to see if she had a cup of sugar rather than visit in person, or listen to Enrico Caruso’s voice on the phonograph if it were not possible to hear him in concert.  The radio brought millions of Americans into the national conversation, whether it was to hear one of Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats or listen to a baseball game.  Chapter 7 discusses improvements in health and mortality from 1870 to 1940 which, according to Gordon, were unprecedented.  After summarizing these, he turns to causes, chief among which are improved urban sanitation, clean water, and uncontaminated milk.   Gordon also highlights improvements in medical knowledge, particularly the diffusion (and understanding) of the germ theory of disease.  Chapter 8 studies changes in the quality of work from 1870 to 1940.  These changes were wholly for the better, according to Gordon.  Work became less dangerous, more interesting, and more rewarding in terms of real wages.  Most importantly, there was less working per se, as weekly hours fell, freeing up time for leisure activity.  There was a marked reduction in child labor, as children spent more of their time in school, particularly at older ages in high school.   This was also the period leading up, as Claudia Goldin has told us, to the “Quiet Revolution” in the labor force participation of married women, which was to increase substantially after World War II. Credit and insurance, private and social, is the topic of Chapter 9.  The ability to better smooth consumption and also insure against calamity are certainly improvements in living standards that are not captured by standard GNP price deflators.  Initially the shift of households from rural to urban areas arguably coincided with a decrease in consumer credit but by the 1920s credit was on the rise due to several innovations previously documented by economic historians such as Martha Olney.   Households were also better able to obtain insurance of various types (e.g. life, fire, automobile); in particular, loans against life insurance were frequently used as a source for a down payment on a house or car.  Government contributed by expanding social insurance and other programs that helped reduced systemic risks.

Chapter 10 begins the second part of the book, which focuses on the period from 1940 to the present.  As noted, the topic order of Part Two is the same as Part One, so Chapter 10 focuses on food, clothing, and shelter.  Gordon considers the changes in quality in these dimensions of the standard of living to be less monumental than as occurred before World War II.  For example, frozen food became a ubiquitous option after World War II but this change is far less important than the pre-1940 improvement in the milk supply.  Quantitatively, perhaps the most important change was a reduction in relative food prices which, predictably, led to increase in the quantity demanded.  Calories jumped, and so did obesity and many related health problems.  For clothing, the chief difference is in the diversity of styles and, as with food, a sharp reduction in relative price holding quality constant.  In Chapter 11 Gordon notes that automobiles continued to improve in quality after World War II, mostly in terms of amenities and gas mileage; and their usefulness as transportation improved with the building of the interstate highway system.  Gordon is less sanguine about air transportation, arguing that quality of the travel experience deteriorated after deregulation which was not offset by reductions in relative prices.  For housing, the major changes was suburbanization and a concomitant increase in square footage.  The early postwar period witnessed some sharp improvements in the quality of basic household appliances, and somewhat later, the widespread diffusion of air conditioning and microwaves.

Chapter 12 focuses on media and entertainment post-1940.  Certain older forms of entertainment gave way to television, the initial benefits of which were followed by steady improvements in the quality of transmission and reception.  Similarly, there were sharp improvements in the various platforms for listening to music, with substantial advances in recording technology and delivery — the 78 gave way to the LP to the CD to music streaming and YouTube.  The technology to deliver entertainment also delivered the news in ever greater quantity (quality is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose).  Americans today are connected almost immediately to every part of the world, a level of communications unthinkable a century ago.  A surprisingly brief Chapter 13, recounts the history of the modern computer.  There is no way to tell this history without emphasizing just how unprecedented the improvements have been, from the very first post-war computers to today’s laptops and supercomputers.  Moore’s Law, understandably, takes center stage, followed by the Internet and e-commerce.   Gordon has a few negative things to say about the worldwide web, but the main act — why haven’t computers led a revolution in productivity — is saved for later in the book.

Chapter 14 continues the story of health improvements to the present day.  As everyone knows, the U.S. health care system changed markedly after World War II, in terms of delivery of services, organization, and payment schemes.  Great advances were made in cardiovascular care and treatment of infectious disease through the use of antibiotics.   There were also advances in cancer treatment, mostly achieved by the 1970s; the subsequent “war” on cancer has not been as successful.  Most of the benefits were achieved through diffusion of public health and expansion of health knowledge in the general public (e.g. the harmful effects of smoking).  Since 1970 the health care system has shifted to more expensive, capital intensive treatments primarily provided in hospitals that have led to an inexorable growth in medical care’s share of GNP, increases that most scholars agree exceed any improvements in health outcomes.  The chapter concludes with a mixed assessment of Obamacare.  Chapter 15, on the labor force, is also rather short for its subject matter.  Gordon recounts the major changes in the structure and composition of work since World War II.  Again, it is a familiar tale — improved working conditions due to the shift towards the service sector and “indoor” jobs; rising labor force participation for married women; rising educational attainment, at least until recently; and the retirement revolution.  Your faithful reviewer gets a shout-out in a brief discussion of the “Great Compression” of the 1940s; my collaborator in that work, Claudia Goldin (and her collaborator, Lawrence Katz) gets much more attention for her scholarly contributions on the subject matter of Chapter 15, understandably so.

Part Three addresses explanations for the time series pattern in the standard of living.  Chapter 16 focuses on the first half of the twentieth century, which experienced a marked jump in total factor productivity (TFP) growth and the standard of living.  Gordon considers several explanations, dismissing two prominent ones — education and urbanization — right out of the gate.   In paeans to Paul David and Alex Field, he argues that the speed-up in TFP growth can be attributed to the eventual diffusion of key inventions of the “Second” industrial revolution, such as electricity; to the New Deal; and, finally, to World War II.  Chapters 17 and 18 tackle the disappointing performance of TFP growth and the standard of living in the last several decades of U.S. economic history.  Despite remarkable accomplishments in science and technology the impact on average living standards has been small, compared with the 1920-70 period.  Rising inequality since 1970, which can be tied in part to skill-biased technical change, has made matters worse, as did the Great Recession.  While Gordon is not all doom and gloom, he definitely falls on the pessimist side of the optimist-pessimist spectrum — his prediction for labor productivity growth over the 2015-40 period is 1.2 percent per year, a full third lower than the observed rate of growth from 1970 to 2014.

I think it is next to impossible to write a blockbuster economics book without it being a mixed bag in some way or other.  Gordon’s is no exception.  On the plus side, the book is well written, and one can only be in awe of Gordon’s mastery of the factual history of the American standard of living.  We all know macroeconomists who dabble in the past.  Gordon is no dabbler.  One can find interesting ideas for future (professional-level) research in every chapter — graduate students in search of topics for second year or job market papers, take note.  Many previous reviewers have chided Gordon for his pessimistic assessment of future prospects.  Of course, no one knows the future, and that includes Gordon.  It is certainly possible that he will be wrong about productivity growth over the next quarter-century — but I for one will be surprised if his prediction is off by, say, an order of magnitude.

I am less sanguine about the mixed qualitative-quantitative method of the book.  I gave up reading the history-of-technology-as-written-by-historians-of-technology a long time ago because it was just one-damn-invention-after-another.  At the end of a typical article recounting the history of improvements in, say, food processing, I was supposed to conclude that no amount of money would get me to travel back in the past before said improvements took place — except I never did reach this conclusion, knowing it to be fundamentally wrong.  Despite references to hedonic estimation, TFP, and the like, in the end Gordon’s book reads very much like conventional history of technology.  More than a half century ago Robert Fogel showed how one could quantify the social savings of a particular invention, thereby truly advancing scholarly knowledge of the treatment effects. Yet Railroads and American Economic Growth is not even cited in Gordon’s bibliography, let alone discussed in the text.  If one’s focus is the aggregate, I suppose a Fogelian approach is impossible — there are too many inventions, and (presumably) an adding-up problem to boot.  What exactly, though, do we learn from going back and forth between quantitative TFP and qualitative one-damn-invention-after-another? I’m not sure.  There’s the rub, or rather, the tradeoff.

Criticisms aside, if you are into economics blockbusters, The Rise and Fall of American Growth belongs on your bookshelf, next to Piketty and the like.  Just be sure it is a heavy-duty bookshelf.

Robert A. Margo’s Economic History Association presidential address, “Obama, Katrina, and the Persistence of Racial Inequality,” was published in the Journal of Economic History in June 2016.

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
History of Technology, including Technological Change
Household, Family and Consumer History
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

A History of the Standard of Living in the United States

Richard H. Steckel, Ohio State University

Methods of Measuring the Standard of Living

During many years of teaching, I have introduced the topic of the standard of living by asking students to pretend that they would be born again to unknown (random) parents in a country they could choose based on three of its characteristics. The list put forward in the classroom invariably includes many of the categories usually suggested by scholars who have studied the standard of living over the centuries: access to material goods and services; health; socio-economic fluidity; education; inequality; the extent of political and religious freedom; and climate. Thus, there is little disagreement among people, whether newcomers or professionals, on the relevant categories of social performance.

Components and Weights

Significant differences of opinion emerge, both among students and research specialists, on the precise measures to be used within each category and on the weights or relative importance that should be attached to each. There are numerous ways to measure health, for example, with some approaches emphasizing length of life while other people give high priority to morbidity (illness or disability) or to yet other aspects of health quality of life while living (e.g. physical fitness). Conceivably one might attempt comparisons using all feasible measures, but this is expensive and time-consuming and in any event, many good measures within categories are often highly correlated.

Weighting the various components is the most contentious issue in any attempt to summarize the standard of living, or otherwise compress diverse measures into a single number. Some people give high priority to income, for example, while others claim that health is most important. Economists and other social scientists recognize that tastes or preferences are individualistic and diverse, and following this logic to the extreme, one might argue that all interpersonal comparisons are invalid. On the other hand, there are general tendencies in preferences. Every class that I have taught has emphasized the importance of income and health, and for this reason I discuss historical evidence on these measures.

Material Aspects of the Standard of Living

Gross Domestic Product

The most widely used measure of the material standard of living is Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, adjusted for changes in the price level (inflation or deflation). This measure, real GDP per capita, reflects only economic activities that flow through markets, omitting productive endeavors unrecorded in market exchanges, such a preparing meals at home or maintenance done by the homeowner. It ignores work effort required to produce income and does not consider conditions surrounding the work environment, which might affect health and safety. Crime, pollution, and congestion, which many people consider important to their quality of life, are also excluded from GDP. Moreover technological change, relative prices and tastes affect the course of GDP and the products and services that it includes, which creates what economists call an “index number” problem that is not readily solvable. Nevertheless most economists believe that real GDP per capita does summarize or otherwise quantify important aspects of the average availability of goods and services.

