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Rural Living Standards and Inequality: A Case Study from Southern Sweden 1780-1919


  • Willner, Sam

    (Department of Culture and Society (IKOS), History unit, Linköping University)


For several decades a lively debate has been ongoing regarding how living standards and economic inequality actually developed during the agrarian and industrial revolutions in 19th century Western Europe. This study examines rural living standards and inequality among common people in five Swedish parishes, based on circa 4,000 probate inventories in the period from 1780s to 1910s. It is probably the most comprehensive study done so far regarding wealth development of a local Swedish rural context, covering the entire 19th century, comparing and analysing the material standard of living for different socio economic groups related to the fundamental social processes taking part during the 19th century, such as the agrarian and industrial revolutions. The local design in combination with a relatively large dataset allows for more detailed analyses and controlling for more variables than is usually possible in studies on a higher geographical level. The local approach, taking into account specific contextual factors, could help to reveal relevant mechanisms affecting the development and distribution of wealth that might be hidden in studies basedon aggregate data on national level not considering regional variations.Among farmers net wealth increased stepwise during the 19th century to a large extent due to rising real estate values, while lower social classes, largely in accordance with severalprevious studies, witnessed stagnating wealth levels until the breakpoint around the1860s, whereafter material resources started to rise substantially according to the wealth estimates. Besides real estate increasing bank savings was a major factor for the improving wealth in early 20th century, but also an increasing number of movable assets, such as 2household utensils, furnitureand bed clothing, contributed to an improvement in standard of living regarding comfort and hygiene in late 19th century.Improvements in agricultural production is likely to somewhat have counteracted the negative impact from the population growth and the rising proportion of the landless population. But still until the last severe crop failure, and the onset of the great emigrationwave to the US, in late 1860s bad harvests appear to have had a temporarily negative effect on health and economic wellbeing among the labouring poor. The great US emigration reducing the supply of labour contributed to pushing wages upwards and to therising standard of living of workers in late 19th century.According to the Gini-estimates inequality culminated around mid 19thcentury between farmers and workers as well as within the different social groups, and then declined substantially in late 19thcentury, contrary to the findings from studies of national level. Simultaneously the social structure changed significantly. The numbers of traditional rural groups, particularily lower agrarian workers, declined whilst the number of industrial workers,such as paper milll workers and glass work labourers, rose sharply. It is likely that the rapid overflow of low paid rural workers to better paid industrial jobs contributed to close the economic gap between different social groups. It I obvious that thechanges in the social structure within in the landless population groups, particularly the share of low rural workers, was highly decisive for the fluctuations in inequality.The results from this study highlights the importance of regional and local studies for revealing important mechanisms affecting the development of standard of living and economic inequality in a historical perspective.

Suggested Citation

  • Willner, Sam, 2021. "Rural Living Standards and Inequality: A Case Study from Southern Sweden 1780-1919," Lund Papers in Economic History 219, Lund University, Department of Economic History.
  • Handle: RePEc:hhs:luekhi:0219

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    More about this item


    rural standard of living; wealth inequality; 19th century; Sweden; agrarian revolution; industrialization; probate inventories;
    All these keywords.

    JEL classification:

    • N33 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy - - - Europe: Pre-1913

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