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The Urban Mortality Transition in the United States, 1800-1940

  • Michael R. Haines

In the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a substantial mortality 'penalty' to living in urban places. This circumstance was shared with other nations. By around 1940, this penalty had been largely eliminated, and it was healthier, in many cases, to reside in the city than in the countryside. Despite the lack of systematic national data before 1933, it is possible to describe the phenomenon of the urban mortality transition. Early in the 19th century, the United States was not particularly urban (only 6.1% in 1800), a circumstance which led to a relatively favorable mortality situation. A national crude death rate of 20-25 per thousand per year would have been likely. Some early data indicate that mortality was substantially higher in cities, was higher in larger relative to smaller cities, and was higher in the South relative to the North. By 1900, the nation had become about 40% urban (and 56% by 1940). It appears that death rates, especially in urban areas, actually rose (or at least did not decline) over the middle of the 19th century. Increased urbanization, as well as developments in transport and commercialization and increased movements of people into and throughout the nation, contributed to this. Rapid urban growth and an inadequate scientific understanding of disease processes contributed to the mortality crisis of the early and middle nineteenth century in American cities. The sustained mortality transition only began about the 1870s. Thereafter the decline of urban mortality proceeded faster than in rural places, assisted by significant public works improvements and advances in public health and eventually medical science. Much of the process had been completed by the 1940s. The urban penalty had been largely eliminated and mortality continued to decline despite the continued growth in the urban share of the population.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Historical Working Papers with number 0134.

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Date of creation: Jul 2001
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Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberhi:0134
Note: DAE
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  1. Williamson, Jeffrey G., 1982. "Was the industrial revolution worth it? Disamenities and death in 19th century British towns," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 19(3), pages 221-245, July.
  2. Komlos, John, 1996. "Anomalies in Economic History: Toward a Resolution of the “Antebellum Puzzle”," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 56(01), pages 202-214, March.
  3. Richard H. Steckel, 1992. "Stature and Living Standards in the United States," NBER Chapters, in: American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, pages 265-310 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Samuel H. Preston & Michael R. Haines, 1991. "Fatal Years: Child Mortality in Late Nineteenth-Century America," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number pres91-1, August.
  5. John Komlos, . "The Height and Weight of West Point Cadets: Dietary Change in Antebellum America," Articles by John Komlos 32, Department of Economics, University of Munich.
  6. Robert W. Fogel, 1986. "Nutrition and the Decline in Mortality Since 1700: Some Additional Preliminary Findings," NBER Working Papers 1802, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Michael Haines, 1979. "The use of model life tables to estimate mortality for the United States in the late nineteenth century," Demography, Springer, vol. 16(2), pages 289-312, May.
  8. Carr, Lois Green, 1992. "Emigration and the Standard of Living: The Seventeenth Century Chesapeake," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 52(02), pages 271-291, June.
  9. Pritchett Jonathan B. & Tunali Insan, 1995. "Strangers' Disease: Determinants of Yellow Fever Mortality during the New Orleans Epidemic of 1853," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 32(4), pages 517-539, October.
  10. Michael R. Haines & Lee A. Craig & Thomas Weiss, 2000. "Development, Health, Nutrition, and Mortality: The Case of the 'Antebellum Puzzle' in the United States," NBER Historical Working Papers 0130, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. Vinovskis, Maris A., 1972. "Mortality Rates and Trends in Massachusetts Before 1860," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 32(01), pages 184-213, March.
  12. Michael R. Haines, 1998. "Health, Height, Nutrition, and Mortality: Evidence on the "Antebellum Puzzle" from Union Army Recruits in the Middle of the Nineteenth Century," NBER Historical Working Papers 0107, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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