Time Trends in Real GDP per Capita

Table 1 shows the course of the material standard of living in the United States from 1820 to 1998. Over this period of 178 years real GDP per capita increased 21.7 fold, or an average of 1.73 percent per year. Although the evidence available to estimate GDP directly is meager, this rate of increase was probably many times higher than experienced during the colonial period. This conclusion is justified by considering the implications of extrapolating the level observed in 1820 ($1,257) backward in time at the growth rate measured since 1820 (1.73 percent). Under this supposition, real per capita GDP would have doubled every forty years (halved every forty years going backward in time) and so by the mid 1700s there would have been insufficient income to support life. Because the cheapest diet able to sustain good health would have cost nearly $500 per year, the tentative assumption of modern economic growth contradicts what actually happened. Moreover, historical evidence suggests that important ingredients of modern economic growth, such as technological change and human and physical capital, accumulated relatively slowly during the colonial period.

Table 1: GDP per Capita in the United States

Year GDP per capitaa Annual growth rate from previous period
1820 1,257
1870 2,445 1.34
1913 5,301 1.82
1950 9,561 1.61
1973 16,689 2.45
1990 23,214 1.94
1998 27,331 2.04

a. Measured in 1990 international dollars.

Source: Maddison (2001), Tables A-1c and A-1d.

Cycles in Real GDP per Capita

Although real GDP per capita is given for only 7 dates in Table 1, it is apparent that economic progress has been uneven over time. If annual or quarterly data were given, it would show that business cycles have been a major feature of the economic landscape since industrialization began in the 1820s. By far the worst downturn in U.S. history occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when real per capita GDP declined by approximately one-third and the unemployment rate reached 25 percent.

Regional Differences

The aggregate numbers also disguise regional differences in the standard of living. In 1840 personal income per capita was twice as high in the Northeast as in the North Central States. Regional divergence increased after the Civil War when the South Atlantic became the nation’s poorest region, attaining a level only one-third of that in the Northeast. Regional convergence occurred in the twentieth century and industrialization in the South significantly improved the region’s economic standing after World War II.

Health and the Standard of Living

Life Expectancy

Two measures of health are widely used in economic history: life expectancy at birth (or average length of life) and average height, which measures nutritional conditions during the growing years. Table 2 shows that life expectancy approximately doubled over the past century and a half, reaching 76.7 years in 1998. If depressions and recessions have adversely affected the material standard of living, epidemics have been a major cause of sudden declines in health in the past. Fluctuations during the nineteenth century are evident from the table, but as a rule growth rates in health have been considerably less volatile than those for GDP, particularly during the twentieth century.

Table 2: Life Expectancy at Birth in the United States

Year Life Expectancy
1850 38.3
1860 41.8
1870 44.0
1880 39.4
1890 45.2
1900 47.8
1910 53.1
1920 54.1
1930 59.7
1940 62.9
1950 68.2
1960 69.7
1970 70.8
1980 73.7
1990 75.4
1998 76.7

Source: Haines (2002)

Childhood mortality greatly affects life expectancy, which was low in the mid 1800s substantially because mortality rates were very high for this age group. For example, roughly one child in five born alive in 1850 did not survive to age one, but today the infant mortality rate is under one percent. The past century and a half witnessed a significant shift in deaths from early childhood to old age. At the same time, the major causes of death have shifted from infectious diseases originating with germs or microorganisms to degenerative processes that are affected by life-style choices such as diet, smoking and exercise.

The largest gains were concentrated in the first half of the twentieth century, when life expectancy increased from 47.8 years in 1900 to 68.2 years in 1950. Factors behind the growing longevity include the ascent of the germ theory of disease, programs of public health and personal hygiene, better medical technology, higher incomes, better diets, more education, and the emergence of health insurance.

Explanations of Increases in Life Expectancy

Numerous important medical developments contributed to improving health. The research of Pasteur and Koch was particularly influential in leading to acceptance of the germ theory in the late 1800s. Prior to their work, many diseases were thought to have arisen from miasmas or vapors created by rotting vegetation. Thus, swamps were accurately viewed as unhealthy, but not because they were home to mosquitoes and malaria. The germ theory gave public health measures a sound scientific basis, and shortly thereafter cities began cost-effective measures to remove garbage, purify water supplies, and process sewage. The notion that “cleanliness is next to Godliness” also emerged in the home, where bathing and the washing of clothes, dishes, and floors became routine.

The discovery of Salvarsan in 1910 was the first use of an antibiotic (for syphilis), which meant that the drug was effective in altering the course of a disease. This was an important medical event, but broad-spectrum antibiotics were not available until the middle of the century. The most famous of these early drugs was penicillin, which was not manufactured in large quantities until the 1940s. Much of the gain in life expectancy was attained before chemotherapy and a host of other medical technologies were widely available. A cornerstone of improving health from the late 1800s to the middle of the twentieth century was therefore prevention of disease by reducing exposure to pathogens. Also important were improvements in immune systems created by better diets and by vaccination against diseases such as smallpox and diphtheria.


In the past quarter century, historians have increasingly used average heights to assess health aspects of the standard of living. Average height is a good proxy for the nutritional status of a population because height at a particular age reflects an individual’s history of net nutrition, or diet minus claims on the diet made by work (or physical activity) and disease. The growth of poorly nourished children may cease, and repeated bouts of biological stress — whether from food deprivation, hard work, or disease — often leads to stunting or a reduction in adult height. The average heights of children and of adults in countries around the world are highly correlated with their life expectancy at birth and with the log of the per capita GDP in the country where they live.

This interpretation for average height has led to their use in studying the health of slaves, health inequality, living standards during industrialization, and trends in mortality. The first important results in the “new anthropometric history” dealt with the nutrition and health of Americans slaves as determined from stature recorded for identification purposes on slave manifests required in the coastwise slave trade. The subject of slave health has been a contentious issue among historians, in part because vital statistics and nutrition information were never systematically collected for slaves (or for the vast majority of the American population in the mid-nineteenth century, for that matter). Yet, the height data showed that children were astonishingly small and malnourished while working slaves were remarkably well fed. Adolescent slaves grew rapidly as teenagers and were reasonably well off in nutritional aspects of health.

Time Trends in Average Height

Table 3 shows the time pattern in height of native-born American men obtained in historical periods from military muster rolls, and for men and women in recent decades from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. This historical trend is notable for the tall stature during the colonial period, the mid-nineteenth century decline, and the surge in heights of the past century. Comparisons of average heights from military organizations in Europe show that Americans were taller by two to three inches. Behind this achievement were a relatively good diet, little exposure to epidemic disease, and relative equality in the distribution of wealth. Americans could choose their foods from the best of European and Western Hemisphere plants and animals, and this dietary diversity combined with favorable weather meant that Americans never had to contend with harvest failures. Thus, even the poor were reasonably well fed in colonial America.

Table 3:

Average Height of Native-Born American Men and Women by Year of Birth



Year Men Men Women
1710 171.5 67.5
1720 171.8 67.6
1730 172.1 67.8
1740 172.1 67.8
1750 172.2 67.8
1760 172.3 67.8
1770 172.8 68.0
1780 173.2 68.2
1790 172.9 68.1
1800 172.9 68.1
1810 173.0 68.1
1820 172.9 68.1
1830 173.5 68.3
1840 172.2 67.8
1850 171.1 67.4
1860 170.6 67.2
1870 171.2 67.4
1880 169.5 66.7
1890 169.1 66.6
1900 170.0 66.9
1910 172.1 67.8
1920 173.1 68.1
1930 175.8 162.6 69.2 64.0
1940 176.7 163.1 69.6 64.2
1950 177.3 163.1 69.8 64.2
1960 177.9 164.2 70.0 64.6
1970 177.4 163.6 69.8 64.4

Source: Steckel (2002) and sources therein.

Explaining Height Cycles

Loss of stature began in the second quarter of the nineteenth century when the transportation revolution of canals, steamboats and railways brought people into greater contact with diseases. The rise of public schools meant that children were newly exposed to major diseases such as whooping cough, diphtheria, and scarlet fever. Food prices also rose during the 1830s and growing inequality in the distribution of income or wealth accompanied industrialization. Business depressions, which were most hazardous for the health of those who were already poor, also emerged with industrialization. The Civil War of the 1860s and its troop movements further spread disease and disrupted food production and distribution. A large volume of immigration also brought new varieties of disease to the United States at a time when urbanization brought a growing proportion of the population into closer contact with contagious diseases. Estimates of life expectancy among adults at ages 20, 30 and 50, which was assembled from family histories, also declined in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Rapid Increases in Heights in the First Half of the Twentieth Century

In the twentieth century, heights grew most rapidly for those born between 1910 and 1950, an era when public health and personal hygiene measures took vigorous hold, incomes rose rapidly and there was reduced congestion in housing. The latter part of the era also witnessed a larger share of income or wealth going to the lower portion of the distribution, implying that the incomes of the less well-off were rising relatively rapidly. Note that most of the rise in heights occurred before modern antibiotics were available, which means that disease prevention rather than the ability to alter its course after onset, was the most important basis of improving health. The growing control that humans have exercised over their environment, particularly increased food supply and reduced exposure to disease, may be leading to biological (but not genetic) evolution of humans with more durable vital organ systems, larger body size, and later onset of chronic diseases.

Recent Stagnation

Between the middle of the twentieth century and the present, however, the average heights of American men have stagnated, increasing by only a small fraction of an inch over the past half century. Table 3 refers to the native born, so recent increases in immigration cannot account for the stagnation. In the absence of other information, one might be tempted to suppose that environmental conditions for growth are so good that most Americans have simply reached their genetic potential for growth. Unlike the United States, heights and life expectancy have continued to grow in Europe, which has the same genetic stock from which most Americans descend. By the 1970s several American health indicators had fallen behind those in Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark. While American heights were essentially flat after the 1970s, heights continued to grow significantly in Europe. The Dutch men are now the tallest, averaging six feet, about two inches more than American men. Lagging heights leads to questions about the adequacy of health care and life-style choices in America. As discussed below, it is doubtful that lack of resource commitment to health care is the problem because America invests far more than the Netherlands. Greater inequality and less access to health care could be important factors in the difference. But access to health care alone, whether due to low income or lack of insurance coverage, may not be the only issues — health insurance coverage must be used regularly and wisely. In this regard, Dutch mothers are known for regular pre-and post-natal checkups, which are important for early childhood health.

