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Fallacious convergence? Williamson’s real wage comparisons under scrutiny


  • Svante Prado

    () (University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden)


The idea of manifest real-wage convergence for unskilled workers in the latter half of the nineteenth century stems from an article from 1995 by Jeffrey G. Williamson. That article presented real wage comparisons of unskilled urban workers for seventeen countries. Sweden, along with the rest of Scandinavia, is found to be an influential case in accounting for much of the alleged factor price convergence taking place. This paper takes a closer look at all the three steps that have to be taken in order to establish real wage comparisons, focusing on Sweden in relation to the US and the UK. The most important findings are twofold. First, that the US–Sweden wage gap is considerably smaller for manufacturing than for building workers, and second, that the rate at which Sweden’s real wages approached the American and the British has been grossly overestimated. Swedish real wages did grow rapidly, but not as rapidly as Williamson’s comparison will have us to believe, because his real wage series does not constitute a representative account of the Swedish unskilled real wage experience. It is argued that, as we suffer from a serious paucity of data for narrow and comparable samples of late nineteenth century unskilled workers, resorting to more encompassing wage measures is a more viable option. That also implies a questioning of the American unskilled wage series, which makes considerably slower progress than the wage series for manufacturing workers.

Suggested Citation

  • Svante Prado, 2010. "Fallacious convergence? Williamson’s real wage comparisons under scrutiny," Cliometrica, Journal of Historical Economics and Econometric History, Association Française de Cliométrie (AFC), vol. 4(2), pages 171-205, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:afc:cliome:v:4:y:2010:i:2:p:171-205

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Fogel, Robert W, 1994. "Economic Growth, Population Theory, and Physiology: The Bearing of Long-Term Processes on the Making of Economic Policy," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(3), pages 369-395, June.
    2. Goldin, Claudia & Katz, Lawrence F., 2000. "Education and Income in the Early Twentieth Century: Evidence from the Prairies," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 60(03), pages 782-818, September.
    3. Kevin H. O'Rourke & Alan M. Taylor & Jeffrey G. Williamson, 1993. "Land, labor and the wage-rental ratio : factor price convergence in the late nineteenth century," Working Papers 199311, School of Economics, University College Dublin.
    4. Jeffrey G. Williamson, 2006. "Inequality and Schooling Responses to Globalization Forces: Lessons from History," NBER Working Papers 12553, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Foreman-Peck, James, 1992. "A Political Economy of International Migration, 1815-1914," The Manchester School of Economic & Social Studies, University of Manchester, vol. 60(4), pages 359-376, December.
    6. Sandberg, Lars G., 1979. "The Case of the Impoverished Sophisticate: Human Capital and Swedish Economic Growth before World War I," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 39(01), pages 225-241, March.
    7. Hatton, Timothy J. & Williamson, Jeffrey G., 1998. "The Age of Mass Migration: Causes and Economic Impact," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780195116519, June.
    8. Jeffrey G. Williamson, 2006. "Inequality and schooling responses to globalization forces: lessons from history," Proceedings, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, pages 225-248.
    9. O'Rourke, Kevin H & Taylor, Alan M & Williamson, Jeffrey G, 1996. "Factor Price Convergence in the Late Nineteenth Century," International Economic Review, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania and Osaka University Institute of Social and Economic Research Association, vol. 37(3), pages 499-530, August.
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    Cited by:

    1. Bengtsson, Erik, 2016. "Inequality and the working class in Scandinavia 1800 to 1910 - Workers' share of growing income," Lund Papers in Economic History 142, Lund University, Department of Economic History.
    2. Bohlin, Jan & Eurenius, Anna-Maria, 2010. "Why they moved -- Emigration from the Swedish countryside to the United States, 1881-1910," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 47(4), pages 533-551, October.

    More about this item


    Convergence; Real wages; Wage benchmark; Purchasing power parity; Catching up; International comparisons;

    JEL classification:

    • N30 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy - - - General, International, or Comparative
    • F20 - International Economics - - International Factor Movements and International Business - - - General
    • J30 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs - - - General
    • O47 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Growth and Aggregate Productivity - - - Empirical Studies of Economic Growth; Aggregate Productivity; Cross-Country Output Convergence


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