Fixing the Facts: Editing of the 1880 U.S. Census of Occupations with Implications for Long-Term Trends and the Sociology of Official Statistics

Susan B. Carter, Richard Sutch

NBER Historical Working Paper No. 74
Issued in October 1995
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy

We argue that the enumerators' occupational returns from the important census of 1880 were heavily edited prior to publication. The effect was to substantially reduce the number of individuals reported with an occupation. For youthful and older males and all women the editing was so substantial as to qualitatively affect the apparent trend in labor force participation for these groups over time. The stylized facts regarding labor market dynamics during the period of American industrialization and the historical stories constructed around them will now need to be reexamined. We contend that the editing was secretly authorized by Francis Amasa Walker, Superintendent of the Tenth Census of 1880 and one of the most prominent and decorated economists, statisticians, and public servants in America at this time. While other scholars have identified potential sources of bias in census figures, no one has heretofore suggested that the official statistics of the United States were covertly altered to present a picture different from information collected by census enumerators. If we are correct, the sociology of official nineteenth-century American statistics will require rethinking.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/h0074

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