Note that significant differences in health and the quality of life follow from these height patterns. The comparisons are not part of an odd contest that emphasizes height, nor is big per se assumed to be beautiful. Instead, we know that on average, stunted growth has functional implications for longevity, cognitive development, and work capacity. Children who fail to grow adequately are often sick, suffer learning impairments and have a lower quality of life. Growth failure in childhood has a long reach into adulthood because individuals whose growth has been stunted are at greater risk of death from heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer. Therefore it is important to know why Americans are falling behind.

International Comparisons

Per capita GDP

Table 4 places American economic performance in perspective relative to other countries. In 1820 the United States was fifth in world rankings, falling roughly thirty percent below the leaders (United Kingdom and the Netherlands), but still two-to-three times better off than the poorest sections of the globe. It is notable that in 1820 the richest country (the Netherlands at $1,821) was approximately 4.4 times better off than the poorest (Africa at $418) but by 1950 the ratio of richest-to-poorest had widened to 21.8 ($9,561 in the United States versus $439 in China), which is roughly the level it is today (in 1998, it was $27,331 in the United States versus $1,368 in Africa). These calculations understate the growing disparity in the material standard of living because several African countries today fall significantly below the average, whereas it is unlikely that they did so in 1820 because GDP for the continent as a whole was close to the level of subsistence.

Table 4: GDP per Capita by Country and Year (1990 International $)

Country 1820 1870 1913 1950 1973 1998 Ratio 1998 to 1820
Austria 1,218 1,863 3,465 3,706 11,235 18,905 15.5
Belgium 1,319 2,697 4,220 5,462 12,170 19,442 14.7
Denmark 1,274 2,003 3,912 6,946 13,945 22,123 17.4
Finland 781 1,140 2,111 4,253 11,085 18,324 23.5
France 1,230 1,876 3,485 5,270 13,123 19,558 15.9
Germany 1,058 1,821 3,648 3,881 11,966 17,799 16.8
Italy 1,117 1,499 2,564 3,502 10,643 17,759 15.9
Netherlands 1,821 2,753 4,049 5,996 13,082 20,224 11.1
Norway 1,104 1,432 2,501 5,463 11,246 23,660 21.4
Sweden 1,198 1,664 3,096 6,738 13,493 18,685 15.6
Switzerland 1,280 2,202 4,266 9,064 18,204 21,367 16.7
United Kingdom 1,707 3,191 4,921 6,907 12,022 18,714 11.0
Portugal 963 997 1,244 2,069 7,343 12,929 13.4
Spain 1,063 1,376 2,255 2,397 8,739 14,227 13.4
United States 1,257 2,445 5,301 9,561 16,689 27,331 21.7
Mexico 759 674 1,732 2,365 4,845 6,655 8.8
Japan 669 737 1,387 1,926 11,439 20,413 30.5
China 600 530 552 439 839 3,117 5.2
India 533 533 673 619 853 1,746 3.3
Africa 418 444 585 852 1,365 1,368 3.3
World 667 867 1,510 2,114 4,104 5,709 8.6
Ratio of richest to poorest 4.4 7.2 8.9 20.6 21.7 20.0

Source: Maddison (2001), Table B-21.

It is clear that the poorer countries are better off today than they were in 1820 (3.3 fold in both Africa and India). But the countries that are now rich grew at a much faster rate. The last column of Table 4 shows that Japan realized the most spectacular gain, climbing from approximately the world average in 1820 to the fifth richest today, with an increase of over thirty fold in real per capita GDP. All countries that are rich today had rapid increases in their material standard of living, realizing more than ten-fold increases since 1820. The underlying reasons for this diversity of economic success is a central question in the field of economic history.

Life Expectancy

Table 5 shows that disparities in life expectancy have been much less than those in per capita GDP. In 1820 all countries were bunched in the range of 21 to 41 years, with Germany at the top and India at the bottom, giving a ratio of less than 2 to 1. It is doubtful that any country or region has had a life expectancy below 20 years for long periods of time because death rates would have exceeded any plausible upper limit for birth rates, leading to population implosion. The twentieth century witnessed a compression in life expectancies across countries, with the ratio of levels in 1999 being 1.56 (81 in Japan versus 52 in Africa). Japan has also been a spectacular performer in health, increasing life expectancy from 34 years in 1820 to 81 years in 1999. Among poor unhealthy countries, health aspects of the standard of living have improved more rapidly than the material standard of living relative to the world average. Because many public health measures are cheap and effective, it has been easier to extend life than it has been to promote material prosperity, which has numerous complicated causes.

Table 5: Life Expectancy at Birth by Country and Year

Country 1820 1900 1950 1999
France 37 47 65 78
Germany 41 47 67 77
Italy 30 43 66 78
Netherlands 32 52 72 78
Spain 28 35 62 78
Sweden 39 56 70 79
United Kingdom 40 50 69 77
United States 39 47 68 77
Japan 34 44 61 81
Russia 28 32 65 67
Brazil 27 36 45 67
Mexico n.a. 33 50 72
China n.a. 24 41 71
India 21 24 32 60
Africa 23 24 38 52
World 26 31 49 66

n.a.: not available.

Source: Maddison (2001), Table 1-5a.

Height Comparisons

Figure 1 compares stature in the United States and the United Kingdom. Americans were very tall by global standards in the early nineteenth century as a result of their rich and varied diets, low population density, and relative equality of wealth. Unlike other countries that have been studied (France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Japan and Australia), both the U.S. and the U.K. suffered significant height declines during industrialization (as defined primarily by the achievement of modern economic growth) in the nineteenth century. (Note, however, that the amount and timing of the height decline in the U.K. has been the subject of a lively debate in the Economic History Review involving Roderick Floud, Kenneth Wachter and John Komlos; only the Floud-Wachter figures are given here.)

Source: Steckel (2002, Figure 12) and Floud, Wachter and Gregory (1990, table 4.8).

One may speculate that the timing of the declines shown in the Figure 1 is probably more coincidental than emblematic of linkage among similar causal factors across the two countries. While it is possible that growing trade and commerce spread disease, as in the United States, it is more likely that a major culprit in the U.K was rapid urbanization and associated increased in exposure to diseases. This conclusion is reached by noting that urban-born men were substantially shorter than the rural born, and between the periods of 1800-1830 and 1830–1870 the share of the British population living in urban areas leaped from 38.7 to 54.1%.


Easterlin, Richard A. “Regional Income Trends, 1840-1950.” In The Reinterpretation of American Economic History, edited byRobert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Engerman, Stanley L. “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. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

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

Haines, Michael. “Vital Statistics.” In Historical Statistics of the United States: Millennial Edition, edited by Susan Carter, Scott Gartner, Michael Haines, Alan Olmstead, Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright. New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming, 2002.

Komlos, John. “Shrinking in a Growing Economy? The Mystery of Physical Stature during the Industrial Revolution.” Journal of Economic History 58, no. 3 (1998): 779-802.

Maddison, Angus. The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective. Paris: OECD, 2001.

Meeker, Edward. “Medicine and Public Health.” In Encyclopedia of American Economic History, edited by Glenn Porter. New York: Scribner, 1980.

Pope, Clayne L. “Adult Mortality in America before 1900: A View from Family Histories.” In Strategic Factors in Nineteenth-Century American Economic History: A Volume to Honor Robert W. Fogel, edited by Claudia Goldin and Hugh Rockoff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Porter, Roy, editor. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Steckel, Richard H. “Health, Nutrition and Physical Well-Being.” In Historical Statistics of the United States: Millennial Edition, edited by Susan Carter, Scott Gartner, Michael Haines, Alan Olmstead, Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright. New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming, 2002.

Steckel, Richard H. “Industrialization and Health in Historical Perspective.” In Poverty, Inequality and Health, edited by David Leon and Gill Walt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Steckel, Richard H. “Strategic Ideas in the Rise of the New Anthropometric History and Their Implications for Interdisciplinary Research.” Journal of Economic History 58, no. 3 (1998): 803-21.

Steckel, Richard H. “Stature and the Standard of Living.” Journal of Economic Literature 33, no. 4 (1995): 1903-1940.

Steckel, Richard H. “A Peculiar Population: The Nutrition, Health, and Mortality of American Slaves from Childhood to Maturity.” Journal of Economic History 46, no. 3 (1986): 721-41.

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

Citation: Steckel, Richard. “A History of the Standard of Living in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. July 21, 2002. URL

The Standard of Living and Revolutions in Russia, 1700?1917

Author(s):Mironov, Boris
Reviewer(s):Baten, Joerg

Published by EH.Net (January 2013)

Boris Mironov, The Standard of Living and Revolutions in Russia, 1700?1917.? Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2012. xxxii + 668 pp. $145 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-60854-1

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joerg Baten, Department of Economic History, University of Tuebingen.

Boris Mironov has written an outstanding book on the development of a particularly interesting Empire ? the trends of the biological standard not only of Russians, but also those of Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and all other nationalities that were part of this Empire are traced here for the first time. Mironov?s main hypothesis is that there was not a systemic crisis, which should be visible as a decline of the standard of living during the late nineteenth century (preceding the Russian Revolution), but that this period was rather a successful period of development of the Empire. This debate is central in the historiography and it has a crucial impact for today?s policy discussion: Was the late nineteenth Russian Empire a failure because it was autocratic or because it was also bad for health and welfare? The violence of the period after 1917 has traditionally been seen on this background.? Mironov, in contrast, sees favorable developments during the late nineteenth century, based on anthropometric evidence. I find his argument convincing and the evidence quite solid. One question I have, however, is whether the height increase in Russia was really remarkable by international standards, or did heights increase in comparable countries even more strongly? This book concentrates on the Russian evidence, which is good. The international comparison (p. 592) is based on evidence which relies on quite heterogeneous assumptions. But in this figure, it seems that the Russian increase between 1850 and 1900 was not very impressive (similar to the increases in Italy, Spain, and France) whereas the Netherlands and Germany had a stronger increase. Another comparison might be the worldwide increase found by Baten and Blum (2012) ? which participants of 2012 World Economic History Conference had in their conference bag (after Mironov?s fine book was written).

Other parts of the book support his main hypothesis, or they provide important additional evidence. For example, geographic differences within the Russian Empire are obviously of central importance, given that the Empire was so large and multifaceted. The anthropometric record reveals quite good levels in the Baltic area and Southern and Southeastern Ukraine. Thematic maps could perhaps have been helpful here, both of heights and the main explanatory variables. One of Mironov?s main results of comparing height and potential explanatory variables by region is that livestock per capita had the closest correlation with height around the mid-nineteenth century, whereas wages (and to a lesser extent education) became more important in later cross-sections.

