The Long View on Epidemics, Disease and Public Health: Research from Economic History, Part A

This piece is the result of a collaboration between the Economic History Review, the Journal of Economic History, Explorations in Economic History and the European Review of Economic History. More details and special thanks below.


Exhibit depicting a miniature from a 14th century Belgium manuscript at the Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

As the world grapples with a pandemic, informed views based on facts and evidence have become all the more important. Economic history is a uniquely well-suited discipline to provide insights into the costs and consequences of rare events, such as pandemics, as it combines the tools of an economist with the long perspective and attention to context of historians. The editors of the main journals in economic history have thus gathered a selection of the recently-published articles on epidemics, disease and public health, generously made available by publishers to the public, free of access, so that we may continue to learn from the decisions of humans and policy makers confronting earlier episodes of widespread disease and pandemics.

Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Generations of economic historians have studied disease and its impact on societies across history. However, as the discipline has continued to evolve with improvements in both data and methods, researchers have uncovered new evidence about episodes from the distant past, such as the Black Death, as well as more recent global pandemics, such as the Spanish Influenza of 1918. We begin with a recent overview of scholarship on the history of premodern epidemics, and group the remaining articles thematically, into two short reading lists. The first consists of research exploring the impact of diseases in the most direct sense: the patterns of mortality they produce. The second group of articles explores the longer-term consequences of diseases for people’s health later in life.

L0025221 Plague doctor
Plague doctor. Available at Wellcome Collection.


L0001879 Two men discovering a dead woman in the street during the gr
Two men discovering a dead woman in the street during the Great Plague of London, 1665. Available at Wellcome Collection.


Patterns of Mortality

Emblems of mortality: death seizing all ranks and degrees of people, 1789. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The rich and complex body of historical work on epidemics is carefully surveyed by Guido Alfani and Tommy Murphy who provide an excellent  guide to the economic, social, and  demographic impact of plagues in human history: ‘Plague and Lethal Epidemics in the Pre-Industrial World’.  The Journal of Economic History 77, no. 1 (2017): 314–43.  The impact of epidemics varies over time and few studies have shown this so clearly as the penetrating article by Neil Cummins, Morgan Kelly and Cormac  Ó Gráda, who provide a finely-detailed map of how the plague evolved  in 16th and 17th century London to reveal who was most heavily burdened by this contagion.  ‘Living Standards and Plague in London, 1560–1665’. Economic History Review 69, no. 1 (2016): 3-34. .  Plagues shaped the history of nations  and, indeed, global history, but we must not assume that the impact of  plagues was as devastating as we might assume: in a classic piece of historical detective work, Ann  Carlos and Frank Lewis show that mortality among native Americans in the Hudson Bay area  was much lower than historians had suggested: ‘Smallpox and Native American Mortality: The 1780s Epidemic in the Hudson Bay Region’.  Explorations in Economic History 49, no. 3 (2012): 277-90.

The effects of disease reflect a complex interaction of individual and social factors.  A paper by Karen Clay, Joshua Lewis and Edson Severnini  explains  how the combination of air pollution and influenza was particularly deadly in the 1918 epidemic, and that  cities in the US which were heavy users of coal had all-age mortality  rates that were approximately  10 per cent higher than  those with lower rates of coal use:  ‘Pollution, Infectious Disease, and Mortality: Evidence from the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic’.  The Journal of Economic History 78, no. 4 (2018): 1179–1209.  A remarkable analysis of how one of the great killers, smallpox, evolved during the 18th century, is provided by Romola Davenport, Leonard Schwarz and Jeremy Boulton, who concluded that it was a change in the transmissibility of the disease itself that mattered most for its impact: “The Decline of Adult Smallpox in Eighteenth‐century London.” Economic History Review 64, no. 4 (2011): 1289-314.   The question of which sections of society experienced the heaviest burden of sickness during outbreaks of disease outbreaks has long troubled historians and epidemiologists. Outsiders and immigrants have often been blamed for disease outbreaks. Jonathan Pritchett and Insan Tunali show that poverty and immunisation, not immigration, explain who was infected during the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1853 New Orleans: ‘Strangers’ Disease: Determinants of Yellow Fever Mortality during the New Orleans Epidemic of 1853’. Explorations in Economic History 32, no. 4 (1995): 517.


The Long Run Consequences of Disease

‘Dance of Death’. Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514). Available at Wikipedia.

The way epidemics affects families is complex. John Parman wrestles wit h one of the most difficult issues – how parents respond to the harms caused by exposure to an epidemic. Parman  shows that parents chose to concentrate resources on the children who were not affected by exposure to influenza in 1918, which reinforced the differences between their children: ‘Childhood Health and Sibling Outcomes: Nurture Reinforcing Nature during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic’, Explorations in Economic History 58 (2015): 22-43.  Martin Saavedra addresses a related question: how did exposure to disease in early childhood affect life in the long run? Using late 19th century census data from the US, Saavedra  shows that children of immigrants who were exposed to yellow fever in the womb or early infancy, did less well in later life than their peers,  because they were only able to secure lower-paid  employment: ‘Early-life Disease Exposure and Occupational Status: The Impact of Yellow Fever during the 19th Century’.  Explorations in Economic History 64, no. C (2017): 62-81.  One of the great advantages of historical research is its  ability to reveal how the experiences of disease over a lifetime generates cumulative harms. Javier Birchenall’s extraordinary paper shows how soldiers’ exposure to disease during the American Civil War increased the probability  they would  contract tuberculosis later in life: ‘Airborne Diseases: Tuberculosis in the Union Army’. Explorations in Economic History 48, no. 2 (2011): 325-42.


