Historical Statistics of the United States: A portrait in very small strokes

This amazing compendium must warm the heart of any reference librarian.

Historical research generally creates portraits of events and eras  in very broad, sketchy strokes. The image is there, but depicted in terms of ‘trends’, or ‘patterns’ which wash away the minute differences that are reflected in peoples’ lives. This  historical approach is not universal-a comparison of broad-stroke history and its opposite, a total focus on tiny daily  detail, is discussed in Isaiah Berlin’s book Hedgehog and the Fox. History written broadly has the advantage of appeal to a general reader, while the effortful, wordy, exhausting kind of history which depends on minutiae is not really very popular. 

A reference book exists that represents a marriage of the two approaches to history: Historical Statistics of the United States: Earliest Times to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2006.)

Historical Statistics of the United StatesThis is five large volumes. For the most part, the data does not project back beyond 1800-there are separate sections for Colonial times and the Confederacy  There is definitely a sense of the sweep and drama of history in these pages, but it is conveyed with millions of painstakingly gathered statistics from thousands of sources. The effect is a kind of historical pointillism, or maybe a picture of the United States as rendered by Chuck Close.

It is amazing to scan a table of, for example, admissions to a tuberculosis hospital, year by year, and watch the growth of the TB epidemic, and its decline with superior drug treatments.  Or look at a table offering statistics on doctoral degrees awarded to women and compare 1895 (35) with 1994 (17,530).  How much about the social and educational change in the United States is conveyed by that simple statistic?  Or illiteracy rate in 1870,20% of the population, and 1999, .06%? 

This book is catnip. What is the oddest statistic reported? Perhaps ‘Ingrown nail afflictions 1982-1995’. 

Historical statistics have an illustrious history as a publication of the federal government, and many of the statistics derive from the U.S. Census or the statistical abstract. 

This latest edition, enormously enhanced from previous ones, is produced by scholars of social change rather than federal bureaucrats.  Gathering data from many sources, not necessarily in agreement, over a long period of time, creates many challenges which translate into scholarly controversies. For example, how to account for the change from home-based industry to factory based industry through statistics on the number of employed?  How to address the change in value of the US dollar from 1790 to present?

Historical Statistics of the United States coverFor some series of data there are large gaps where no source is available. The scholars have had to ‘extrapolate’ based on incomplete reports, and differences of opinion about the appropriateness of method are reported in detailed essays about methodology-

Another valuable feature is the frequent chronologies of events in the development of some national movement. Women suffrage, for example, or the progress of states to the Civil War.  The best way to appreciate these developments, though, is to look through the statistics: watch as the United States changes from  primarily rural to urban, from farming to manufacturing, from manufacturing to service industries. 

Watch the development of an urban proletariat-and see how it comes to include women.  Watch the nation’s educational system develop-see how the steel industry, the communications industry, a thousand other industries, grow from very little to their enormous stature in modern times. 

People familiar with the Statistical Abstract of the United States will understand the value of a tool that gathers the historical series from that publication in one place.    When a series does not go back far into the past, it is usually because the concept as developed did not match anything historical. For example, retail establishments by type of business, for example, does not correspond to  eighteenth or nineteenth century classifications, but merchant vessel gross tonnage is reported back to 1811, and in the Colonial Statistics section, reported for various ports back to the beginning 1700’s. 

Seattle Public Library’s copy is housed in the Mixing Chamber collection at the Central Library-there for all to see, some to use, and some to love.

    ~ John S. Central Library

3 thoughts on “Historical Statistics of the United States: A portrait in very small strokes”

  1. How delightful! It’s easy to hear “statistics” and think only of numbers on a page, but you’ve shown how vividly they can paint a picture of life in context and I am now inspired. Thank you.

  2. What I love most about this post is how only a librarian could have written it! Great Love Affairs with Reference Books. How many of us, after all, would take the OED to a desert island with us.

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