Speaking of education, Mironov finds that literacy rates of army recruits were far lower (0.3?1.2%, p. 59?61) in the eighteenth century than existing estimates for Russia (5%). This might be caused by recruit selectivity or perhaps by an upward bias in the population estimates. Literacy definitions are also often inconsistent, especially in the early modern period. In contrast, nineteenth century literacy in the army and overall population are consistent ? and quite low for a European country, in the range of 20 to 40 percent (when Western and Northern Europe had reached full literacy already).

Other chapters of this voluminous book comment on consumption statistics (finding a crisis in the mid nineteenth century, and low food consumption quality for children), and wages and prices. One of Mironov?s points here is that wages were earned by only a small minority of the population. Hence, real wage trends might only reflect a special group (even if Mironov emphasizes integrated markets). Finally, a whole chapter is dedicated to contemporaneous perceptions of standards of living and the progress reached by Czarist governments, and another one about how much Malthusian, Marxist and modernism theories can explain. (Mironov?s views are most compatible with the latter set of theories.)

All in all, his view is that there was considerable progress in late nineteenth century Russia. The revolution of 1917 and the violence that followed were not legitimized by a preceding systemic crisis. In his view, the revolution was artificially initiated by propaganda of parts of the elites. Of course, critics might ask whether the majority of the population perceived the situation as promising for the future. People might not only want reasonable nutrition for the present, but also some degree of security for the future. For example, agricultural small-holders wanted land to secure subsistence, and the Czarist government was probably not able or willing to fulfill these wishes (reducing land inequality at the expense of the aristocracy). Educational levels were still modest in European comparison and it was not so clear whether industrial development could proceed broadly on this educational basis. However, Mironov addresses many potential objections to his paradigm change away from a systemic crisis. And his book is a really impressive quantitative basis to understand the economic development of the Russian Empire ? over more than 200 years.


Joerg Baten and Matthew Blum (2012) ?Growing Taller, but Unequal: Biological Well-Being in World Regions and Its Determinants, 1810-1989,? Economic History of Developing Regions, 27: S66-S85.

Joerg Baten?s publications include: ?Quantifying Quantitative Literacy: Age Heaping and the History of Human Capital? (with Brian A?Hearn and Dorothee Crayen), Journal of Economic History (2009).

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 ( Published by EH.Net (January 2013). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

The Hidden Cost of Economic Development: The Biological Standard of Living in Antebellum Pennsylvania

Author(s):Cuff, Timothy
Reviewer(s):Craig, Lee A.

Published by EH.NET (November 2005)

Timothy Cuff, The Hidden Cost of Economic Development: The Biological Standard of Living in Antebellum Pennsylvania. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2005. xvii + 277 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-7546-4119-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lee A. Craig, Department of Economics, North Carolina State University.

A long time ago, on college campuses far, far away, a great battle raged over the effects of industrialization. The “optimists” viewed modern economic growth and its boon companion, industrialization, as unambiguously good — led as they were by good things like the market. There might have been some collateral damage, but living standards, defined by economic indicators — e.g. wages and your favorite column in the national income and product accounts — increased steadily. And, hey, that’s the point, right? Not necessarily, answered the “pessimists,” who chanted: “Enclosure, the Workhouse, and Satanic Mills!”

While it’s a judgement a call, a good case can be made that, at least on the Cliometric side of things, the optimists got the best of the debate. But before they could secure final victory, there emerged a research agenda that yielded a new set of weapons — new to the cliometricians anyway. Rather than GDP per capita, the Hectors of this war hurled biological indicators like mortality rates, stature, and body-mass indices. Of these, stature became the standard weapon, and in several countries, including the antebellum United States, the trends in stature diverged from the trends in the standard economic indicators. This divergence characterized the so-called “antebellum puzzle,” and in turn breathed new life into the pessimists’ case.

Timothy Cuff’s The Hidden Cost of Economic Development can best be seen against this intellectual backdrop. The title gives away the punch line. Cuff, professor of Religion, History, Philosophy, and Classics at Westminster College, is a New Age pessimist. Though he focuses on the state of Pennsylvania from c.1800 through c.1860 — the antebellum era that produced the antebellum puzzle — he clearly wants to extrapolate the Keystone State’s experiences. In Cuff’s view, the problem in Pennsylvania, and more generally, was that while the nexus of industrialization, urbanization, and trade led to an obvious increase in productivity and economic output, there were less obvious biological costs, the primary manifestation of which was that people got shorter. There’s more to it than that, of course. As Cuff notes, “it is not the population’s ‘shortness’ that mattered. Rather what mattered was that they likely were less healthy adults and probably lived shorter lives as a consequence” (p. 215). Cuff’s findings are consistent with the so-called “insult accumulation model,” which suggests that illness and nutritional deficiencies weaken the individual and ultimately result in higher mortality.[1]

Cuff begins by making the argument that Pennsylvania is a good case study for industrialization’s impact on the biological standard of living. As one who is guilty of dismissing too quickly region-specific studies, on the grounds that “I don’t care about (say) antebellum Pennsylvania,” I hope potential readers take a look at this chapter. Cuff convinces the reader that one should care about Pennsylvania, because as a rapidly industrializing, yet economically and geographically diverse, region it is in fact a very good case study for the period in question.

In Chapter 2 Cuff offers the reader an outstanding summary of both the history and current state of anthropometrics, which, following Noel Cameron, Cuff defines formally as “the technique of expressing quantitatively the form of the body” (p. 10).[2] Using concise, yet descriptive, prose Cuff gives a lesson in the history of the science, and social science, of anthropometrics. The chapter contains an especially thoughtful and thorough summary of recent work and the current state of the field. If you don’t have time to read the complete works of John Komlos, and you want something more recent than Rick Steckel’s fine review in the Journal of Economic Literature [3] a decade ago, then this chapter might be the place to start. I have already recommended the chapter to a few economics graduate students and colleagues who asked for a primer on “the heights stuff.”

Having persuaded the reader of his mastery of the art of anthropometry, in Chapter 3 Cuff turns to the theory of economic exchange, which might seem a curious topic for an anthropometric historian, but here Cuff is laying the groundwork for his exploration of the divergence between stature and output per capita. The causal chain is laid out: Industrialization, urbanization, trade, disease, nutritional deficits, shorter statures and the aforementioned less-healthy, shorter lives. Cuff’s summary of market integration, trade theory, and trade’s role in economic growth is as good as his summary of the literature on anthropometrics. His ability to master vast literatures on topics as diverse as human biology and comparative advantage and make them accessible to the reader in a relatively small number of pages is truly remarkable. Economists have a hard time explaining gains from trade without equations and diagrams. Cuff does not. I have already recommended this chapter to several undergraduates and non-economists.

In Chapter 4, we learn about the economic history of antebellum Pennsylvania, perhaps a bit more than the casual reader might fully appreciate. As I approached the end of the chapter, I was hoping to run into a colleague or student who would stop me and ask if I knew of a good concise history of antebellum Pennsylvania. Alas, even with the passage of some time, I still have not.

Chapters 5 and 6 contain the empirical evidence and Cuff’s conclusions concerning economic factors and human stature. Employing data on the heights of Civil War veterans, Cuff pushes them about as hard as they can be pushed. In Pennsylvania, during at least some portion of the first half of the nineteenth century, Cuff finds that just about every identifiable group got shorter. Some groups did better than others. Rural dwellers did better than urban and town dwellers; farmers fared better than wage workers; and farmers in less developed regions fared better than those in regions experiencing industrialization. If you’re looking for variables that are strongly and positively correlated with human stature, then look for hogs, home manufactures, and nutritional surpluses. As for those that are negatively correlated, they include living on a navigable waterway and market garden activity. The key is net nutrition. Moving to town and selling one’s labor to a capitalist might have increased one’s income, but simultaneously some combination of work, disease, and diet tended to erode the biological standard of living.

Overall this volume must be considered a strong scholarly effort. Well-written, tightly reasoned, and carefully crafted, it represents a valuable contribution to both the anthropometric literature and the historiography of the antebellum United States. While supporting the case for a pessimistic “Malthusian squeeze” [4], Cuff does not destroy the optimists’ most basic arguments. After all, many of us have and will voluntarily endure some hardships for a job at the mill, some overtime, or a consulting check, and once cashed the monies will be spent eagerly on cheeseburgers and milk shakes or, perhaps, foie gras and H?agen Dazs. The optimists understand homo economicus all too well. A few high-fat utils beat an increase in bad cholesterol. Still, Cuff’s research suggests that in the future a bit of skepticism will aid the digestion of the optimists’ case.


1. James C. Riley, Sickness, Recovery, and Death: A History of Forecast of Ill Health. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989.

2. Noel Cameron, “The Methods of Auxological Anthropometry.” In Human Growth: A Comprehensive Treatise, second edition, Vol. 3, edited by F. Falkner and J.M. Tanner. New York: Plenum, 1986, pp. 263-81.

3. Richard Steckel, “Stature and the Standard of Living,” Journal of Economic Literature 33, no. 4 (1995), pp. 1903-40.

4. Michael Haines, 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, no. 2 (2003), pp. 385-416.

Lee A. Craig is Alumni Distinguished Professor of Economics at North Carolina State University. His most recent research is, with Matthew Holt, “Nonlinear Dynamics and Structural Change in the U.S. Hog-Corn Relationship,” American Journal of Agricultural Economics, forthcoming. His most recent book, with Robert Clark and Jack Wilson, is A History of Public Sector Pensions in the United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003). He is currently writing a biography of Josephus Daniels.

Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

The Biological Standard of Living in Comparative Perspective

Author(s):Komlos, John
Baten, Joerg
Reviewer(s):Murray, John E.

