Economic Growth Before 1860: Revised Conjectures

Thomas Weiss

NBER Historical Working Paper No. 7
Issued in October 1989
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy

The current view of U.S. economic growth before 1860 is based on the conjectural estimates of output made by Paul David (1967). This paper sets forth new estimates of the farm labor force for the period 1800 to 1860 and uses them to revise those conjectures about growth of per capita output. An additional conjectural estimate is produced based on recent evidence about manufacturing productivity. The new estimates lower the farm labor forces in the years before 1830 by 10 to 15 percent, while raising the figures for 1840, 1850, and 1860 by 5 to 9 percent. As a consequence the farm work force grew more rapidly than was previously believed, and farm productivity grew more slowly. The impact of the revisions varied by subperiod, and is concentrated almost entirely in the middle 20 years. Because the advance in farm productivity was the major determinant of change in the conjectural estimates of per capita output, that series shows a slower rate of growth as well, especially over the period 1820 to 1840. A refined estimate, which incorporates the recent evidence on manufacturing productivity, alters the picture somewhat, but still shows slower growth and more gradual acceleration of output per capita than is revealed in the David series.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/h0007

Published: Economic Development in Historical Perspective, ed. Donald Schaefer and Thomas Weiss. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

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