V0010604 A street during the plague in London with a death cart and m
“Bring Out Your Dead” A street during the Great Plague in London, 1665. Available at Wellcome Collection.


Patrick Wallis, Giovanni Federico & John Turner, for the Economic History Review;

Dan Bogart, Karen Clay, William Collins, for the Journal of Economic History;

Kris James Mitchener, Carola Frydman, and Marianne Wanamaker, for Explorations in Economic History;

Joan Roses, Kerstin Enflo, Christopher Meissner, for the European Review of Economic History.


If you wish to read further, other papers on this topic are available on the journal websites:


* Thanks to Leigh Shaw-Taylor, Cambridge University Press, Elsevier, Oxford University Press, and Wiley, for their advice and support.

Book Review – ‘Money and Markets: Essays in Honour of Martin Daunton’

review by Duncan Needham (University of Cambridge)

book edited by Julian Hoppit, Duncan Needham & Adrian Leonard

‘Money and Markets: Essays in Honour of Martin Daunton’ is published by Boydell and Brewer. SAVE  35% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 23rd April 2020. See below for details.


Daunton 1

Money and Markets was commissioned by Boydell and Brewer following a conference to celebrate the distinguished career of Cambridge historian Martin Daunton.  The volume follows the themes of that conference, bringing together essays from former colleagues and students that reflect Martin’s broad-ranging interests in the economic, social and cultural history of the United Kingdom and beyond.  As one of those colleagues Frank Trentmann points out, students could be forgiven for thinking there are four Martin Dauntons:

There is the Daunton of urban history and housing, then Daunton the author of books on state and taxation, and a third, younger Daunton, who writes about Britain and globalisation. Finally, there is the academic governor Daunton, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, President of the Royal Historical Society, and chair of numerous boards and committees.


Martin Daunton was the sixth holder of the Cambridge chair in Economic History.  The first, Sir John Clapham, tasked economic historians with filling the ‘empty boxes’ of theory with historical facts.  This task was taken up with enthusiasm by his successor, Michael Postan, who insisted that theory, essential for establishing historical causation, be firmly grounded in social and institutional settings.  Martin has taken a similar approach throughout his career by focusing on the relationship between structure and agency, how institutional structures create capacities and path dependencies, and how institutions are themselves shaped by agency and contingency – what Fernand Braudel referred to as ‘turning the hour glass twice’.

The introduction to Money and Markets provides biographical detail to illustrate how Martin’s research has been influenced by the places in which he has lived – from growing up in South Wales, to university at Nottingham and Kent, then teaching at Durham, London and finally Cambridge.  The chapters then follow Trentmann’s taxonomy with new research on the financing of the British fiscal-military state before and during the Napoleonic wars, its property institutions, and the longer-term economic consequences of Sir Robert Peel.  There are also chapters on the birth of the Eurodollar market, Conservative fiscal policy from the 1960s to the 1980s, the impact of neoliberalism on welfare policy (and more broadly), the failed attempt to build an airport in the Thames Estuary in the 1970s, and the political economy of time in Britain since 1945.  While much of the focus is on Britain, and British finance in a global economy, the volume also reflects Daunton’s more recent work on international political economy with essays on the French contribution to nineteenth-century globalization, Prussian state finances at the time of the 1848 revolution, Imperial German monetary policy, the role of international charity in the mixed economy of welfare and neoliberal governance, and the material politics of energy consumption from the 1930s to the 1960s.



SAVE 35% when you order direct from the publisher using the offer code BB135 online here. Offer ends 23rd April 2020. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291 and quote the same code. Offer ends one month after the date of upload. Any queries please email

Early View: Slavery and Anglo-American capitalism revisited

by Gavin Wright (Stanford University)

The full paper for this research has now been published on The Economic History Review and is available on early view here 


Slaves cutting sugar cane, taken from ‘Ten Views in the Island of Antigua’ by William Clark. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

For decades, scholars have debated the role of slavery in the rise of industrial capitalism, from the British Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century to the acceleration of the American economy in the nineteenth century.

Most recent studies find an important element of truth in the thesis associated with Eric Williams that links the slave trade and slave-based commerce with early British industrial development. Long-distance markets were crucial supports for technological progress and for the infrastructure of financial markets and the shipping sector.

But the eighteenth century Atlantic economy was dominated by sugar, and sugar was dominated by slavery. The role of the slave trade was central to the process, because it would have been all but impossible to attract a free labour force to the brutal and deadly conditions that prevailed in sugar cultivation. As the mercantilist, Sir James Steuart asked in 1767: ‘Could the sugar islands be cultivated to any advantage by hired labour?’

Adherents of an insurgency known as the New History of Capitalism have extended this line of analysis to nineteenth century America, maintaining that: ‘During the eighty years between the American Revolution and the Civil War, slavery was indispensable to the economic development of the United States.’ A crucial linkage in this perspective is between slave-grown cotton and the cotton textile industries of both Britain and the United States, as asserted by Marx: ‘Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry.’

My research, to be presented in this year’s Tawney Lecture to the Economic History Society’s annual conference, argues to the contrary, that such analyses overlook the second part of the Williams thesis, which held that industrial capitalism abandoned slavery because it was no longer needed for continued economic expansion. We need not ascribe cynical or self-interested motives to the abolitionists to assert that these forces were able to succeed because the political-economic consensus that supported slavery in the eighteenth century no longer prevailed in the nineteenth.

