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History by the Numbers


Economics Professors at UC Riverside Paint U.S. History by the Numbers

Subjects in five-volume reference book range from voting patterns to Vietnam veterans; from energy to education; from abortions to zinc and everything in between

(February 7, 2006)

Richard Sutch and Susan CarterEnlarge

Richard Sutch and Susan Carter

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — Susan B. Carter and Richard Sutch, economics professors at UC Riverside, have completed a decade-long effort that has resulted in an update to the standard source for statistics about American history.

“Historical Statistics of the United States: Earliest Times to the Present, Millennial Edition,” is a five-volume set published by Cambridge University Press. This is the first update of the book since the Bicentennial Edition in 1975, and has been anticipated by reference librarians, historians and social scientists. It’s not exactly designed for the home library, since the cost for the set is $825. It is also available in an online version. Go to www.cambridge.org.

The publisher calls the book “a comprehensive compendium of statistics from over 1,000 sources, recording every aspect of the history of the United States from population to prices; from voting patterns to Vietnam veterans; from energy to education; from abortions to zinc and everything inbetween.”

Carter and Sutch co-edited the book with fellow scholars Scott Sigmund Gartner, Michael R. Haines, Alan L. Olmstead and Gavin Wright. More than 80 scholars contributed, helping select, edit and document the data, write introductory essays and analyze the material.

“Our inspiration for taking on the revision of ‘Historical Statistics’ was our conviction that this scholarship needs to be more widely known,” Carter said. “It’s our nation’s history in numbers.”

Reporters at Newsweek, the Washington Post and NPR have already mined the books for interesting data on the Civil War, the Presidency, religion and migration trends. Other sections of the work deal in science, technology, finance, politics, crime and international trade, along with historical subjects, including the colonial period of American history and the Confederate States. The editors have added several new subjects, including American Indians, slavery, poverty and non-profit organizations, centralizing information that previously existed only in obscure academic journals.

In Newsweek, essayist Robert Samuelson wrote: “Many ordinary students and scavengers of facts — not just academics — should be able to tap this treasure of figures … We need to remember that these numbers depict subjects that are more than idle intellectual curiosities. They define our national character and condition … We always need to know more. History is an endless blending of fact and imagination.”

To the editors, it was clear the time for an update had arrived.

“The earlier work has long been the standard source for quantitative indicators of American history, and yet at the time we embarked upon the project in 1995, that edition was 20 years out of date,” Carter said. “Since the publication in 1975, there had been an explosion of quantitative scholarship and an expansion of the government’s statistical record-keeping efforts.” She said more than three-fourths of the data output of the U.S. government and more than 80 percent of the historical data series generated by scholars have been produced during those 20 years.

“At the beginning of the project, we underestimated the volume and complexity of the new statistical data that had appeared in the intervening period,” Carter said. “We were imagining that the new edition would be larger than the previous one, of course, but not that it would fill five volumes rather than two, offer more than four times as many pages of documentation and source criticism, and a tripling of the number of data series in the new edition. Most series from the previous edition were extended by roughly 30 years, and the coverage of most topics was enhanced.”

The new edition includes essays that introduce the quantitative history of their subject, provide a guide to the sources and offer expert advice on the reliability of the data and the limits that might be placed on their interpretation.

“We have become impressed with the power of statistics as conversation-starters,” said Richard Sutch. “We’re constantly asked for examples, so we started a list that quickly grew to over 80 items.”

That list includes such items as:

- In the early years of the Republic, the typical American woman had seven to eight live births during her reproductive years. This level of fertility is one of the highest ever observed for a large population (Series Ab52-117).
- During the Vietnam War era, more than 20,000 Americans per year emigrated from the United States to Canada (Series Ad80).
- American men were remarkably tall by international standards at the time of the Revolution. Average heights fell over the 19th century as people moved off farms and into congested and unsanitary cities (Series Bd654).
- The American bison population dwindled over the 19th century from an estimated 40 million in 1800 to less than a thousand in 1895 (Series Ag685).

The editors aspire to see this work assume a central position in the discussion of the nation’s history.

“We worked hard to make ‘Historical Statistics’ accessible and meaningful to students — including students at the high school level — but it will be an invaluable resource as well for teachers, professors, academic researchers, journalists, policy makers and anyone looking for historical perspective, quantitative evidence of trends and correlations, or a guide to the quantitative history of the United States,” Sutch said. “As history teachers will appreciate, the source notes are as valuable as the numbers in the tables.”

The University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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