I somewhat hesitate to give three stars to The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War because it is a mammoth tome, with almost 700 pages of text, it ponderously tells you what it’s going to tell you, tells you, then summarizes what it told you, and it is replete with eye-blurring tables filled with numbers. In brief: it’s written by an economist, and it’s geeky.
But it’s surprisingly readable, and entirely fascinating, as it traces the changes in the way Americans live since 1870. While the author’s conclusion (hammered again and again through the book!) that most progress took place before 1940 and will never occur again is not entirely convincing, it is at least based on facts, or rather numbers. The beauty of the book is in the systematic exploration of the events behind the numbers, especially those aspects that are hard to capture.To take an easy example, our cars are much safer than the cars of the 50s, but car ownership or even car costs do not necessarily reflect that. The author seems to have delved into every aspect of our lives, informing us that horses were not only slow at 6 miles per hour, but also had a very limited range (25 miles) — and of course generated very visible and smellable byproducts, or that telephone operators were asked for the time of day or football scores throughout the day, serving as a primitive internet.
I highly recommend you give this book a try to measure the vast differences between life in the late 19th century and today’s. Having to carry, literally, tons of water (before indoor plumbing), being too cold or too hot (before effective heating and air-conditioning), being isolated from people more than a couple miles away (before cars, planes, phones, the internet) seems like a totally different world.