Between the American Revolution in 1776 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the demands of industrial capitalism changed in fundamental ways: expansion of new export markets in non-slave areas; streamlined channels for migration of free labour; the shift of the primary raw material from sugar to cotton. Unlike sugar, cotton was not confined to unhealthy locations, did not require large fixed capital investment, and would have spread rapidly through the American South, with or without slavery.

These historic shifts were recognised in the United States as in Britain, as indicated by the post-Revolutionary abolitions in the northern states and territories. To be sure, southern slavery was highly profitable to the owners, and the slave economy experienced considerable growth in the antebellum period. But the southern regional economy seemed increasingly out of step with the US mainstream, its centrality for national prosperity diminishing over time.

Indeed, my study asserts that on balance the persistence of slavery actually reduced the growth of cotton supply compared with a free-labour alternative. The truth of this proposition is most clearly demonstrated by the expansion of production after the Civil War and emancipation, and the return of world cotton prices to their pre-war levels.

Tawney Lecture 2019: Slavery and Anglo-American Capitalism Revisited

by Gavin Wright (Stanford University)

This research was presented as the Tawney Lecture at the EHS Annual Conference in 2019.

It will also appear in the Economic History Review later this year.


Coloured lithograph of slaves picking cotton. Fort Sumter Museum Charleston. Available at Flickr.

My Tawney lecture reassessed the relationship between slavery and industrial capitalism in both Britain and the United States.  The thesis expounded by Eric Williams held that slavery and the slave trade were vital for the expansion of British industry and commerce during the 18th century but were no longer needed by the 19th.  My lecture confirmed both parts of the Williams thesis:  the 18th-century Atlantic economy was dominated by sugar, which required slave labor; but after 1815, British manufactured goods found diverse new international markets that did not need captive colonial buyers, naval protection, or slavery.  Long-distance trade became safer and cheaper, as freight rates fell, and international financial infrastructure developed.  Figure 1 (below) shows that the slave economies absorbed the majority of British cotton goods during the 18th century, but lost their centrality during the 19th, supplanted by a diverse array of global destinations.

Figure 1.

Source: see article published in the Review.


I argued that this formulation applies with equal force to the upstart economy across the Atlantic.  The mainland North American colonies were intimately connected to the larger slave-based imperial economy.  The northern colonies, holding relatively few slaves themselves, were nonetheless beneficiaries of the trading regime,  protected against outsiders by British naval superiority.  Between 1768 and 1772, the British West Indies were the largest single market for commodity exports from New England and the Middle Atlantic, dominating sales of wood products, fish and meat, and accounting for significant shares of whale products, grains and grain products.  The prominence of slave-based commerce explains the arresting connections reported by C. S. Wilder, associating early American universities with slavery.  Thus, part one of the Williams thesis also holds for 18th-century colonial America.

Insurgent scholars known as New Historians of Capitalism argue that slavery, specifically slave-grown cotton, was critical for the rise of the U.S. economy in the 19th century.  In contrast, I argued that although industrial capitalism needed cheap cotton, cheap cotton did not need slavery.  Unlike sugar, cotton required no large investments of fixed capital and could be cultivated efficiently at any scale, in locations that would have been settled by free farmers in the absence of slavery.  Early mainland cotton growers deployed slave labour not because of its productivity or aptness for the new crop, but because they were already slave owners, searching for profitable alternatives to tobacco, indigo, and other declining crops.  Slavery was, in effect, a ‘pre-existing condition’ for the 19th-century American South.

To be sure, U.S. cotton did indeed rise ‘on the backs of slaves’, and no cliometric counterfactual can gainsay this brute fact of history.  But it is doubtful that this brutal system served the long-run interests of textile producers in Lancashire and New England, as many of them recognized at the time.  As argued here, the slave South underperformed as a world cotton supplier, for three distinct though related reasons:  in 1807 the region  closed the African slave trade, yet failed to recruit free migrants, making labour supply inelastic; slave owners neglected transportation infrastructure, leaving large sections of potential cotton land on the margins of commercial agriculture; and because of the fixed-cost character of slavery, even large plantations aimed at self-sufficiency in foodstuffs, limiting the region’s overall degree of market specialization.  The best evidence that slavery was not essential for cotton supply is demonstrated by what happened when slavery ended. After war and emancipation, merchants and railroads flooded into the southeast, enticing previously isolated farm areas into the cotton economy.  Production in plantation areas gradually recovered, but the biggest source of new cotton came from white farmers in the Piedmont.  When the dust settled in the 1880s, India, Egypt, and slave-using Brazil had retreated from world markets, and the price of cotton in Liverpool returned to its antebellum level. See Figure 2.

Figure 2.

Source: see article published in the Review.

The New Historians of Capitalism also exaggerate the importance of the slave South for accelerated U.S. growth.  The Cotton Staple Growth hypothesis advanced by Douglass North was decisively refuted by economic historians a generation ago.  The South was not a major market for western foodstuffs and consumed only a small and declining share of northern manufactures.   International and interregional financial connections were undeniably important, but thriving capital markets in northeastern cities clearly predated the rise of cotton, and connections to slavery were remote at best. Investments in western canals and railroads were in fact larger, accentuating the expansion of commerce along East-West lines.

