History through the Eyes, Notes


Numbers Institute, PO Box 1320, Shepherdstown WV 25443, LR@NumbersInstitute.com

These notes accompany a poster which shows trends in US history from 1790-1990.


Teaching Notes


     It may be useful to trace one or two lines onto transparencies to discuss one at a time, and to allow selected items to be compared.


     Explanations  While studying the revolution or Civil War, use the chart to show how other wars affected the country.  While studying urbanization, use the chart to show the long gradual change from a rural country to an urban one.  While studying immigration, use the chart to show how people really did come in waves. Students can research how many came from each country or continent in each wave.


     While studying a President, use the chart to show how the country then differed from now.  When students read about how much something cost in the past, use the chart to convert that price to today's dollars.


     Activities  It may be interesting to separate the labels from the lines and ask students to guess which go together.


     The chart can be left on the wall for students to refer to throughout the year to get some context, for example when they study westward expansion, urbanization, or the depression.  Some students will find the visual format easier to remember than the narrative approach in a textbook.  The chart may also raise questions in students' minds that they can research in their textbook or elsewhere.


     Students may add other data to the graph:  population of their state or city, a distant state or city, number of sailing ships, horses, cars, etc., speed records, meat, vegetable or ice cream production per person, number of laws introduced in Congress, federal budget per person, government workers as percent of the population, and data on other countries.


     Discussions and homework  The following questions may be useful for consideration by individual students and discussion by groups of 2‑3 students.  They are also possible topics for student papers:


     How might people in each period of history feel as the country changed during their lifetimes?  What good and harm came from the changes?


     What caused the changes?  Could people have made the country develop differently?  Did other countries develop differently?  Are we or they developing differently now?  What may happen next?  What are the most important changes that may happen in the future?  Can you find groups working to cause or avoid these changes?  How can they be most effective?


     Many countries today are primarily rural, and have average earnings under $2,000 per year.  In what ways are they similar to and different from the US in its early days?


     Did people have more or less interaction with each other and with the government when our country had 10 or 30 million people?  What was different?


     Those 10 or 30 million people had a lot happen to them.  How should a history book choose what to describe?


     Does the author of the chart seem to have a bias on some topics?  How could you show the information with more bias or less?  How could you check the information?


     Other sources  Students can find current figures on other countries on the web,  in almanacs, encyclopedias, the UN's annual World Statistics in Brief and Statistical Yearbook ($75, UN, available in large libraries), the World Bank's annual World Development Report (mostly financial facts; also there is annual data on the same financial topics back to 1967 in their World Tables, $35), and the CIA's World Factbook.


     It is usually hard to find average wages or consumption per person for other countries, and these would be interesting.  However it is usually possible to find average GNP per person for most countries.  One can estimate average wages, including the value of any subsistence crops, are probably about 50‑100% more than GNP per person.  In the US, average wages have usually varied in this range.  (Since 1970 in the US more people are working, and there is more investment income, so GNP has risen, and now wages are only 23% above GNP per person.  This percentage may also apply in other developed countries.)  A household may have one or more workers and any number of dependents, who affect its living conditions.


General Notes


     This chart shows background information on changes in the US over two centuries.


     Most data from 1790 to 1970 come from the US Census Bureau's Historical Statistics of the US, Colonial Times to 1970. It was published by the Government Printing Office in 1975 as House of Representatives Document No. 93‑78, but is now out of print there. It was reprinted by Kraus International, and may be available used from amazon.com or addall.com.


     Specific tables used were:  armed forces y904, young men a123‑5, rural a69, wages d718, d722, d724 and d735, population a7, imports u335, GNP f1, prices e52 and e135, Congress y204 and y207, Presidents y210, immigrants c89, violent crime h953, h963 and h965‑7, prison h1135.


     Data since 1970 come from the US Census Bureau's Statistical Abstract of the US for various years, and from other sources.  For the military totals in the Civil War, the Census Bureau just publishes data for the Union Forces.  Based on estimates in the World Almanac, 1988, Confederate forces were about half as large, so this amount has been added in 1861‑65.

    Figures from long ago are generally less reliable than more recent data.


    US figures exclude areas under Indian, Spanish, Mexican, etc. control until those areas came under US control and were settled enough for Census workers to count.  Alaska and Hawaii are included from 1960 on.


    Some data were available every 10 years and were interpolated to obtain annual estimates.


     Two items fluctuated widely and were smoothed with five‑year moving averages to show trends more clearly:  imports and immigration.


Notes on Each Item


     Population has grown more or less steadily.  Growth slowed in the 1930s and speeded up in the 1950s, the baby boom.


     The rural population as a percent of the total fell nearly continuously except in severe depressions.  A change in definitions in 1950 makes a break in the data.  The rural definition used to include all places of less than 2,500 people.  However since 1950, unincorporated areas with high population density near an urban center are no longer counted as rural.  Data 1980-90 were not available when the chart was printed, since only the Census every 10 years shows exactly which towns have below 2,500 people.  Most of the other data on the chart can be estimated from national sample surveys every year, but those sample surveys are not designed to measure the size of small towns, to see which ones have changed from rural to urban, or vice versa.