Published by EH.NET (February 2000)

John Komlos and Jvrg Baten, editors, The Biological Standard of Living in

Comparative Perspective. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998. 528 pp.,

ISBN 3-515-07220-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John E. Murray, Department of Economics, University of


This book is a collection of conference proceedings, or rather pre-conference

proceedings, since it gathers together papers that would have been presented at

an A session of the ill-fated Seville/Madrid IEHA meetings in 1998. The

session (which was organized by John Komlos and Sebastian Coll) and book are

devoted to reporting a variety of studies in anthropometric history, that is,

the analysis primarily of human height as measured in large samples, but also

weight in those rare cases when it is available. The essays number twenty-eight

in total, followed by a brief summary by the editors who were also the session


Geographical coverage is positively sprawling, with notable papers on

heights in China (by Stephen Morgan), Argentina (by Ricardo Salvatore and Jvrg

Baten) and Korea (by Insong Gill). Individual studies appear on nearly every

European country. Height and body mass index (weight adjusted for height) in

Australia are examined by Stephen Nicholas, Robert Gregory, and Sue Kimberley;

and there are no fewer than five essays on heights of Federal soldiers in the

American Civil War. Two papers combine height data from several different

countries to synthesize a broader yet coherent story, Henk-Jan Brinkman and

J.W. Drukker on developing countries today and Sebastian Coll on four European

nations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Modes of analysis are catholic. Most papers are by economic historians who

generally employ tried and true techniques of statistical regression analysis

on data recovered from written manuscripts. They dutifully report the results

of regressions with those tiny R-squareds that vex the non-cognoscenti. But not

only that: nearly every paper in this

style presents data in pictorial format, for example, distribution frequencies

of heights, growth by age curves, and time trends in final adult height. One

need not be able to read a table of regression results to learn plenty about

the state of the anthropometric art from this volume. In addition,

two essays present findings of physical anthropologists. Jesper Boldsen and Jes

Sxgaard estimate Danish heights from bones that date from as far back as 1100

A.D. Barry Bogin and Ryan Keep consider bones that

are some eight millennia old in Mesoamerica. In short, the range of

contributions reflects how international and interdisciplinary the

anthropometric history research project has become.

In general, as might be expected, the authors are optimistic that the study of

height and other anthropometric data can illuminate issues of human welfare in

the past. To the editors’ credit, they include two papers that might be

described as anthropo-skeptical. One, by Robert McGuire and Philip Coelho,

urges the disease

factor in the height = gross nutrition – disease

– workload equation be given more emphasis. The other by Sally Horrocks and

David Smith is a postmodern take on the “social processes of science” which

despite the now-standard use of “privilege” as a verb

offers constructive suggestions for linking more data-driven anthropometric

history with the institutional histories of the data generating sources.

As is common among volumes of conference proceedings, the virtues of the genre

are its vices. The organizers have edited the volume lightly, leading to an

odd combination of intense concentration on a few issues and a collection of

other papers that almost seem to have walked in from a different conference.

For example, in two separate and most intriguing papers Michael Haines (in

one) and Lee Craig and Thomas Weiss (in the other) examine the relationship

between local agricultural output and stature among American Civil War

soldiers. The results do not exactly coincide as Craig and Weiss find a much

stronger relationship than does Haines. The interested reader would like to

see these papers in dialog. At the same time, the geographic and chronological

coverage is mind-boggling.

It is hard to imagine many other concepts that can be fruitfully applied to

humans from so many different times and places.

The book may not be easy to find; for example, I could not locate it on’s website. You may need to order it directly from the publisher.

(Their email address is Their URL

is This volume would make a very good addition to

academic libraries, where students and scholars of economic history, world

history, physical anthropology, and economic development can see where this

particular research strategy stands at present. The freshness of this volume

embodies the current state of the anthropometric research project,

which might make it an optimal venue to inform the scholarly reading public of

its findings. Scholars of many periods, regions, and disciplines are analyzing

and reporting anthropometrica. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

John E. Murray’s articles on anthopometric history have appeared in

Journal of Economic History, Journal of Interdisciplinary

History, and

Annals of Human Biology.

Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Labour and Living Standards in Pre-Colonial West Africa: The Case of the Gold Coast

Author(s):Rönnbäck, Klas
Reviewer(s):Shumway, Rebecca

Published by EH.Net (October 2017)

Klas Rönnbäck, Labour and Living Standards in Pre-Colonial West Africa: The Case of the Gold Coast. New York: Routledge, 2016. xvii + 209 pp. $163 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-84893-578-5.


Reviewed for EH.Net by Rebecca Shumway, Department of History, College of Charleston.
Taking as a case study the southern part of modern-day Ghana in West Africa, Labour and Living Standards in Pre-Colonial West Africa seeks to address the near absence of global comparative economic history dealing with living conditions in Africa. The aim of the book is to uncover the nature of living standards in pre-colonial Africa and to address the question of how the transatlantic slave trade affected those living standards. The focus is on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the time when the transatlantic slave trade expanded in the part of West Africa known in that period as the Gold Coast.

Rönnbäck situates the study within a thorough review of economic theories in the introductory chapter. He describes the benefits and drawbacks of previous studies of neo-institutionalist theory, dependency theory and underdevelopment theory (and its critics). He also describes the relevant trends in African labor history, particularly those related to definitions of a “working class” and theories related to land abundance versus land scarcity in economic historiography.

The body of the book is seven chapters, followed by a brief conclusion. Chapter 2 reviews the existing economic history of the Gold Coast. Chapter 3 explains the sources used in the study and the methodology. Rönnbäck has done extensive research among the written records created by Europeans who lived on or visited the Gold Coast in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He discounts the use of any other type of sources, shunning oral tradition in particular. His research hinges to a large extent on two databases he compiled from the European sources. The first, “The Gold Coast Pre-Colonial Price Database,” brings together data relating to what goods were purchased by the English Royal Africa Company, the prices at which they were purchased, and the goods sold on the coast during the period 1699-1760. The other, called “The Gold Coast Pre-Colonial Labour Database,” compiles the records of the Royal Africa Company’s payment of wages to its staff, including Europeans, free African laborers and slaves. These data sets undoubtedly represent a small fraction of the total number of commercial transactions and wage payments taking place in coastal Ghana during this period, but they provide a reasonable set of statistics for the type of analysis Rönnbäck makes in subsequent chapters. In compiling the Labor database, Rönnbäck appears to have made some questionable assumptions about the racial and ethnic identities of individuals. As he notes, some individuals are listed by full name in the account books, while many Africans are listed only by first name or without any name at all. His assumption that people listed with full names are Europeans, however, should be scrutinized. People of mixed European and African heritage frequently had European-sounding names but may not have been listed with a qualifying note as to their “mulatto” or “black” identity.

Chapter 4 explores the well-known phenomenon of Europeans’ racist attitudes toward Africans and their tendency to describe Africans as lazy or lacking a work ethic. Chapter 5 describes the nature of labor within Cape Coast Castle (headquarters of the English slave trade in Africa) and provides useful comparisons of wages for people of various occupations and comparison of wages for men versus women. Chapter 6 examines the domestic markets in the Gold Coast, with an emphasis on the Cape Coast daily market. Rönnbäck makes the very interesting observation that the demand for provisions (foodstuffs) from slave ships does not seem to have affected prices in Cape Coast. Local demand for provisions among inhabitants of towns and cities on the Gold Coast, he argues, was simply too great to be offset by the relatively minor demand from the slave trade. Chapter 7 makes a brief assessment of material culture on the Gold Coast, including houses, furnishings, clothing and other imported goods.

Chapter 8 provides an estimate of living standards on the Gold Coast using a method called welfare ratios, pioneered by Robert Allen, which allows comparison of historical material relating to living standards from various places around the globe. Here Rönnbäck charts the mean subsistence ratios for linguists, carpenters and canoemen between the 1660s and 1750, drawing on the work of Ray Kea and his own databases. He shows that subsistence ratios for one group, the canoemen, appear to have declined quite a bit between the 1660s and 1730s, suggesting that living standards for canoemen deteriorated over this span of time. Based on his calculations, Rönnbäck makes the intriguing suggestion that living standards on the Gold Coast may have deteriorated as a result of the influx of people into the coastal towns during the decades when the transatlantic slave trade was causing increased violence in the hinterland. As more unskilled labour became available, wage levels may have decreased. The influx of refugees may also have driven up the prices of staple goods, thereby reducing the living standards of waged workers. While Rönnbäck makes what seems an incorrect assumption that canoemen are among the “unskilled” workers on the coast, his overall conclusions are nevertheless provocative. His calculations ultimately suggest that the subsistence ratios for unskilled labour on the Gold Coast were comparable to those of unskilled workers elsewhere in the world — particularly India, Mexico and Austria — challenging the widespread assumption that Africans have historically been relatively impoverished.

This innovative work will be a helpful guide to historians of Africa in the era of the slave trade and to economic historians in search of a precolonial African case study with which to compare other cases. It brings together the English-language documentary sources and several other key European documentary sources in a thorough analysis of various aspects of the precolonial Gold Coast economy.

Rebecca Shumway is Assistant Professor of African History at the College of Charleston. Her main interests are West African history and the history of the Atlantic World and African Diaspora. Her most recent book is Slavery and its Legacy in Ghana and the Diaspora (with Trevor R. Getz), Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2017.

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (October 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Africa
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century

Measuring Wellbeing: A History of Italian Living Standards

Author(s):Vecchi, Giovanni
Reviewer(s):Focacci, Chiara Natalie
Incerpi, Andrea
Ramazzotti, Andrea
Pala, Giovanni Maria
Molteni, Marco

Published by EH.Net (July 2017)

Giovanni Vecchi, Measuring Wellbeing: A History of Italian Living Standards. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xvii + 645 pp., $99 (hardback), ISBN: 978-0-19-994459-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Chiara Natalie Focacci, Andrea Incerpi, Marco Molteni, Giovanni Maria Pala, and Andrea Ramazzotti.

Measuring Wellbeing offers a multidimensional, quantitative analysis of Italian living standards from the country’s unification in 1861 to the present day. In doing so, it goes beyond the misleading identification of living standards with strictly monetary indexes, broadening the focus to include measures of physical wellbeing and social indicators.  Giovanni Vecchi collaborates with eighteen scholars from a range of universities and research institutions to take stock of the latest research in their areas. Each chapter deals with a different dimension of wellbeing and is co-authored by Vecchi and other economic historians. All chapters include an appendix on sources and methodology. The book presents new as well as pre-existing estimates of welfare indicators at the national and regional level, and — when possible — puts these in international perspective. Many of the estimates are drawn from Vecchi’s previous book, In Ricchezza e in Povertà (2011). Measuring Wellbeing expands on and brings to the international audience the work done for the Italian edition.

As stated in the introduction, the book is not intended as a definitive work. It is instead a landmark which organizes for the reader the research conducted so far. It is a meticulous attempt to provide scholars with a sound, heterogeneous picture of the latest knowledge on the evolution of Italian living standards. Nonetheless, the book refrains from dealing with the “deep” causes underlying the measures it surveys. In this sense, it is conceived as a methodological work and a platform for future research.

The book has two souls. It will interest the Italianist as both an accessible introduction and an authoritative reference on living standards in Italy from a quantitative perspective. Equally though it should appeal to scholars interested in Italy as a case study for the analysis of wellbeing. It deals with the issues in a clear (at times pedagogical) way, making this book an ideal starting point even for students outside the boundaries of economics eager to approach the issue of living standards rigorously.