It would be excessive to claim that Anglo-American industrial and financial interests recognized the growing dysfunction of the slave South, and in response fostered or encouraged the antislavery campaigns that culminated in the Civil War.  A more appropriate conclusion is that because of profound changes in technologies and global economic structures, slavery — though still highly profitable to its practitioners — no longer seemed essential for the capitalist economies of the 19th-century world.

Turkey’s Experience with Economic Development since 1820

by Sevket Pamuk, University of Bogazici (Bosphorus) 

This research is part of a broader article published in the Economic History Review.

A podcast of Sevket’s Tawney lecture can be found here.


Pamuk 1

New Map of Turkey in Europe, Divided into its Provinces, 1801. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The Tawney lecture, based on my recent book – Uneven centuries: economic development of Turkey since 1820, Princeton University Press, 2018 – examined the economic development of Turkey from a comparative global perspective. Using GDP per capita and other data, the book showed that Turkey’s record in economic growth and human development since 1820 has been close to the world average and a little above the average for developing countries. The early focus of the lecture was on the proximate causes — average rates of investment, below average rates of schooling, low rates of total productivity growth, and low technology content of production —which provide important insights into why improvements in GDP per capita were not higher. For more fundamental explanations I emphasized the role of institutions and institutional change. Since the nineteenth century Turkey’s formal economic institutions were influenced by international rules which did not always support economic development. Turkey’s elites also made extensive changes in formal political and economic institutions. However, these institutions provide only part of the story:  the direction of institutional change also depended on the political order and the degree of understanding between different groups and their elites. When political institutions could not manage the recurring tensions and cleavages between the different elites, economic outcomes suffered.

There are a number of ways in which my study reflects some of the key trends in the historiography in recent decades.  For example, until fairly recently, economic historians focused almost exclusively on the developed economies of western Europe, North America, and Japan. Lately, however, economic historians have been changing their focus to developing economies. Moreover, as part of this reorientation, considerable effort has been expended on constructing long-run economic series, especially GDP and GDP per capita, as well as series on health and education.  In this context, I have constructed long-run series for the area within the present-day borders of Turkey. These series rely mostly on official estimates for the period after 1923 and make use of a variety of evidence for the Ottoman era, including wages, tax revenues and foreign trade series. In common with the series for other developing countries, many of my calculations involving Turkey  are subject to larger margins of error than similar series for developed countries. Nonetheless, they provide insights into the developmental experience of Turkey and other developing countries that would not have been possible two or three decades ago. Finally, in recent years, economists and economic historians have made an important distinction between the proximate causes and the deeper determinants of economic development. While literature on the proximate causes of development focuses on investment, accumulation of inputs, technology, and productivity, discussions of the deeper causes consider the broader social, political, and institutional environment. Both sets of arguments are utilized in my book.

I argue that an interest-based explanation can address both the causes of long-run economic growth and its limits. Turkey’s formal economic institutions and economic policies underwent extensive change during the last two centuries. In each of the four historical periods I define, Turkey’s economic institutions and policies were influenced by international or global rules which were enforced either by the leading global powers or, more recently, by international agencies. Additionally, since the nineteenth century, elites in Turkey made extensive changes to formal political institutions.  In response to European military and economic advances, the Ottoman elites adopted a programme of institutional changes that mirrored European developments; this programme  continued during the twentieth century. Such fundamental  changes helped foster significant increases in per capita income as well as  major improvements in health and education.

But it is also necessary to examine how these new formal institutions interacted with the process of economic change – for example, changing social structure and variations in the distribution of power and expectations — to understand the scale and characteristics of growth that the new institutional configurations generated.

These interactions were complex. It is not easy to ascribe the outcomes created in Turkey during these two centuries to a single cause. Nonetheless, it is safe to state that in each of the four periods, the successful development of  new institutions depended on the state making use of the different powers and capacities of the various elites. More generally, economic outcomes depended closely on the nature of the political order and the degree of understanding between different groups in society and the elites that led them. However, one of the more important characteristics of Turkey’s social structure has been the recurrence of tensions and cleavages between its elites. While they often appeared to be based on culture, these tensions overlapped with competing economic interests which were, in turn, shaped by the economic institutions and policies generated by the global economic system. When political institutions could not manage these tensions well, Turkey’s economic outcomes remained close to the world average.

Trade in the Shadow of Power: Japanese Industrial Exports in the Interwar years

By Alejandro Ayuso Díaz and Antonio Tena Junguito (Carlos III University of Madrid)

The history of international trade provides numerous examples of trade in the ‘shadow of power’ (Findlay and O´Rourke 2007). Here we argue that Japanese empire power was as important as factor endowments, preferences, and technology, to the expansion of trade during the interwar years. Following Gardfield et al 2010, the shadow of power that we discuss is based on the use or threat of violence or conquest which depend on the military capabilities of states.

Figure 1:Japan and World Manufacturing Export Performance. Source: Japan and World comparative manufacture exports in volume (1953=100) from UN Historical Trade Statistics.

Japan was a latecomer to 20th-century industrialization, but during the interwar years, and especially in the 1930s, it was able to activate a complex and aggressive industrialization policy to accelerate the modernization of its industry. This policy consisted of import substitution and exports of manufactures to its region of influence. This newly created empire was very efficient in developing a peculiar imperial trade in the shadow of power throughout East and Southeast Asia in conjunction with a more aggressive imperial regional policy through conquest.

The trade generation capacity of the Japanese empire during the interwar years was much higher than that suggested by Mitchener and Weidenmier (2008) for the preceding period (1870-1913). However, some caution needs to be exercised in making this comparison because it might indicate issues associated with the interpretation of the relevant statistics. Japanese empire trade membership increased by more than ten times that associated with the British, German and French Empires, during this period and was twice as great as that for the US and Spanish empires. Consequently, it might be argued that our coefficients are more prominent because they are capturing stronger intra-bloc bias that emerged after the Great Depression.

Employing a granular database consisting of Japanese exports towards 117 countries over 1,135 products at six different benchmarks (1912,1915,1925,1929,1932 and 1938) we are able to demonstrate that the expansion of Japanese exports during the interwar period was facilitated by the exploitation of formal and informal imperial links which exerted a bigger influence on export determination than productivity increases.

Figure 2: Japanese total manufacturing exports by skills and region. Source: Annual Returns of the Foreign Trade of the Empire of Japan.

a) Manufacturing exports by skills
b) high skilled exports by region


The main characteristics of this trade expansion between 1932 and 1938 were high-skill exports directed towards Japanese colonies. Additional evidence indicates that Japan did not enjoy comparative advantage in products with limited export- market potential. Colonial infrastructure, building and urbanization were used as exclusive markets for high-skill exports and became one of the main drivers of Japanese export expansion and its modern industrialization process.

Trade blocs in the interwar years were used as instruments of imperial power to foster exports and as a substitute for productivity in encouraging industrial production. In that sense, Japan’s total exports in 1938 were between 28% and 47% higher than 1912 thanks to imperial mechanisms. The figure is much higher when we capture the imperial effect on high-skill exports (between 66% and 76% higher thanks to imperial connections). The quoted figures are based on a counterfactual comparing exports without the empire to those obtained via Imperial mechanisms.

We believe that our results demonstrate the colonial trade bias mechanism used by imperialist countries was inversely related to productivity. The implicit counterfactual hypothesis would be that without imperial intervention in the region Japan would not have expanded its high-skill exports and would not have exported such a variety of new products. In other words, Japan’s industrialisation process would have been much less pronounced.



Ayuso-Diaz, A. and Tena-Junguito, A. (2019): “Trade in the Shadow of Power: Japanese Industrial Exports in the Interwar years”. Economic History Review (forthcoming).

Findlay, R. and O’Rourke, K. (2007). Power and Plenty. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Garfinkel, M, Skaperdas, S., and Syropoulos, C. (2012). ‘Trade in the Shadow of Power’. In Skaperdas, S., and Syropoulos, C. (eds.), Oxford Handbook on the Economics of Peace and Conflict. Oxford University Press.

Mitchener, K. J., & Weidenmier, M. (2008). Trade and empire. The Economic Journal, 118(533), 1805-1834.

Ritschl, A. & Wolf, N. (2003). “Endogeneity of Currency Areas and Trade Blocs: Evidence from the Inter-war Period,” CEPR Discussion Papers 4112.


To contact the authors:

Alejandro Ayuso Díaz (

Antonio Tena Junguito (

It is only cheating if you get caught – Creative accounting at the Bank of England in the 1960s

by Alain Naef (Postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley)

This research was presented at the EHS conference in Keele in 2018 and is available as a working paper here. It is also available as an updated 2019 version here.


Naef 3
The Bank of England. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The 1960s were a period of crisis for the pound. Britain was on a fixed exchange rate system and needed to defend its currency with intervention on the foreign exchange market. To avoid a crisis, the Bank of England resorted to ‘window dressing’ the published reserve figures.

In the 1960s, the Bank came under pressure from two sides: first, publication of the Radcliffe report ( forced publication of more transparent accounts. Second, with removal of capital controls in 1958, the Bank came under attack from international speculators (Schenk 2010). These contradictory pressures put the Bank in an awkward position. It needed to publish its reserve position (holdings of dollars and gold ) but it recognised that doing so could trigger a run on sterling, thereby creating a self-fulfilling currency crisis (see Krugman:

For a long time, the Bank had a reputation for the obscurity of its accounts and its lack of transparency. Andy Haldane (Chief Economist at the Bank) recognised, for ‘most of [it’s] history, opacity has been deeply ingrained in central banks’ psyche’.

( One Federal Reserve (Fed) memo noted that the Bank of England took ‘a certain pride in pointing out that hardly anything can be inferred by outsiders from their balance sheet’, another that ‘it seems clear that the Bank of England is being pushed – by much public criticism – into giving out more information.’ However, the Bank did eventually publish reserve figures at a quarterly, and then monthly, frequency (Figure 1).

Transparency about the reserves created a risk for a currency crisis so in late 1966 the Bank developed a strategy for reporting levels that would not cause a crisis (Capie 2010). Figure 1 illustrates how ‘window dressing’ worked. The solid line reports the convertible reserves as published in the Quarterly Bulletin of the Bank of England. This information was available to market participants. The stacked columns show the actual daily dollar reserves. Spikes appear at monthly intervals, indicating the short-term borrowing that was used to ensure the reserves level was high enough on reporting days.


Figure 1. Published EEA convertible currency reserves vs. actual dollar reserves held at the EEA, 1962-1971.

Naef 1


The Bank borrowed dollars shortly before the reserve reporting day by drawing on swap lines (similar to the Fed in 2007 Swap drawings could be used overnight. Table 1 illustrates how window dressing worked using data from the EEA ledgers available at the archives of the Bank. As an example, on Friday, 31 May 1968, the Bank borrowed over £450 million – an increase in reserves of 171%. The swap operation was reversed the next working day, and on Tuesday the reserves level was back to where it was before reporting. The details of these operations emphasise how swap networks were short-term instruments to manipulate published figures.


Table 1. Daily entry in the EEA ledger showing how window dressing worked

Naef 2


The Bank of England’s window dressing was done in collaboration with the Fed. Both discussed reserve figures before the Bank published them. During most of the 1960s, the Bank and the Fed were in contact daily about exchange rate matters. Records of these phone conversations are parsimonious at the Bank but the Fed kept daily records (Archives of the Fed in New York, references 617031 and 617015).

During the 1960s, collaboration between the two central banks intensified. The Bank consulted the Fed on the exact wording of the reserve publication (Naef, 2019) and the Fed communicated on the swap position with the Bank, to ensure consonance between the public statements. Indeed, the Fed sent excerpts of minutes to the Bank to allow excision of anything mentioning window dressing (Archives of the Fed in New York, reference 107320). Thus, in December 1971, before publishing the minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) for 1966, Charles Coombs (a leading figure at the Fed) consulted Richard Hallet (Chief Cashier at the Bank):

‘You will recall that when you visited us in December 1969, we invited you to look over selected excerpts from the 1966 FOMC minutes involving certain delicate points that we thought you might wish to have deleted from the published version. We have subsequently deleted all of the passages which you found troublesome. Recently, we have made a final review of the minutes and have turned up one other passage that I am not certain you had an opportunity to go over. I am enclosing a copy of the excerpt, with possible deletions bracketed in red ink.’

Source: Letter from Coombs to Hallet, New York Federal Reserve Bank archives, 1 December 1971, Box 107320.)


Coombs suggested deleting passages where some FOMC members criticised window dressing, while other members suggested the Bank would get better results ‘if they reported their reserve position accurately than if they attempted to conceal their true reserve position’ ( However, MacLaury (FOMC), stressed that there was a risk of ‘setting off a cycle of speculation against sterling’ if the Bank published a loss of $200 million, which was ‘large for a single month’ in comparison with what was published the previous month.

The history of the Bank’s window dressing is a reminder of the difficulties central banks face in managing reserves, a situation similar to how investors today closely monitor the reserves of the People’s Bank of China.



To contact the author:



Capie, Forrest. 2010. The Bank of England: 1950s to 1979. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Naef, Alain. 2019. “Dirty Float or Clean Intervention?  The Bank of England in the Foreign Exchange Market.” Lund Papers in Economic History. General Issues, no. 2019:199.

Schenk, Catherine. 2010. The Decline of Sterling: Managing the Retreat of an International Currency, 1945–1992. Cambridge University Press.

All quiet before the take-off? Pre-industrial regional inequality in Sweden (1571-1850)

by Anna Missiaia and Kersten Enflo (Lund University)

This research is due to be published in the Economic History Review and is currently available on Early View.


Missiaia Main.jpg
Södra Bancohuset (The Southern National Bank Building), Stockholm. Available here at Wikimedia Commons.

For a long time, scholars have thought about regional inequality merely as a by-product of modern economic growth: following a Kuznets-style interpretation, the front-running regions increase their income levels and regional inequality during industrialization; and it is only when the other regions catch-up that overall regional inequality decreases and completes the inverted-U shaped pattern. But early empirical research on this theme was largely focused on the  the 20th century, ignoring industrial take-off of many countries (Williamson, 1965).  More recent empirical studies have pushed the temporal boundary back to the mid-19th century, finding that inequality in regional GDP was already high at the outset of modern industrialization (see for instance Rosés et al., 2010 on Spain and Felice, 2018 on Italy).

The main constraint for taking the estimations well into the pre-industrial period is the availability of suitable regional sources. The exceptional quality of Swedish sources allowed us for the first time to estimate a dataset of regional GDP for a European economy going back to the 16th century (Enflo and Missiaia, 2018). The estimates used here for 1571 are largely based on a one-off tax proportional to the yearly production: the Swedish Crown imposed this tax on all Swedish citizens in order to pay a ransom for the strategic Älvsborg castle that had just been conquered by Denmark. For the period 1750-1850, the estimates rely on standard population censuses. By connecting the new series to the existing ones from 1860 onwards by Enflo et al. (2014), we obtain the longest regional GDP series for any given country.

We find that inequality increased dramatically between 1571 and 1750 and remained high until the mid-19th century. Thereafter, it declined during the modern industrialization of the country (Figure 1). Our results discard the traditional  view that regional divergence can only originate during an industrial take-off.


Figure 1. Coefficient of variation of GDP per capita across Swedish counties, 1571-2010.

Missiaia 1
Sources: 1571-1850: Enflo and. Missiaia, ‘Regional GDP estimates for Sweden, 1571-1850’; 1860-2010: Enflo et al, ‘Swedish regional GDP 1855-2000 and Rosés and Wolf, ‘The Economic Development of Europe’s Regions’.


Figure 2 shows the relative disparities in four benchmark years. If the country appeared relatively equal in 1571, between 1750 and 1850 both the mining districts in central and northern Sweden and the port cities of Stockholm and Gothenburg emerged.


Figure 2. The relative evolution of GDP per capita, 1571-1850 (Sweden=100).

Missiaia 2
Sources: 1571-1850: Enflo and. Missiaia, ‘Regional GDP estimates for Sweden, 1571-1850’; 2010: Rosés and Wolf, ‘The Economic Development of Europe’s Regions’.

The second part of the paper is devoted to the study of the drivers of pre-industrial regional inequality. Decomposing the Theil index for GDP per worker, we show that regional inequality was driven by structural change, meaning that regions diverged because they specialized in different sectors. A handful of regions specialized in either early manufacturing or in mining, both with a much higher productivity per worker compared to agriculture.

To explain this different trajectory, we use a theoretical framework introduced by Strulik and Weisdorf (2008) in the context of the British Industrial Revolution: in regions with a higher share of GDP in agriculture, technological advancements lead to productivity improvements but also to a proportional increase in population, impeding the growth in GDP per capita as in a classic Malthusian framework. Regions with a higher share of GDP in industry, on the other hand, experienced limited population growth due to the increasing relative price of children, leading to a higher level of GDP per capita. Regional inequality in this framework arises from a different role of the Malthusian mechanism in the two sectors.

Our work speaks to a growing literature on the origin of regional divergence and represents the first effort to perform this type of analysis before the 19th century.


To contact the authors:



Enflo, K. and Missiaia, A., ‘Regional GDP estimates for Sweden, 1571-1850’, Historical Methods, 51(2018), 115-137.

Enflo, K., Henning, M. and Schön, L., ‘Swedish regional GDP 1855-2000 Estimations and general trends in the Swedish regional system’, Research in Economic History, 30(2014), pp. 47-89.

Felice, E., ‘The roots of a dual equilibrium: GDP, productivity, and structural change in the Italian regions in the long run (1871-2011)’, European Review of Economic History, (2018), forthcoming.

Rosés, J., Martínez-Galarraga, J. and Tirado, D., ‘The upswing of regional income inequality in Spain (1860–1930)’,  Explorations in Economic History, 47(2010), pp. 244-257.

Strulik, H., and J. Weisdorf. ‘Population, food, and knowledge: a simple unified growth theory.’ Journal of Economic Growth 13.3 (2008): 195.

Williamson, J., ‘Regional Inequality and the Process of National Development: A Description of the Patterns’, Economic Development and Cultural Change 13(1965), pp. 1-84.


A Policy of Credit Disruption: The Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900

by Latika Chaudhary (Naval Postgraduate School) and Anand V. Swamy (Williams College)

This research is due to be published in the Economic History Review and is currently available on Early View.


Farming, farms, crops, agriculture in North India. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

In the late 19th century the British-Indian government (the Raj) became preoccupied with default on debt and the consequent transfer of land in rural India. In many regions Raj officials made the following argument: British rule had created or clarified individual property rights in land, which had for the first time made land available as collateral for debt. Consequently, peasants could now borrow up to the full value of their land. The Raj had also replaced informal village-based forms of dispute resolution with a formal legal system operating outside the village, which favored the lender over the borrower. Peasants were spendthrift and naïve, and unable to negotiate the new formal courts created by British rule, whereas lenders were predatory and legally savvy. Borrowers were frequently defaulting, and land was rapidly passing from long-standing resident peasants to professional moneylenders who were often either immigrant, of another religion, or sometimes both.  This would lead to social unrest and threaten British rule. To preserve British rule it was essential that one of the links in the chain be broken, even if this meant abandoning cherished notions of sanctity of property and contract.

The Punjab Land Alienation Act (PLAA) of 1900 was the most ambitious policy intervention motivated by this thinking. It sought to prevent professional moneylenders from acquiring the property of traditional landowners. To this end it banned, except under some conditions, the permanent transfer of land from an owner belonging to an ‘agricultural tribe’ to a buyer or creditor who was not from this tribe. Moreover, a lender who was not from an agricultural tribe could no longer seize the land of a defaulting debtor who was from an agricultural tribe.

The PLAA made direct restrictions on the transfer of land a respectable part of the policy apparatus of the Raj and its influence persists to the present-day. There is a substantial literature on the emergence of the PLAA, yet there is no econometric work on two basic questions regarding its impact. First, did the PLAA reduce the availability of mortgage-backed credit? Or were borrowers and lenders able to use various devices to evade the Act, thereby neutralizing it?  Second, if less credit was available, what were the effects on agricultural outcomes and productivity? We use panel data methods to address these questions, for the first time, so far as we know.

Our work provides evidence regarding an unusual policy experiment that is relevant to a hypothesis of broad interest. It is often argued that ‘clean titling’ of assets can facilitate their use as collateral, increasing access to credit, leading to more investment and faster growth. Informed by this hypothesis, many studies estimate the effects of titling on credit and other outcomes, but they usually pertain to making assets more usable as collateral. The PLAA went in the opposite direction – it reduced the “collateralizability” of land which should have  reduced investment and growth, based on the argument we have described. We investigate whether it did.

To identify the effects of the PLAA, we assembled a panel dataset on 25 districts in Punjab from 1890 to 1910. Our dataset contains information on mortgages and sales of land, economic outcomes, such as acreage and ownership of cattle, and control variables like rainfall and population. Because the PLAA targeted professional moneylenders, it should have reduced mortgage-backed credit more in places where they were bigger players in the credit market. Hence, we interact a measure of the importance of the professional, that is, non-agricultural, moneylenders in the mortgage market with an indicator variable for the introduction of the PLAA, which takes the value of  1 from 1900 onward. As expected, we find that  that the PLAA contracted credit more in places where professional moneylenders played a larger role – compared to  districts with no professional moneylenders.  The PLAA reduced mortgage-backed credit by 48 percentage points more at the 25th percentile of our measure of moneylender-importance and by 61 percentage points more at the 75th percentile.

