NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Long Term Changes in U.S. Agricultural Output per Worker, 1800 to 1900

Thomas Weiss

NBER Historical Working Paper No. 23
Issued in February 1991
NBER Program(s):   DAE

The nineteenth century was a period of expansion and transformation of American agriculture. While much is known about the process, the exact pace and timing of agricultural productivity change is still unresolved. The traditional view is one of continued progress in which output and productivity increased steadily, accelerating over the period. The Civil War is seen as a convenient turning point, and perhaps an episode of greater consequence. More recent work has raised doubts about this picture of steady and accelerating success. The extant statistics on farm output and its labor force indicate that the period before the Civil War had the superior record and experienced particularly rapid productivity growth between 1820 and 1840. This paper presents new estimates of agricultural output per worker, based on revised statistics of the farm labor force and farm gross product. These new figures present a picture of agricultural progress more like the traditional view. Farm productivity grew noticeably faster after the Civil War than before, and important changes appear to have occurred during the Civil War decade.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/h0023

Published: Economic History Review, XLVI, No. 2, May 1993, pp. 324-341

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