Seasonality in Nineteenth Century Labor Markets

Stanley Engerman, Claudia Goldin

NBER Historical Working Paper No. 20
Issued in January 1991
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy

In nineteenth century America, most employment, particularly that in agriculture, was highly seasonal. Thus the movement of labor from outdoor to indoor must have increased labor hours and days per year, thereby resulting in higher national income and greater economic growth. We provide the means to understand two additional dimensions to the decrease in seasonal employment. The first is the reduction in seasonality within each of the sectors. The second is the possibility that employment in the two sectors dovetailed, and that peak-load demands in agriculture were met by the release of labor from manufacturing enterprises. We find an increase to the 1880's and a subsequent decrease in the number of farm laborer per farm and in the harvest premium paid to farm laborers, suggesting that, within agriculture, peak-load employment was reduced. We also find distinct seasonal pattern to manufacturing employment in 1900, with decreases in both summer and winter, hinting that industrial workers may have found summer employment in nearby farming communities. But we conclude, for various reasons, that dovetailing of agricultural and industrial employment in the nineteenth century was slight. Seasonality was reduced during the nineteenth century largely because sectoral shifts transferred laborers from agriculture to manufacturing and because the influence of climate was reduced within each sector.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/h0020

Published: Economic Development in Historical Perspective, ed. D. Schaefer and T. Weiss. Stanford University Press, 1993.

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