Perhaps Vecchi’s most significant contribution regards the innovative method of exploiting historical household budgets as a micro-data source to study poverty and inequality. Historical application of this approach was pioneered in Rossi, Vecchi and Toniolo (2001); a more recent assessment can be found in A’Hearn, Amendola and Vecchi (2016). The chapter on “Household Budgets” (chapter 13, whose coauthor is Stefano Chianese) presents a collection of almost 20,000 Italian household budgets from 1861 to present. This collection is part of the larger Historical Household Budgets Project (HHB:

The Italian Household Budgets Database (IHBD) includes both the typical statistics and surveys produced by institutions such as ISTAT (Italian Statistical Office) or the Bank of Italy, and documents from family archives, trade unions, cultural institutions, and personnel records of public and private employers. In the database, proper historical household budgets are also combined, controversially but interestingly, with so-called “synthetic,” hypothetical households. In addition to earnings and expenses, these sources provide micro-evidence also on other socio-demographic characteristics. The problem of such an ad hoc collection not being a representative sample is addressed using post-stratification techniques and census data to weigh observations appropriately.

IHBD is then employed as a basis for estimating monetary indicators of the distribution of wellbeing, such as inequality (chapter 8; with Nicola Amendola) and poverty (chapter 9; with Amendola and Fernando Salsano). Historical household budgets are also used in developing a novel indicator of vulnerability (chapter 11; with Mariacristina Rossi and Lucia Latino), assessing “how the living conditions of the Italians have been – and are still – conditioned by the presence of risk and uncertainty” (p. 416), i.e. the risk of falling into poverty.

Among other monetary indicators, the authors reconstruct national and regional estimates of income (chapter 7; with Alessandro Brunetti and Emanuele Felice), and wealth (chapter 10; with Luigi Cannari and Giovanni D’Alessio). A chapter on the cost of living (chapter 14; with Amendola) problematizes the issue of temporal as well as spatial price differences in a historical perspective, emphasizing how good price indexes are essential to getting accurate monetary indicators — especially in countries like Italy where regional disparities are substantial.

Producing original estimates or linking existing but scattered series, the authors address physical wellbeing by analyzing nutrition (chapter 1; with Marina Sorrentino), height (chapter 2; with Brian A’Hearn), and health (chapter 3, with Vincenzo Atella and Silvia Francisci). To further investigate non-monetary dimensions, the authors consider education (chapter 5; with A’Hearn), migration (chapter 6; with Matteo Gomellini and Cormac Ó Grada) and the human development index (chapter 12; with Amendola and Giacomo Gabbuti). An original exploration of child labor is provided in Chapter 4 (with Francesco Cinnirella and Gianni Toniolo).

Remarkably, the fourteen chapters are preceded by an introduction but not followed by a conclusion summarizing the main findings and trends. The work is indeed a kaleidoscope, from which no mosaic emerges: the tiles are given, but their arrangement is left to the interpretation and judgment of the reader. A reason for this choice can be discerned in the chapter on the Human Development Index. In this “non-conclusive conclusion,” a one-dimensional synthesis of wellbeing is strongly rejected by the authors, who regard a reductive summary of the complex picture of Italian living standards in the long run as both impractical and undesirable. This approach is at the same time the strongest and weakest point of the book.

One of the factors that makes it hard to give a summary overview of Italian living standards in historical perspective is the issue of regional disparities. Monetary indicators all reflect the long-lasting divide between the North and the South of the country. The chapter on income assesses the prevalence of the North-South divide relative to region-specific determinants of geographic variation since the 1930s, and identifies a short-lived period of convergence starting in the 1950s and driven by publicly funded development projects. Regional polarization looms large over inequality, poverty risk, the distribution of wealth, and the dynamics of vulnerability. At first glance, lagging regions appear to have fared better on non-monetary dimensions of wellbeing, as convergence was stronger for key indicators such as life expectancy and infant mortality. Closer scrutiny reveals that convergence, though real, was slow and subject to setbacks and reversals. The chapter on height provides a particularly close examination of the persistence of regional divides in a context of general progress. The analysis delivers a nuanced picture, where local economic conditions prevail over the efforts of national policymaking.

The book also casts light on the understudied effects of industrialization on the living standards of the Italians. Although they maintain a certain reticence, the authors argue that Italian industrialization was relatively benign. Such conclusion is sustained by findings presented throughout the book. For instance, after discussing alternative strategies, Vecchi, Amendola and Salsano settle on an Orshansky-type poverty line, which is absolute, but adapts to a changing economic and social context. On this basis they estimate a remarkable series of absolute poverty incidence for the whole post-unification period, finding that poverty fell almost continuously, except for short-lived spells that do not coincide with the decades of stronger industrialization. Moreover, the authors estimate that the growth effect almost always favored “a reduction in poverty,” while “the variations in income redistribution have always had an adverse effect on absolute poverty” (p. 368): the “growth effect” has largely offset this “inequality effect.”[1]. A “benign” industrialization also appears in the anthropometric data, as the average stature of the Italian population “never experience[d] any falls” (p. 58), which might be expected in “industrializing areas undergoing rapid urbanization” (p. 59). As a final example, child labor — whose incidence was extremely high in 1881 – “dropped quite sharply during the first stages of industrialisation (1881-1911)” (p. 154) and again during the “economic miracle” (from the 1950s to the mid 1960s), a pattern which contrasts with recent findings on other European countries.

Another general conclusion that seems to emerge is that the achievements of the past should not be taken for granted. On a number of indicators documented in the book (e.g. child labor, income, inequality) recent years have witnessed a partial reversal of the remarkable leaps forward of the post-war “Golden Age.” However, as the authors claim in the closing of the chapter on income: “caution is the watchword, here, since we lack a suitable temporal perspective in order to judge whether the malaise is temporary (albeit prolonged), reversible, or irreparable” (p. 289).

Vecchi’s Measuring Wellbeing is a brave study attempting to fill the gap within the Italian economic history literature on quantifying living standards. The concept of wellbeing is presented as multifaceted and the book also explores non-orthodox dimensions. Unfortunately, it is difficult for the reader to reach an all-embracing conclusion (especially without background knowledge of Italian history), but this is not the authors’ final aim, and this shortcoming is compensated by the relevant methodological contributions that this book presents. This is an innovative and important work and ought to interest both economists and historians — not necessarily just “Italianists.” With regards to Italy, it will soon become the standard reference on the topic of wellbeing, providing scholars with a springboard for their present and future research.


As defined by the authors, “The first is interpreted as the variation in poverty that would be observed if there were no variation in income distribution during the period concerned; the second effect is interpreted as the variation in poverty that would be observed if average income did not vary during the period” (p. 368).


Brian A’Hearn, Nicola Amendola, and Giovanni Vecchi. 2016.  “On Historical Household Budgets,” Rivista di Storia Economica, issue 2: 137-76.

Nicola Rossi, Gianni Toniolo, and Giovanni Vecchi. 2001.  “Is the Kuznets Curve Still Alive? Evidence from Italian Household Budgets, 1881-1961,” Journal of Economic History, 61 (4): 904-25.

Giovanni Vecchi. 2011.  In Ricchezza e in povertà: il benessere degli italiani dall’Unità a oggi. Bologna, Italy: Il Mulino.

The authors of this review are students in the graduate program in Economic and Social History at the University of Oxford.

Copyright (c) 2017 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (July 2017). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Education and Human Resource Development
Historical Demography, including Migration
Household, Family and Consumer History
Income and Wealth
Labor and Employment History
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Measuring Up: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850-1950

Author(s):López-Alonso, Moramay
Reviewer(s):Challú, Amílcar E.

Published by EH.Net (June 2013)

Moramay L?pez-Alonso, Measuring Up: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850-1950. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012. xvii + 276 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8047-7316-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Am?lcar E. Chall?, Department of History, Bowling Green State University.

The study of living standards and inequality in Latin America is thriving. The literature is growing at a fast rate with special issues in journals, edited volumes, articles, and books. The growth of economic history in peripheral regions of the world, the questioning of assumptions of Western superiority, and the availability of anthropometric methods and sources have converged with a renewed interest among development organizations to implement effective policies that target poverty and inequality. A few issues have deserved intense inquiry, such as the effects of colonialism, globalization, fast economic growth, and welfare policies on the material and biological wellbeing of the population.

L?pez-Alonso’s Measuring Up is a worthy addition to this literature. The book focuses on Mexico in the critical century from the civil wars of the 1850s to the consolidation of a revolutionary, pro-industrialization regime in the 1950s. L?pez-Alonso argues that the living standards of the majority of the population, measured through average soldier heights, declined in the second half of the nineteenth century and stagnated until the 1930s, reaching very low levels in international standards, and only improved in the late 1930s and 1940s. Low heights were correlated with a high incidence of nutrition-related diseases and low life-expectancy. The poor nutrition and health of the majority contrasted with a sustained improvement over the period among the urban privileged. There are two major explanatory factors for this diverging trend: bad policies, and strong income and human capital inequalities that resulted in wide disparities in dietary habits across the social spectrum.

The book is organized in three thematic sections dealing with welfare policies, trends in average heights of different groups of the population, and the health and nutritional profile of the population. Each section deals with the entirety of the period. The first section on welfare policies starts with a discussion about institutions and ideas of charity and welfare in the western world and their influence in Mexico. The author argues that traditional Catholic charity moderated the wide gaps in income, but the attacks of liberal elites since the mid nineteenth century and the predatory attitude of the state hindered the construction of a viable secular alternative. As a result, the lack of safety nets in the liberal regime and the continuation of similar policies increased inequality until the implementation of more comprehensive poverty alleviation policies in the early 1930s with the C?rdenas administration. Overall, the treatment of the nineteenth century does not take into account the incorporation of Mexico into international trade flows that had a likely impact on inequality and the structure of the economy. Welfare institutions are portrayed in vague terms and they omit food supply policies, an area in which there were some innovations in the nineteenth and twentieth century that could have had a direct effect on the acquisition of food. Still, the section establishes that poverty alleviation has a long and contradictory tradition in Mexican politics and some of its traits still permeate today’s discourse.

The analysis of heights in the second section is the core of Measuring Up. The author reviews different approaches to measure living standards and ponders the pros and cons. Human heights are not necessarily a “one size fits all” solution, but provide consistent, widely available evidence to study biological living standards. Three sources are used in the study: a cavalry corps (the Rurales, recruited mostly from the 1870s to the 1900s), the national infantry army (recruited mostly in the twentieth century), and passport applicants (first half of the twentieth century). All series are reported by birth cohort, providing overlapping coverage for the 1850-1950 period. The contrast of the height trajectories in the three samples provides the most interesting insight of the book. The urban elites and manual workers in the formal economy (passport holders) won from the policies of modernization and the welfare policies narrowly focused in major cities, while unskilled workers in precarious jobs and in rural areas (army recruits) lost throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Average soldier heights only started to rebound in the late 1930s, matching the shift in welfare policies at the national level. This section also provides international comparisons using the truncated average of the two cavalry and infantry series. Using this series the author concludes that Mexican men were as tall as Western Europeans in the 1850s but were of relatively short stature by the mid twentieth century.

