Research in Economic History: Volume 35

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(7 chapters)

Empirical studies on household-level inflation inequality have so far only focused on periods with positive inflation rates. However, the major concern on the policy agenda since the most recent financial crisis has been deflation rather than inflation. This naturally raises the question regarding the effect of deflation on the distribution of real income when households spend their budget on different consumption bundles. This chapter compiles annual household-level inflation rates in Denmark from 1930 to 1935 based on microdata from the Expenditure and Saving Survey of 1931 and price data from the official Retail Price Index. The results indicate that lower-income households faced a larger decline in prices on their consumption of goods and services during the deflation years 1930–1932 than higher-income households did. The deflation thus contributed to narrowing the difference in real incomes between the top and bottom parts of the income distribution during the recession. In the years 1933–1935 with positive inflation rates, the lower-income households experienced higher inflation rates than higher-income households. Over the period 1930–1935 seen as a whole, the price development contributed slightly to reducing real income inequality. The low degree of medium-term persistence of differences in household-specific inflation rates is consistent with previous findings in various time periods from the 1960s to the 2000s without any persistent deflation events. The chapter at hand is the first empirical study of the direct distributional effects of price developments at the household level in a period with persistent deflation.


The editorials of the then-new Business Week during the 1929–1933 contraction offered sophisticated Keynesian policy prescriptions: against a laissez-faire response, against deflation, against balanced-budget fetishism, for monetary expansion. These editorials, which seem to have been largely forgotten, likely played a considerable role in the dissemination of Keynesian economics in the United States in the 1930s. This chapter reviews the editorials and their congruence with Keynes’s writings. The magazine’s archives, including surveys of their readers, suggest that the editorials were among the most read and most valued parts of the magazine. The magazine cultivated an elite executive readership at that time, so the editorials may well have been important in gaining business support for Keynesian policies in the early New Deal.


Long-run changes in living standards occupy an important place in development and growth economics, as well as in economic history. An extensive literature uses heights to study historical living standards. Most historical heights data, however, come from selected subpopulations such as volunteer soldiers, raising concerns about the role of selection bias in these results. Variations in sample mean heights can reflect selection rather than changes in population heights. A Roy-style model of the decision to join the military formalizes the selection problem. Simulations show that even modest differential rewards to the civilian sector produce a military heights sample that is significantly shorter than the cohort from which it is drawn. Monte Carlos show that diagnostics based on departure from the normal distribution have little power to detect selection. To detect height-related selection, we develop a simple, robust diagnostic based on differential selection by age at recruitment. A companion paper (H. Bodenhorn, T. Guinnane, and T. Mroz, 2017) uses this diagnostic to show that the selection problems affect important results in the historical heights literature.


The 1896 presidential election between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley has new salience in the wake of the 2016 presidential contest. We provide the first systematic analysis of presidential voting in 1896, combining county-level returns with economic, financial, and demographic data. We show that Bryan did well where interest rates were high, railroad penetration was low, and crop prices had declined. We show that further declines in crop prices or increases in interest rates would have been enough to tip the Electoral College in Bryan’s favor. But to change the outcome, the additional changes would have had to be large.


Before it was fully nationalized in 1945, the Banque de France was a listed company that distributed dividends to its shareholders and was listed on the Paris stock exchange. By comparing with other stocks and indexes, I show that, in spite of large earnings, Banque de France’s stock was a lackluster but popular investment. By examining the distribution of profits between the state and ordinary shareholders, I show that the state began to exert an influence over the Bank well before its nationalization, in the nineteenth century, amounting to a stealthy takeover. I then go on to analyze the Bank’s formal governance framework and the power of its regents (directors). Using a novel method to compute the shareholders’ statistical distribution, I conclude that small new shareholders who were less sophisticated bought predominantly shares from old larger shareholders. Eventually, most of the shareholders were “petit-bourgeois” passive rentiers who accepted the mediocre performance and kept reelecting the regents. I conclude by saying that the power of the 200 largest shareholders (“200 families”) was a political myth with little foundation in reality.


Why did peasants in old-regime Europe scatter their land in small strips within open fields? According to an influential theory advocated by Deirdre McCloskey, the system’s main aim was risk reduction. By spreading out land, peasants were less exposed to the caprices of nature: heavy rains, droughts, frost, or hailstorms. In a time when other insurance institutions were lacking, this approach could be a rational solution, even if, as McCloskey suggests, it could be achieved only at the expense of overall agricultural productivity.

Over the years, McCloskey’s theory has repeatedly been debated. Still, it has never been empirically established to what extent the open fields actually reduced risk. McCloskey offered only indirect evidence, based on hypothetical calculations from short series demesne level yields. Risks on enclosed and open-field land farms were thus never compared.

This chapter presents farm-level harvest variation series, including observations from both types of land. It is based on tithe records of 1,700 farms in Southern Sweden from 1715–1860. Results show that scattering had a limited effect on agricultural risk. The system did protect against small-scale local crop failures. It was less efficient, however, when it came to the large-scale regional harvest disasters that constituted a much more serious threat to peasants of the time. From this perspective, the inner logic of the open-field system is taken up for renewed consideration.

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Research in Economic History
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