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.)
This 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’.