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Globalisation, inequality and Swedish catch up in the late nineteenth century. Williamson’s real wage comparisons under scrutiny


  • Larsson, Svante

    () (Department of Economic History, School of Economics and Commercial Law, Göteborg University)


The idea of rapid factor price convergence in the latter half of the nineteenth century stems from an article from 1995 by Jeffrey Williamson. That article presented real wage comparisons of unskilled urban workers for seventeen countries. Sweden, along with the rest of Scandinavia, appeared 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 accomplished in order to establish real wage comparisons focusing on Sweden in relation to the US and the UK. The most important finding is twofold. First, that the US-Sweden wage gap is considerably smaller for industrial than for building workers, and second, that the rate at which Sweden’s real wages approached the American and the British has been 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 real wage experience. I argue that as we suffer from a serious paucity of data for narrow and thereby comparable selections of unskilled workers resorting to encompassing wage measures is a more viable option.

Suggested Citation

  • Larsson, Svante, 2005. "Globalisation, inequality and Swedish catch up in the late nineteenth century. Williamson’s real wage comparisons under scrutiny," Göteborg Papers in Economic History 2, University of Gothenburg, Department of Economic History.
  • Handle: RePEc:hhs:gunhis:0002

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Williamson Jeffrey G., 1995. "The Evolution of Global Labor Markets since 1830: Background Evidence and Hypotheses," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 32(2), pages 141-196, April.
    2. Broadberry S. N., 1994. "Comparative Productivity in British and American Manufacturing during the Nineteenth Century," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 31(4), pages 521-548, October.
    3. Feinstein, Charles, 1988. "The Rise and Fall of the Williamson Curve," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 48(03), pages 699-729, September.
    4. Kevin H. O'Rourke & Jeffrey G. Williamson, 1995. "Open economy forces and late 19th century Scandinavian catch-up," Working Papers 199506, School of Economics, University College Dublin.
    5. Allen, Robert C., 2001. "The Great Divergence in European Wages and Prices from the Middle Ages to the First World War," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 38(4), pages 411-447, October.
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    13. Hanson, John II, 1991. "Third world incomes before world war I: Further evidence," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 28(3), pages 367-379, July.
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    Cited by:

    1. Öberg, Stefan, 2017. "An introduction to using twin births as instrumental variables for sibship size," Göteborg Papers in Economic History 22, University of Gothenburg, Department of Economic History.

    More about this item


    Economic History; Globalisation; Real wage; Convergence; Inequality;

    JEL classification:

    • F31 - International Economics - - International Finance - - - Foreign Exchange
    • J31 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs - - - Wage Level and Structure; Wage Differentials

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