The third section is set as a counterpoint to James C. Riley’s history of twelve countries that, despite low income levels, reached a high standard of health.[1]? L?pez-Alonso argues that Riley was wrong in choosing Mexico as one of the test cases, since at least until the 1950s Mexico showed a poor performance in aggregate health indicators. The author introduces an original analysis of the causes of death among a subset of the soldiers in the national army that demonstrates that the majority died from diseases closely connected to nutritional deficiencies. The author identifies the same pattern of malnutrition-related disease in nationwide studies of the mid twentieth century. L?pez-Alonso makes a convincing case that a large part of the population experienced nutritional stress at several points in their lives. A discussion of dietary habits using nineteenth-century travelers’ literature and mid-twentieth century nutritional surveys shows that there were significant differences in nutrition by class, region and ethnic origin. Economic inequality affected the acquisition of food and the achievement of biological wellbeing.

In all, the significant contribution of the book is to strengthen the argument that Mexican underdevelopment is not an immutable legacy but a series of accumulated processes that have reproduced inequalities and poverty over time. The book provides substance to the narratives of high inequality during the Porfiriato and the early years of the revolutionary period, while it rescues the legacy of the C?rdenas redistributive policies. The linkages between heights and disease are an excellent addition to our understanding of living conditions. Measuring Up is a provocative piece with good information and hypotheses to contribute to the vibrancy of current studies in living standards.

1. James C. Riley, Low Income, Social Growth, and Good Health: A History of Twelve Countries, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Am?lcar E. Chall? is Associate Professor of History in Bowling Green State University. He co-edited Living Standards in Latin American History with Ricardo Salvatore and John Coatsworth (Harvard University David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, 2010). His book, The Political Economy of Hunger in Late Colonial Mexico, is forthcoming in 2014 with Harvard University Press.

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 ( Published by EH.Net (June 2013). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

Living Standards in Latin American History: Height, Welfare, and Development, 1750-2000

Author(s):Salvatore, Ricardo D.
Coatsworth, John H.
Challú, Amílcar E.
Reviewer(s):Salvucci, Richard

Published by EH.NET (June 2011)

Ricardo D. Salvatore, John H. Coatsworth and Am?lcar E. Chall?, editors, Living Standards in Latin American History: Height, Welfare, and Development, 1750-2000. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. iii + 313 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-674-05585-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Richard Salvucci, Department of Economics, Trinity University.

In 1999, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) at Harvard University published a milestone work in the field of economic history, Latin America and the World Economy Since 1800.? I reviewed the book for EH.Net and concluded something to the effect that if you wanted to know where the action was in Latin American history, you had come to the right place. I hate to sound like a broken record, but I can?t help thinking much the same about this volume. Sixty percent of the book (measured crudely, by page count) is still about Argentina, Brazil and Mexico ? and whatever ?Latin America? is, it isn?t that. However, its authors are an altogether different group and part of a new generation of scholars, which is only fitting. While it is true that there were historians, especially of the ?Berkeley School,? who had concerned themselves with historical patterns of indigenous diet and nutrition in Mexico under the stress of European colonization, when Woodrow Borah died in 1999, his publications were still regarded as the best work on the subject.? The highest compliment I can pay to these authors is that Borah would have admired and appreciated their efforts as a decisive advance. For like its predecessor, Living Standards in Latin American History is pioneering work.

Mexico ???

Appropriately enough, the volume begins with two studies of Mexico, and even if they were not intended to be read together as a revisionist work, they amount to just that. Am?lcar Chall? and Morimay L?pez Alonso have given us two centuries of Mexican anthropometric history, and if they don?t precisely answer all the questions, they reframe the debate. Based on comparable archival records (from the military ? some draftees, others volunteers) and methods of analysis (Maximum Likelihood Estimation of Truncated Distributions), they tell a story something like the following. After 1730, the stature of the lower classes (especially peasants, but later, urban workers too) fell for nearly a century. Starting for generations born around 1830, there was a recovery until 1850, and then another fall for generations born around 1860 and continuing through 1880, after which there was some recovery through the outbreak of the Revolution in 1910. Whereas the Revolution of 1810 seems to have had little effect on stature (even though population losses, at perhaps a million people, were enormous), the Revolution of 1910 (with catastrophic losses placed as high as three million) exacted a cost in lost stature reflected in a sharp decline in life expectancy. Recovery did not begin until the generations of 1920 and 1930. The sample size after 1940 is too restricted to draw firm conclusions, although elsewhere, L?pez Alonso has cast some doubt on the ubiquity of the heyday of the so-called ?Mexican Miracle.?

I think economic historians will be arguing about the significance of these results for years, for they both support and contradict the long-standing thesis of the ?decline of Mexico,? which has now become something like conventional wisdom, although there are dissenters.? Nor do Chall? and L?pez Alonso propose merely some trivial modification of chronology. There is now reason to suspect that Mexican independence actually meant something, after being told for years that rupture in government and its institutions was an outdated fetish of political historians. Specifically, Chall? implies that the much-vaunted ?Bourbon Reforms? and their spectacular translation into mineral wealth and imperial revenues coincided with the start of an equally impressive decline in popular welfare. On the other hand, the disintegration of the Bourbon state, which may have approximated its nadir in the 1830s and 1840s, coincided with the first signs of a temporary recovery. It is probably deeply significant that our hesitant attempts to reach some approximation of the value of national output ? in truth, hardly much of an advance on what contemporaries could conjure up in the nineteenth century ? have suggested precisely the opposite. There are, it appears, lies, damned lies, and Mexican GDP.
Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile

Similar themes emerge in these essays. According to Adolfo Meisel and Margarita Vega, who employ a sample of nearly 16,000 passports, the standard of living in Colombia in 1870-1905 was stagnant, something reflected in the largely unchanged height of the Colombian elite. The general impression of a much-delayed onset of export-led growth is confirmed by very slow population growth (perhaps one percent per year) and essentially flat terms of trade.? If anything, the work of Meisel and Vega leads one to have somewhat greater confidence in the pre-1905 price data and population data, which are by no means as abundant as the passport data from the wide range of cities they employ.

The very loose association between stature and conventional measurements of national product is again taken up by Ricardo Salvatore in his study of Argentina between 1901 and 1940. To reduce Salvatore?s argument to its essentials, conventional macroeconomic indicators ? per capita GDP, exports, real wages ? provide rather different, and not necessarily consistent, measures of welfare, although the nature of the series themselves casts some doubt on whether rank-order correlations are necessarily the best way of disentangling them.? Nevertheless, after constructing Ordinal Quality of Life indices, Salvatore concludes that Argentines were unambiguously better off in 1929 than they had been in 1914. On the other hand, whether they were better off in 1914 than in 1901 is ambiguous, and depends on the measures of welfare chosen. But by 1939 Argentines were unambiguously better off than they had been in 1901. Salvatore has underscored the point that neither stature nor GDP can possibly be considered decisive measures of welfare, although presumably, to have been better off in 1939 than 1901 you still had to be breathing. Death and the long run require no introduction to readers of this review.

The paper on growth and inequalities of height in Brazil by Leonardo Monasterio and his coauthors is, by contrast, somewhat more conventional. Its principal focus is the dimensions of inequality, social, ethnic and geographical, and their reflection in anthropometric data. In a way, the results are less controversial, for they find that severe inequalities at personal and regional levels affected the height of Brazilians between 1939 and 1981.? It will be very interesting to see the extent to which the recent, much ballyhooed surge in Brazilian growth and the ostensible reduction in the country?s persistently deep inequalities show up in the anthropometric data as well. Realistically, what better confirmation could there be of whether or not reduction of poverty and inequality in Brazil in the twenty-first century ? as it is portrayed in the international media ? has occurred.?

Luis B?rtola and his coauthors are not concerned with anthropometric issues per se, but are rather involved with questions of convergence and its estimation, and of human development indices rather than of rates of income growth per se. For Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, their analysis also makes the reasonable supposition that inequality matters (although historical cynicism inclines me to wonder if more could not be explained by elite efforts to maintain inequality in some countries rather than to reduce it, at least until rather recently). But by all accounts the results of their exercise, which is explicitly concerned with issues of data specification and measurement, are provocative. To the extent that there is a consensus view, it has been that convergence in Latin America occurred mostly between 1940 and 1980, rather than before or (at least until 2000) since. For B?rtola and his coauthors, the effect largely disappears under disparities in measured educational achievement, a very significant and suggestive result in light of recent discussions of the decline of inequality in Latin America.? For this reason, this is a paper that merits wide reading and debate: it goes to the heart of some of the more interesting explanations for the recent ?end of poverty,? if not end of history discussions in the financial press that have left some observers shaking their heads.

James McGuire?s work on Chile is not anthropometric either, but it raises pertinent questions about what he terms the ?wealthier is healthier? conjecture. Even though democratic Chile was relatively affluent in 1960, infant mortality was high and life expectancy unexpectedly low, in part because the state responded to the organized demands of urban constituencies rather than concern itself with basic needs or absolute poverty. Ironically, much of this changed under the harshly repressive government of August Pinochet (1973-1990), although historians familiar with public health campaigns in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy might not be shocked by the coincidence. Whatever the case, McGuire makes it clear that the military government targeted the poorest areas in Chile for a larger share of public spending, with impressive results, including a 70 percent decline in infant mortality from 1974 to 1983. To the question of whether democratic governments necessarily improve public health, McGuire?s answer is necessarily ambiguous.


The paper by Luis R?os and Barry Bogin covers disturbingly similar ground, and then some. By and large, there is very little anthropometric evidence for an improvement in twentieth century Guatemala, and much to the contrary. Guatemalan migrants to the United States do better, at least in terms of body size and stature, which suggests that the facile characterization of indigenous peoples as ?short but healthy? misses the point, let alone a measure of lost human potential. But even worse, the skeletal evidence for the pre-contact population, while admittedly based on small samples and resulting in indirect projections of stature, suggests that the nutritional and disease environment for the ancient Maya were less stressful than for their twentieth century descendants. If there is anything that encapsulates the dismal view of the consequences of modernization that many historians of Latin America harbor in some recess of their consciousness, surely this paper provides some explanation. Yes, there is a lot of naive romanticism in the prelapsarian view of the Americas as a world that the Europeans destroyed. But as Freud is said to have famously remarked, ?The paranoid is never entirely mistaken.? I would like to know what Woodrow Borah, who thought somewhat differently, would have made of this paper.


