The Extent of the Labor Market in the United States, 1850-1914

Joshua L. Rosenbloom

NBER Historical Working Paper No. 78
Issued in January 1996
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy

Between the middle of the nineteenth century and the beginning of World War I improvements in transportation and communication encouraged increasing interregional and international economic integration. This paper traces and analyzes the progress of increasing labor market integration in the United States during this period of `globalization.' It argues that although the falling cost and increasing speed of transportation and communication in this period initiated a substantial expansion of labor market boundaries, the pattern of increasing integration was strikingly uneven. By the end of the nineteenth century, labor markets in the northern United States were part of a tightly integrated regional labor market that was in turn closely linked with labor markets in northern Europe. But this regional and international integration coincided with the persistent failure of integration between northern and southern labor markets within the United States. The importance of this finding is two-fold. First, it suggests that the forces shaping the determination of wages, the evolution of wage structure, and the growth of unions cannot be understood at either a purely local, or a purely national level. Second, it shows that the process of market integration was complex, depending on the interaction between historically determined market institutions and falling transportation and communication costs.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/h0078

Published: Social Science History, Vol. 22, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 183-205.

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