Interview with Susan B. Carter and Richard Sutch: The People Behind the New Edition of Historical Statistics of the United States


Mr. Bernstein is an HNN intern.

Susan B. Carter and Richard Sutch, general editors of the Historical Statistics of the United States, stand poised to release a new edition of the work. Called The Millennial Edition, the five volumes will be available in both print and online versions. The husband and wife team are both Professor of Economics at the University of California Riverside. They were interviewed by email.

First off, why is Cambridge publishing this edition? Didn't the U.S. Census Bureau used to publish this work in its earlier editions?

This Millennial Editon is the fourth edition of Historical Statistics of the United States. The first three editions of this reference work were assembled and published by the U.S. Census Bureau as a"historical supplement" to its annual Statistical Abstract. At the time we embarked upon the project in 1995, the most recent edition -- the Bicentennial Edition -- was 20 years out of date. Since its publication in 1975, there had been an explosion of quantitative scholarship and an expansion of the government's statistical record keeping efforts. By one estimate, 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. No subject area and few data series were untouched by this phenomenal growth of the American quantitative record. Unfortunately, much of this scholarship appeared in relatively obscure academic books, government documents, and journals where it was essentially unknown to all but a small number of specialists in each of the fields. We and other quantitative historians lobbied the Census Bureau for years to undertake a revised and updated edition, but they made it clear that they had no interest in such a project. The Editors-in-Chief and the many, many contributors, decided to take it on because of our conviction that this scholarship is essential to an understanding of our nation's history.

Historical Statistics of the United States is a very broad title, what is the historical scope of the study?

Historical Statistics of the United States is nothing if not broad. We have the most comprehensive collection of quantitative information on the history of the United States available. The volumes and the on-line edition display annual time series in over 1,900 tables on the social, demographic, political, and economic history of the United States and its outlaying possessions. This is supplemented with an extensive survey of the statistical information on the colonial economy, American Indians and the sovereign Indian nations, and some on the indigenous population prior to European contact. There is also a chapter devoted to the Confederate States of America. We present these annual time series for the full range of dates for which reliable estimates are available.

What sort of statistics can researchers expect to find in the five volumes of Historical Statistics of the United States, and how does the new edition differ from previous ones?

Historical Statistics of the United States has long been the standard source for quantitative indicators of American history. The revised, updated, and expanded Millennial Edition upholds the tradition. Since the last edition which was published in 1975 there has been an explosion of quantitative scholarship and an expansion of the government’s statistical record keeping. By one estimate, 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 since the publication of the last edition. No subject area and few data series have remained untouched by this phenomenal growth of the American quantitative record.

The Millennial Edition of Historical Statistics updates most of the series in the Bicentennial Edition and adds a considerable amount of new information: five volumes rather than two, more than four times as many pages of documentation and source criticism, and a tripling of the number of data series – 37,339 in the new edition. This expansion occurred along several dimensions. Most series from the previous edition were extended by roughly thirty years, and the coverage of most topics was enhanced. Some of the scholarly series that make their Historical Statistics debut with the Millennial Edition are new estimates of familiar measures such as population, GDP, unemployment, wages, and government spending for the early years of our nation’s history. Others appearing for the first time add breadth or context for the topics covered.

More than a dozen new topics were added: American Indians, slavery, outlying areas, environmental indicators, poverty, nonprofit organizations, and the Confederate States of America, to list a few examples. Finally the chapters in the new edition are preceded by 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.

Who will find this new work the most useful?

Everyone. It’s our history in numbers. We have 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. As history teachers will appreciate, the source notes are as valuable as the numbers in the tables.

With the wealth of statistical sources documenting the past few decades there must have been a tremendous amount of information to sift through. How did you go about narrowing the scope of that information and selecting what you would publish?

Generally we selected highly-aggregated measures for the country as a whole but we made a lot of exceptions. For example, we considered factors such the amount of space already devoted to a particular subject; balance across subject fields; the quantity and quality of the available data; and the extent to which some series might enhance the value of others in the book. As an example of the last point, we include price data for particular nineteenth-century cities because these illustrate the impact of transportation improvements in reducing shipping costs. Our data-selection criteria also varied with the particular subject matter. For example, it makes no sense to talk about national averages in weather. Local conditions vary so much that state- or even city-specific statistics are needed. During the early phases of the project we conveyed our selection criteria to contributors and then relied upon their expert judgment.

How do your economic backgrounds inform the historical nature of this work?

We should first clarify a point. This is not a collection of data devoted exclusively to economic phenomena. Historical Statistics is a resource for historical social science broadly defined. One of the editors-in-chief is a political scientist and we have contributors with backgrounds in social and political history, demography, sociology, agriculture, business administration, public policy, and climatology.

Rather obviously, our backgrounds in social science have influenced the overall design of the project profoundly. We will mention three important influences. First, all social sciences are historical sciences; they seek to explain patterns and phenomenon of human behavior observed in the past at both the individual and aggregate levels. So Historical Statistics presents what our expert contributors thought was the most helpful and insightful summary statistics to introduce their topic to non-specialists and to provide a handy reference to practitioners.

