Historical Statistics of the United States, 1789-1945

By United States. Bureau Of The Census | Go to book overview



This historical supplement to the Statistical Abstract of the United States presents, in compact form for ready reference, approximately 3,000 statistical time series which cover various periods from 1789 to 1945. In a very few instances, figures are shown for the colonial period and the years under the Continental Congress. These statistics reflect economic, social, and political aspects of the development of the Nation since the Federal Government was formally established.

The present edition is not intended as a final product. In terms of the objectives of the compilers it is preliminary in character and comprises, in effect, a working manuscript. As such, it establishes a pattern and provides a preliminary selection of materials. Gaps and weaknesses are thereby disclosed and problems crystallized. On the basis of the experience thus gained, and the suggestions and criticisms of users of this edition, the process of revision will make possible a more useful future edition.

This volume is designed to serve two immediate needs. First, to bring together for the convenience of users of statistics the historical series of wide general interest; and second, to provide, through brief descriptive text and precise source notes, a guide to the types of historical data available, so as to inform the user where further data can be obtained. These objectives are similar to those of the annual Statistical Abstract of the United States, except that in the annual volume the emphasis is on current data with limited historical data as background.

The historical statistics selected for presentation here consist primarily of data readily available in Federal agencies and in a few additional quarters. In the compilation task, the Bureau of the Census has not engaged in new research for the purpose of establishing new series, revising existent series, or interpreting the comparability through time of the statistics presented.

Furthermore, the conditions of compilation, particularly the time factor, made it impracticable to take full advantage of the research already performed by others. To locate and bring together for initial inspection any significant proportion of the contributions to historical statistics which may be found in government and other reports would be a formidable task in itself, exclusive of the evaluation necessary as a prelude to publication. Even the selection and preparation for publication of 3,000 statistical time series out of those most ready of access would have proved impracticable without the cooperation of the many government bureaus whose materials are shown.

In particular, it is felt that so-called "lapsed" series are not sufficiently represented here. These are series once compiled annually but abandoned at some time in the past. The reason for abandonment varies: A new and more adequate measure of the given phenomena may have become possible; the phenomena being measured may have ceased to exist, as in the instance of the statistics on slavery; the subject field may have been one in which the Federal Government ceased to collect data; or the phenomena may have receded to a position of minor import in our national life. A careful selection and presentation of such series would go far to provide a more complete statistical picture of the early and middle periods of the Nation's existence.

Major objectives of a future revision of this volume should include presentation of additional series less readily available, a selection of some of the more significant lapsed series which offer light on early American history, and series in a few additional subject fields for which statistics could not be presented in this first edition. It is hoped also that the present volume will stimulate research by others leading to filling in of gaps in historical knowledge—research that will afford materials for inclusion in future revisions.

The Problem of Historical Statistics

The statistics of the Nation are an important and even indispensable tool in the proper portrayal of the status of the United States in various subject fields at various periods in time. There are surprisingly few general fields in which existent figures cannot supplement or clarify the qualitative historical records—figures which were compiled year by year during the course of events, or were reconstructed later on the basis of existent statistical evidence.

The extent to which statistical data are cited or taken into account in historical writings is frequently dependent upon the ready availability of the needed data to the writers. An understandable lack of knowledge as to the existence of historical statistics in a given field, and the relative inaccessibility of the volumes in which they may be found, combine to prevent their more widespread and effective use.

True, in some subject fields statistical time series are entirely lacking, particularly figures already arranged year by year. In many important fields, however, the past publications of the Nation, public and private, contain a wealth of data periodically compiled which reflect the fact that "a strong passion for statistics early developed itself in the life of our people . . ."1

Sources of data. Among the numerous sources of historical statistics of the United States are the annual reports of the executive heads of the various Departments, Bureaus, and other agencies of the Federal Government, reports of special Federal commissions established from time to time, the volumes of the various censuses of the United States, the printed debates of the Congress, the published reports of Committees of the Congress and the transcripts of hearings conducted by them on important legislative measures, the published reports and documents of State Governments, the statistical publications of private research foundations and organizations and of the universities and colleges of the Nation, and the great mass of statistical and other volumes printed privately by other organizations and individuals.

Difficulty of accessibility. The accessibility of these great masses of historical data to those who wish to use them is another matter. As matters stand, Senators and Congressmen, public officials, economic, social, and political historians, research workers, teachers, students, journalists, and authors, to mention only a few groups, who wish to consult the historical statistics "available" in published form on a given subject are faced with three major difficulties:

First, the determination of the existence of the data and the identification of the exact public or private document or volume in which the data may be found. Frequently, this requires a knowledge of the responsibilities of government bureaus in years long past, and the scope, coverage, and formal description or title of their official reports. The exact material which is desired may already have been compiled, but it may well be buried in an obscure special report or in the published documents of an early Congress—publications which few libraries may have on their shelves.

Furthermore, the present staff of the Government Bureau now responsible for the given subject field may have only a meager

From a speech by Francis A. Walker, Superintendent of the Ninth and Tenth Censuses of the United States ( 1870 and 1880), delivered before the International Statistical Institute, Chicago, 1893.


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