    Average wages have grown more or less steadily since the late 1800s, but the graph shows brief downturns in 1894, 1933, 1947 and the 1970s.  In seeing these figures, you should remember that not everyone could find work at these wages for a whole year.  The unemployment rate  is given from 1890 on.  It reached 12‑18%e in the 1890s, and 15‑25% in the 1930s. Note the peak of 24.9% which is almost hidden in President Roosevelt's name in 1933.


    Average wages of course include many workers who earned less than the average, as well as those who earned more.  Farm workers for example earned much less than the average (though they also received meals), and their wages rose little during the period.


    Average wages are based on Erie canal maintenance laborers until 1860, then non‑farm employees until 1900, then all employees until 1929, then all full time employees.  They exclude self‑employed farmers and other business owners, many of whom have higher incomes.  Incomes have been converted to 1990 dollars.  The consumer price index that is used to convert the incomes was prepared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics back to 1800, and has been extended back to 1790 with a wholesale price index.


     There was a long period in the middle of our history when most Presidents served only one term.  At the same time voter turn‑out was quite high.  There have been several long periods when one party dominated the government, including the early years of the country; these may demonstrate popular choice, or the power of incumbency.


     Life expectancy rose most rapidly from 1890‑1920:  public health measures and families' new awareness of germs reduced infant deaths in particular.  Note the flu epidemic in 1918.  Life expectancy data are from Massachusetts until 1900, then 20 states and DC until 1919, then 34 states and DC until 1929, then the US.  The smooth line until 1900 reflects a lack of annual data and interpolation.  The smooth line since 1940 may reflect better data collection, or statistical smoothing.  Years in between were smoothed for this graph with a 5 year moving average.


     Armed forces peaked at nearly 40% of young men in the Civil War, 25% in World War I and 80% in World War II, almost the entire male half of that generation.  Smaller peaks can be seen for the War of 1812, the Mexican‑American War, the Spanish‑American War, Korea and Vietnam. In major wars the line jumps far across the page, while the rest of the time it stays near zero. Armed forces are compared to young men 17‑39, since this was the main group that joined, though of course men and women up to retirement age are also in the armed forces.


     After each war (until World War II) armed forces quickly fell back to less than 2% of young men, even during periods of Indian fighting in the 1800s.  The years after World War II are the first time in US history when we have kept large standing armed forces in peacetime, now about 2.2 million troops.


     The total of violent crimes was steady, like the murder rate, in the 1940s and 50s.  Then the violent crime rate started rising in 1960.  Violent crimes are murder, rape, assault with intent to harm severely or kill, and robbery from a person by force or threat of force.  The latter two, assault and robbery, are 93% of the total violent crime.  The figures are somewhat under‑estimated since some crimes are not reported to the police.  Violent crime data cover the entire country back to 1957, and the trend is extended back from then to 1937 based on the trend in 353 large cities.


     The prison population peaked in 1939, then fell back, rose through the 1950s, then fell back again under Kennedy and Johnson.  The prison population has been rising rapidly since 1972, except for a slow‑down under Carter.  86‑94% of these prisoners are state, not federal, so any effect of the President is indirect.  Since most crime rates are not rising, the higher prison population means the odds of a criminal going to prison have risen.  However still, the number of people sent to prison (with a 1 or more year sentence) for violent crimes in a year matches only 5‑10% of violent crimes, partly because some prisoners committed several crimes, partly because many crimes are not solved.  There are even lower odds of prison for non‑violent theft; presumably fines and community service are often ordered instead.  Half of prisoners are in prison for violent crimes:  13% for murder, 4% for rape, 12% for assault and 20% for robbery.  Among the others, 30% stole, 11% committed drug crimes, and the other 9% committed miscellaneous other crimes.  35% of prisoners said they were under the influence of drugs when they committed their crime, though not necessarily convicted of a drug crime, and 37% were under the influence of alcohol.  Prison costs run about $10,000 per prisoner per year.  There are about 1,500,000 violent crimes per year, plus another 12 million other reported thefts (shoplifting, burglary, car theft), plus drug distribution (over 200,000 arrests per year), drug possession (over 600,000 arrests) and other crimes.  Besides the prison population of about 700,000, there are another 300,000 people in local jails (not shown on the graph), and this number has also been rising, though not as fast as prisons, from 160,000 in 1970.  It is not at all clear that the country will want to continue expanding the prison population at the rate of the last 20 years, but it is also not clear what direction will be taken instead.


     There were great waves of immigration around 1850 (Irish, German), 1870 and 1880 (German, Canadian, British, Irish, Scandinavian), 1905‑25 (Eastern Europe, Italy) and comparatively few immigrants since then,  Immigrants from China were never numerous, even when 'coolies' were being imported to work on the railroads.  They peaked at 40,000 or 5% of total immigrants in 1882, a year that saw 251,000 German immigrants.  There was even less immigration from Africa after the slave trade was abolished.  Immigrants from Latin America, especially Mexico, have been slightly more numerous in the 1920s and since 1955.  Immigrants are sometimes thought to keep down wages for everyone, since they are willing to work for little.  However the large waves of immigration in the 1800s did not have any clear effect on average wages.