Second, good social science and good history must rely both upon empirical observation and sound social theorizing. So our contributors, in the essays that accompany every chapter, explain the social (or political, or economic) theory that has guided which data has been collected, how it is aggregated, and how it is used to illuminate our history or alter our country’s policies. For example, in discussing the familiar summary statistic the Gross Domestic Product the essay explains how the concept of output is derived from economic theory and how the concept is given a precise operational definition. The essays also give some indication of how the statistics presented have been used to test various hypotheses that arise in the social sciences.

Third, the social sciences take as their subject human behavior. Human behavior, which -- being human, is sufficiently complex that immutable laws of social science are unlikely to be discovered. Thus historical context is important for interpretation. Historical Statistics helps the user to find a context in which to situate the data by providing extensive bibliographies to the history and the historiography of each subject.

In the course of compiling these statistics, did you come across any particularly striking statistics? Any that was wholly unexpected? Any major trends?

Little in Historical Statistics will surprise specialists. We feature the most up-to-date scholarship on every issue and nearly every series presented has been previously published. Experts in the field describe this scholarship in a way that is accessible to nonspecialists. That said, nearly everyone will find surprises outside of their own specialties. We started a list that quickly grew to over 80 items. It includes entries such as the following:

  • In the early years of the Republic, the typical American woman had 7 to 8 live births during her reproductive years. This level of fertility is one of the highest ever observed for a large population (Ab52-117).
  • During the Vietnam War era, over 20,000 Americans per year emigrated from the United States to Canada (Ad80).
  • Although the slave population was highly concentrated in the southern colonies, slavery existed in all of the colonies, persisting until after the Revolution. There were more than 3,000 slaves in Rhode Island in 1748, 9.1 percent of the population; 4,600 in New Jersey in 1745, 7.5 percent of the population; and nearly 20,000 in New York in 1771, 12.2 percent of the population (tables Eg132-140 and Eg155-168).
  • American men were remarkably tall by international standards at the time of the Revolution. Average heights fell over the nineteenth century as people moved off farms and into congested and unsanitary cities (Bd654).
  • The American Bison population dwindled over the nineteenth century from an estimated 40 million in 1800 to less than a thousand in 1895 (Ag685).
  • Today there are less than six enlisted military personnel for every officer. The peacetime average in the nineteenth century was around ten men per officer. In 1940 and 41 (during WWII) it rose to over 12. Series Ed26-44.
  • In 1910 about 27 percent of all American cropland harvested and millions of acres of pastureland were devoted to feeding the nation’s horses and mules. The growing popularity of automobiles, trucks, and tractors caused a rapid decline in the horse and mule population so that by 1962 only 1.5 percent of harvested cropland was devoted to feeding them (series Da661-666).
  • In 1990, U.S. agriculture produced, in aggregate terms, more than three times the quantity of output in 1910. The increase in output over 1910–1990 was achieved with less than a five percent increase in inputs ( Table Da1063–1081, Table Da1117–1122).  Over the same period the farm population of the country fell from 35 percent to less than 2 percent (Series Da2).

I know that the new edition has been in the making for eleven years, and since you are both clearly accustomed to working with numbers, could you give me a sense of how many man-hours went into this work? How many people worked on it with you?

Whoa! We’re tired of counting, but let’s see what we can do for you. It looks like we have:

ONE (each) chief of manuscript preparation, postdoctoral research fellow, and librarian

TWO (each) general editors and consulting editors

THREE managing editors

SIX editors-in-chief

SEVEN members of the CUP staff in New York singled out for special thanks

SIXTY-FIVE research assistants

SEVENTY-FOUR sources of institutional support (each with one or more supportive dean or director)

EIGHTY-THREE contributors,

ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY (PLUS) participants in our five planning conferences


“A SMALL ARMY” of copy editors and proofreaders

We’ll leave it to you to create the appropriate summary statistic. As for the direct person-hours, it surely would exceed one-quarter of a million.

Of course there is no reliable way for the past to predict the future, but do you think that your work contains any statistical indications of the direction that this nation might be headed?

It’s a great question. We have many thoughts of course, but we will publish these in other venues. For Historical Statistics our goal is to facilitate access to the very best historical data professional scholars have identified. Our hope is that ready access to statistical data – all of it in downloadable digital format on line -- will encourage more scholars to take an historical approach to subjects of current interest. We can also hope that citizens and policy makers will find it easier to formulate reliable judgments about the future with the aid of an historical perspective that is too often lacking in public prognostication. As a consequence we suggest that they will make sounder appraisals of whatever policies are proposed to alter that future.

Conversely, our government is currently running a huge deficit, our military spending is through the roof, and voter turn-out is declining. Does your book offer any statistical indication of how our country arrived at this state of affairs?

Yes and no. On military spending and voter turnout see series Ea705 and Eb61. Be sure to read the cautionary notes regarding the statistics on historical voter turnout. These are important. The government deficit is another matter altogether. When we went to press in 2000, the federal government was in budget surplus. Compare series Ea11 and Ea15. This speaks to a very recent source for the current deficit phenomenon. We’ll leave it to your constituency to take it from here.


Susan B. Carter, Scott Sigmund Gartner, Michael R. Haines, Alan L. Olmstead, Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright, Editors. Historical Statistics of the United States: Earliest Times to the Present. Millennial Edition. Five volumes and On-Line, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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