Economic History of the United States

By Chester W. Wright | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XLV
THE ACHIEVEMENT: THE ADVANCE IN THE STANDARD OF LIVING, 1770-1930

Introduction. In Chap. I the point was stressed that the primary and underlying problem in the study of economic history was how a given group of people proceeded in their effort to raise their standard of living. The foregoing account has had as its main, though not the only, objective an attempt to analyze and make clear the underlying conditions and the changes made in the economic and other social institutions by which the American people sought to improve their standard of living. This was based on the belief that by studying the factors involved, by watching the evolutionary process through which the existing economic order was evolved and its problems created, and by learning the reasons for past successes or failures, we would be better fitted to guide future action and promote economic progress. Some of the more general conclusions of significance for this purpose will be given in Chap. XLVI. Here we shall attempt to suggest what the American people achieved as a result of their efforts, for it is only as we secure some conception of the results actually obtained in advancing the standard of living that we can judge of the success of those efforts.

This is the more essential because the present generation has so little conception of what living meant in terms of the concrete goods and services available to earlier generations. It takes too much of the present comparative abundance for granted and has no realization of what life was like in a frontier log cabin with an essentially household economy, or when travel was mainly on horseback, candles provided the chief light, matches and modern plumbing were unknown, frequent plagues ravaged the cities, and medicine was in its infancy. Moreover, one who has read the preceding chapters with their frequent stress on developments tending to promote economic progress and then is confronted with the statement that today a third of our families do not have even a decent standard of living will be led to inquire how real that progress was and, if real, what forms it took and who benefited by it? To suggest the answers, if only in an imperfect way, is the purpose of this chapter.

No pretense can be made of presenting here anything like a really adequate account of the advance in the American standard of living. In the first place, sufficient data do not exist and even those that are

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