The volume provides no overall conclusion, so the reader is more or less left to consider its implications on his or her own. Surely, there are plenty of provocative directions in which this fine, path-breaking collection could lead us. One that immediately occurred to me is its relation to the ongoing debate over declining inequality in Latin America since 2000.? I am really not competent to bring the findings of those scholars into this anthropometric perspective, but it is hard not to be struck by the fact that we are essentially being asked to believe that generations, if not centuries of a particular pattern ? a ?colonial heritage? ? have been permanently reversed in a decade, and in some cases, by nothing more than imaginative and sophisticated, but nevertheless relatively basic Conditional Cash Transfer programs in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, to name only those with which I have some familiarity. Was it really that easy (or that difficult)? Or do we conclude that virtually every misguided policy had to be exhausted in a sort of chronicle of political, ideological and technical ineptitude before emerging from absolute poverty and profound inequalities was possible? Did we really have to put the people of ?Latin America? through colonial repression, national revolution, liberal reformism and lost decades of structural adjustment before we could get them back to square one? After 500 years? I want to say ?I hope not,? but sad to say, I?m afraid so.

Richard Salvucci is writing a history of the Lizardi Brothers in Mexico, the United States, Great Britain and Europe from 1750 through 1890. He is the author of Politics, Markets and Mexico?s ?London Debt,? 1823-1887 (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Copyright (c) 2011 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (June 2011). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Odd Couple: International Trade and Labor Standards in History

Author(s):Huberman, Michael
Reviewer(s):Baumann, Brittany A.

Published by EH.Net (October 2012)

Michael Huberman, Odd Couple: International Trade and Labor Standards in History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012. xii + 237 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-300-15870-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Brittany A. Baumann, Department of Economics, Boston University.

In Odd Couple: International Trade and Labor Standards in History Michael Huberman argues that history in a global perspective reveals a causal relationship between free trade and labor standards. His claim is that not only did trade expansion induce the adoption of labor restrictions, but reverse causality exists as well. The pairing is ?odd? in that their relationship is not obvious, and the reverse causality may seem controversial. Nonetheless, the linkages are an interesting contribution to both economic history and modern perspectives on trade.

Between 1870 and 1914, changes in trade policy and labor standards were significant. The labor standards, which Huberman denotes as the ?labor compact,? pertain to labor regulations ? work age requirements, work hour restrictions ? and social entitlements ? accident insurance. As countries became increasingly open to trade, they also began adopting labor restrictions, precipitating the rise of welfare states. The traditional view is that industrialization led to rise of the factory system and urbanization, propagating a demand for greater protection of worker welfare, thereby leading to greater state intervention. Huberman stresses the significance of trade expansion as a causal influence for a labor compact. In eight thorough chapters Huberman describes how these two policies reinforced each other in the late nineteenth century Old and New Worlds. Historical data and regression analysis combined with his strong grasp of economic theory provide a convincing body of evidence.

Chapter 1 motivates the topic by focusing on the views of a political figure of the period, Emile Vandervelde, economist and patron of the Belgian Labor Party. Vandervelde was a steadfast supporter of free trade and influenced Belgium to become one of the first European economies to lift trade barriers. Vandervelde?s free trade ideology was the following: despite the welfare gains from trade in the form of higher wages, risks such as dislocation and employment uncertainty also rise in open economies. Hence, he believed free trade should be contingent on the adoption of labor standards to offset the costs of trade openness.

Huberman?s goal is to understand how this free trade ideology developed differently across nations and to reveal its linkage to labor standards. He limits his detailed analysis to three countries: Belgium to represent the labor abundant Old World; Canada, for the land abundant, richer New World; Brazil, for the New World of the southern hemisphere. Fortunately, the analysis also spans other important economies such as the U.S. and the UK.

Huberman divides the book in two parts: Part I describes how globalization induced the labor compact, and Part II describes the reverse causality. Chapter 2 that begins Part I paints a picture of the global economy in the late 1800s. To support his claim that international pressures explain the rise of the labor compact, he outlines the benefits and costs of trade, and shows why the labor compact reinforced the benefits and helped to offset the costs. The gains from trade are standard: increased market size, specialization, and, depending on the type of export, wages. Trade can be costly by lowering wages and raising employment risks, and its impact depends on the elasticity of substitution between foreign and domestic goods. To provide evidence of increased uncertainty in open economies, Huberman shows an increasing relationship between terms of trade and trade openness in both the Old and New Worlds. Huberman claims that the labor compact, besides providing social insurance against heightened trade risks, incentivized firms to invest in more efficient technology. This claim is powerful and is the recurring subject for the rest of the book. As evidence, Huberman uses regressions to uncover the effects of trade risk factors on labor legislation adoption, showing that legislation increases with trade openness. In logit regressions Huberman also reveals that trade facilitates country convergence in labor standards in Europe, yet not in the New World. He provides theoretical evidence that affirms that economies have incentive to harmonize labor standards in order to reap bilateral trade benefits.

Giving both empirical evidence and theory, Chapter 3 explains the divergence in labor and trade policy adoption between the Old and New Worlds. Adoption of labor standards was uneven and delayed in the New World compared to in Europe, as was free trade. The Stolper-Samuelson theorem can partially explain the opposing views between the Old and New toward free trade. The theorem predicts wages to fall in an economy, for example, Canada, exporting a land-abundant good. Immigration also contributed to lower wages. Hence, the New World was reluctant to support free trade since it hurt workers, and instead advocated tariff protection and immigration restrictions. On the other hand, Old World countries such as Belgium were inclined to support free trade by recognizing the benefits of a lower cost of living and reduced wage pressures for firms. In enacting free trade, countries advocated the labor compact in order to provide protections from trade risks. Coincidentally, Belgium adopted labor standards in a short period during which no tariffs were increased.

Chapter 4 develops the argument that open economies had incentives to harmonize their labor standards. The plethora of international conferences on labor standards, mostly held in Europe, motivates this view, and such conferences in fact did not contest free trade but had a primary goal of securing worker gains from trade with labor reform. Huberman confirms their significance by showing that country attendance was related to a higher likelihood of adoption. He suggests that bilateral labor treaties had more clout, given that a pair of countries had incentive to raise standards in order to gain market access through free trade. In a regression of trade costs on labor treaties, a significant negative relationship does exist for the Old World.?

The next three chapters are devoted to the reverse causality ? the labor compact inducing globalization. The main mechanism behind this causality is as follows: labor reform raised wages which raised firm productivity, shifting comparative advantage and enabling firms to export more. Here Huberman does justice to modern trade theory in describing the behavior of exporting firms: exporters are larger, pay higher wages, and are more productive and skill- and capital-intensive. By reducing labor supply and raising wages which incentivizes firms to become more efficient, the labor compact should induce more firms to export and thereby amplifies trade on both the intensive and extensive margins. This mechanism, however, lacks evidence and therefore appears weakly founded to an economist.

Odd Couple next turns to a discussion of the wage distribution. Chapter 5 explains how the trends in inequality during the period were related to the evolution of the labor compact and trade. Citing historical inequality experts Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson, the author explains why inequality widened within New World countries relative to the Old: since the New World adopted a labor compact relatively later, the skill premium did not narrow in this region. Nevertheless heavy immigration would deliver the same effect, as Huberman mentions. Yet this argument is not complete in that this region was less open, and freer trade tends to raise inequality. Huberman continues by addressing between-country inequality and claims trade lessened inequality between the labor-intensive Old World and the labor-scarce New World. Although the trends in inequality are well-explained, the chapter seems to forget about the theme of Part II by leaving out the labor compact.

Fortunately the next chapter presents empirical evidence. Focusing on the textile sector, Huberman asserts that scarcity of labor ? a by-product of the labor compact ? induced exporters to upgrade technology. In charts of spindles per ring and per mule 1880-1914, he shows that the New World became more productive with greater specialization relative to the Old World. One reason would be that the New World adopted the labor compact more extensively during these years. As mentioned earlier, this mechanism is weak; Huberman even acknowledges that labor laws worsen trade flows in the short run by raising marginal costs, with regressions of trade balances to confirm it.? A multinomial logit model confirms trade openness increased convergence of low-cost labor laws, more so in the Old World, yet ironically confirms the opposite direction of causality. Thus the evidence is far from convincing.

Brazil presents a puzzling counter-example to his case. A collapse in trade in the 1920s proceeded implementation of labor laws, which Huberman?s hypothesis does not predict. Brazil only provides an example that the determinants of trade openness go far beyond labor policy. Nevertheless, the collapse of trade may have further stunted the rise of a welfare state. Huberman concludes that Brazil did not completely adopt a labor compact after enacting free trade in the 1980s because the economy lacked the historical precedent ? the precedent of adopting a labor compact during a period of global trade expansion.

Chapter 7 is an interesting, though somewhat extraneous, analysis of the divergent trends in labor hours of the New and Old Worlds. Both witnessed a decrease in hours since 1870, yet toward the end of the twentieth century the New World had relatively longer hours. The labor compact, being more fully adopted in the Old World, contributed to shorter hours due to greater regulation and work sharing. Huberman offers other sources of divergence: inequality and social emulation, labor power, work ethic, and religion. To connect to his hypothesis, Huberman shows that hours decline with trade openness in 1914, and the trend holds in 2000. Huberman hastily concludes that globalization contributed to a wedge between the social models of the New and Old Worlds.

In Odd Couple, Huberman provides a thorough description of the world economy during a phase of trade expansion and labor reform. An important conclusion is that the differences between the New and Old World labor standards and trade policy can actually explain the divergence in social models today. However, the book contains far-reaching conclusions. For example, Huberman asserts the collapse of trade in the 1930s was partially due to the failure to enact and harmonize labor standards. The passage of the New Deal along with the empirical evidence that recessions lead to collapses in trade flows drastically weaken this claim. The direction of causality from labor reform to trade expansion requires theoretical backing in addition to more empirical evidence. That the labor compact promoted higher efficiency and a shift of resources to export industries is another far-reaching assertion that remains unconvincing. Regardless, the book reveals unexpected yet interesting economic linkages and gives modern-day policy standards a new historical perspective.

Brittany A. Baumann is a Ph.D. candidate in Economics at Boston University. Her fields are International Economics, Macroeconomics, and Economic History.

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Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII