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Developing an Economic Snapshot? The Post-War Years as Example

I have wanted to publish a post about historic economic data for quite a while, but wanted to do it in an interesting way. Anyone interested in researching the history of the U.S. economy – particularly in the 20th century –  will find there is a lot available.  However, this a big subject, so I thought limiting the scope to the late 1940’s would keep things a bit more manageable.

A street scenes with with cars and one story commercial buildings with the tall, multistory factory building with the Schaefer's sign in the background

Schaefer’s Brewery, Kent Ave., Brooklyn, July 1948, Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., photographer.

Two graph charts on consumer spending covering 1939 to 1947 one on disposable spending in millions rising the other on the rate of net savings declining

Economic Report of the President, 1948 (p 16)

A good first stop is the Statistical Abstract of the United States. This title includes many lovely charts and provides a handy shortcut to the original sources. Beyond data, the U.S. Census Bureau also published special studies based on their data, including The Changing Shape of the Nation’s Income Distribution (1947-1998) and A Brief Look at Postwar U.S. Income Inequality.

If you are just looking for a broad economic picture, there is the Economic Report of the President, first published in 1947. This title has information on the nation’s economic progress with written analysis and extensive data appendices on production, manufacturing, income, and expenditures. A lot of the data was provided by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which also published the Survey of Current Business. This publication included charts and articles about the national economy.  Some items were more traditional, like charts on prices, trade, production, etc., but others could be more specific:

  • Changing Patterns of Fuel Consumption (July 1948)
  • Progress of the Postwar Transition – Review of 1947 (February 1948)
  • Public and Private Debt in 1947 (October 1948)

Another important agency is the Department of Labor, specifically the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They publish data related to income and prices. Historically, they published much of this via their Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (after issue no. 1700 issues are cataloged individually).  While the Bulletin published regular tables like “Retail Prices of Food,” it also included articles on more specific topics:

Full page chart showing monthly Business Population and Incorporations and Industrial and commercial failures July 1947 to July 1948

Survey of Current Business, September 1948. (p S-4)

  • 1946-49 Family Income, Expenditures, and Savings in 10 Cities (Bulletin, No. 1065)
  • Residential Heating Fuels, Retail Prices, 1941-48: Data for 9 Locally Important Fuels in 55 Cities (Bulletin, No. 950)
  • Salaries of Office Workers in Large Cities, 1949 (Bulletin, No. 960)
  • Consumers’ Prices in the United States, 1942-48: Analysis of Changes in Cost of Living (Bulletin, No. 966)
  • Hourly Earnings by Industry, Selected Wage Areas, September 1948-January 1949 (Bulletin, No. 969)
  • Construction, 1948 in Review (Bulletin, No. 984)
Chart details Department Store Sales by city, for January to September in aggregate, the month of October and by week ending for November

Department Store Sales, by Cities. Federal Reserve Statistical Release H11, December 10 1948.

FRASER “a digital library of U.S. economic, financial, and banking history” provided by the Federal Reserve System, has digitized a lot of great data and documents. There are two releases of interest – H.8b “Weekly Department Store Sales – Selected Cities and Areas” and G.17.2 “Retail Installment Credit at Furniture and Household Appliance Stores.” Other material includes publications from individual district banks that often focused on specific towns or cities. For example, Business Review  was published by the Philadelphia bank and included articles like “Post-War Business Borrowing” (March 1947) and “Rebuilding American Industry: The Industrial Outlook for Philadelphia” (December 1947), while the Cleveland bank published the Economic Review and included articles like “Prospects for Christmas Department Store Trade” (September 1948).

Beyond the U.S. government, there are other sources to mention that can provide different information. Newspapers and business periodicals deserve a special mention because they can provide a local perspective. Earlier I mentioned Survey of Current Business, but the Bureau of Economic Analysis also published BEA News, which provided short reports on personal income trends, business production, and other economic indicators. There are also more general business periodicals like Dun’s Review and the Commercial & Financial Chronicle that ran articles like “Immediate Problems of Retailing” and “The State of Trade and Industry” (September 2, 1948).

Lastly, the sources above have been primarily digitized, freely available sources, but do not discount the “old-fashioned” book. One worth mentioning that may be available at your local public library is The Value of a Dollar: Prices and Incomes in the United States, 1860-2004. The author used newspapers from around the U.S. to provide prices of commodities and salaries found in classified and retail advertisements.

I have just touched on a few of the resources. There are many others.

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