However, this decrease of mortgage-backed credit in professional moneylender-dominated areas did not lead to lower acreage or less ownership of cattle. In short, the PLAA affected credit markets as we might expect without undermining agricultural productivity. Because we have panel data, we are able to account for potential confounding factors such as time-invariant unobserved differences across districts (using district fixed effects), common district-specific shocks (using year effects) and the possibility that districts were trending differently independent of the PLAA (using district-specific time trends).

British officials provided a plausible explanation for the non-impact of PLAA on agricultural production: lenders had merely become more judicious – they were still willing to lend for productive activity, but not for ‘extravagant’ expenditures, such as social ceremonies.  There may be a general lesson here:  policies that make it harder for lenders to recover money may have the beneficial effect of encouraging due diligence.



To contact the authors:

Asia’s ‘little divergence’ in the twentieth century: evidence from PPP-based direct estimates of GDP per capita, 1913–69

by Jean-Pascal Bassino (ENS Lyon) and Pierre van der Eng (Australian National University)

This blog is part of a larger research paper published in the Economic History Review.


Vietnam, rice paddy. Available at Pixabay.

In the ‘great divergence’ debate, China, India, and Japan have been used to represent the Asian continent. However, their development experience is not likely to be representative of the whole of Asia. The countries of Southeast Asia were relatively underpopulated for a considerable period.  Very different endowments of natural resources (particularly land) and labour were key parameters that determined economic development options.

Maddison’s series of per-capita GDP in purchasing power parity (PPP) adjusted international dollars, based on a single 1990 benchmark and backward extrapolation, indicate that a divergence took place in 19th century Asia: Japan was well above other Asian countries in 1913. In 2018 the Maddison Project Database released a new international series of GDP per capita that accommodate the available historical PPP-based converters. Due to the very limited availability of historical PPP-based converters for Asian countries, the 2018 database retains many of the shortcomings of the single-year extrapolation.

Maddison’s estimates indicate that Japan’s GDP per capita in 1913 was much higher than in other Asian countries, and that Asian countries started their development experiences from broadly comparable levels of GDP per capita in the early nineteenth century. This implies that an Asian divergence took place in the 19th century as a consequence of Japan’s economic transformation during the Meiji era (1868-1912). There is now  growing recognition that the use of a single benchmark year and the choice of a particular year may influence the historical levels of GDP per capita across countries. Relative levels of Asian countries based on Maddison’s estimates of per capita GDP are not confirmed by other indicators such as real unskilled wages or the average height of adults.

Our study uses available estimates of GDP per capita in current prices from historical national accounting projects, and estimates PPP-based converters and PPP-adjusted GDP with multiple benchmarks years (1913, 1922, 1938, 1952, 1958, and 1969) for India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaya, Myanmar (then Burma), the Philippines, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, relative to Japan. China is added on the basis of other studies. PPP-based converters are used to calculate GDP per capita in constant PPP yen. The indices of GDP per capita in Japan and other countries were expressed as a proportion of GDP per capita in Japan during the years 1910–70 in 1934–6 yen, and then converted to 1990 international dollars by relying on PPP-adjusted Japanese series comparable to US GDP series. Figure 1 presents the resulting series for Asian countries.


Figure 1. GDP per capita in selected Asian countries, 1910–1970 (1934–6 Japanese yen)

Sources: see original article.


The conventional view dates the start of the divergence to the nineteenth century. Our study identifies the First World War and the 1920s as the era during which the little divergence in Asia occurred. During the 1920s, most countries in Asia — except Japan —depended significantly on exports of primary commodities. The growth experience of Southeast Asia seems to have been largely characterised by market integration in national economies and by the mobilisation of hitherto underutilised resources (labour and land) for export production. Particularly in the land-abundant parts of Asia, the opening-up of land for agricultural production led to economic growth.

Commodity price changes may have become debilitating when their volatility increased after 1913. This was followed by episodes of import-substituting industrialisation, particularly during after 1945.  While Japan rapidly developed its export-oriented manufacturing industries from the First World War, other Asian countries increasingly had inward-looking economies. This pattern lasted until the 1970s, when some Asian countries followed Japan on a path of export-oriented industrialisation and economic growth. For some countries this was a staggered process that lasted well into the 1990s, when the World Bank labelled this development the ‘East Asian miracle’.


To contact the authors:



Bassino, J-P. and Van der Eng, P., ‘Asia’s ‘little divergence’ in the twentieth century: evidence from PPP-based direct estimates of GDP per capita, 1913–69’, Economic History Review (forthcoming).

Fouquet, R. and Broadberry, S., ‘Seven centuries of European economic growth and decline’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29 (2015), pp. 227–44.

Fukao, K., Ma, D., and Yuan, T., ‘Real GDP in pre-war Asia: a 1934–36 benchmark purchasing power parity comparison with the US’, Review of Income and Wealth, 53 (2007), pp. 503–37.

Inklaar, R., de Jong, H., Bolt, J., and van Zanden, J. L., ‘Rebasing “Maddison”: new income comparisons and the shape of long-run economic development’, Groningen Growth and Development Centre Research Memorandum no. 174 (2018).

Link to the website of the Southeast Asian Development in the Long Term (SEA-DELT) project: