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

Willner, Sam (2021) In Lund Papers in Economic History
Abstract
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... (More)
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 based on 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
several previous 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 household utensils, furniture and 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 emigration
wave 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 the rising standard of living
of workers in late 19th century.
According to the Gini-estimates inequality culminated around mid 19th century
between farmers and workers as well as within the different social groups, and then declined
substantially in late 19th century, 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 the changes 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
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author
publishing date
type
Working paper
publication status
published
subject
keywords
rural standard of living, wealth inequality, 19th century, Sweden, agrarian revolution, industrialization, probate inventories, N33
in
Lund Papers in Economic History
issue
2021:219
pages
70 pages
language
English
LU publication?
no
id
2926339f-3347-4b63-8b2c-31c58a8cc6a6
date added to LUP
2021-02-22 15:19:40
date last changed
2021-02-22 15:19:40
@misc{2926339f-3347-4b63-8b2c-31c58a8cc6a6,
  abstract     = {For several decades a lively debate has been ongoing regarding how living standards and<br/>economic inequality actually developed during the agrarian and industrial revolutions in 19th<br/>century Western Europe. This study examines rural living standards and inequality among<br/>common people in five Swedish parishes, based on circa 4,000 probate inventories in the<br/>period from 1780s to 1910s. It is probably the most comprehensive study done so far<br/>regarding wealth development of a local Swedish rural context, covering the entire 19th<br/>century, comparing and analysing the material standard of living for different socio economic<br/>groups related to the fundamental social processes taking part during the 19th century, such as<br/>the agrarian and industrial revolutions. The local design in combination with a relatively large<br/>dataset allows for more detailed analyses and controlling for more variables than is usually<br/>possible in studies on a higher geographical level. The local approach, taking into account<br/>specific contextual factors, could help to reveal relevant mechanisms affecting the<br/>development and distribution of wealth that might be hidden in studies based on aggregate<br/>data on national level not considering regional variations.<br/>Among farmers net wealth increased stepwise during the 19th century to a large<br/>extent due to rising real estate values, while lower social classes, largely in accordance with<br/>several previous studies, witnessed stagnating wealth levels until the breakpoint around<br/>the1860s, whereafter material resources started to rise substantially according to the wealth<br/>estimates. Besides real estate increasing bank savings was a major factor for the improving<br/>wealth in early 20th century, but also an increasing number of movable assets, such as household utensils, furniture and bed clothing, contributed to an improvement in standard of<br/>living regarding comfort and hygiene in late 19th century.<br/>Improvements in agricultural production is likely to somewhat have counteracted the<br/>negative impact from the population growth and the rising proportion of the landless<br/>population. But still until the last severe crop failure, and the onset of the great emigration<br/>wave to the US, in late 1860s bad harvests appear to have had a temporarily negative effect on<br/>health and economic wellbeing among the labouring poor. The great US emigration reducing<br/>the supply of labour contributed to pushing wages upwards and to the rising standard of living<br/>of workers in late 19th century.<br/>According to the Gini-estimates inequality culminated around mid 19th century<br/>between farmers and workers as well as within the different social groups, and then declined<br/>substantially in late 19th century, contrary to the findings from studies of national level.<br/>Simultaneously the social structure changed significantly. The numbers of traditional rural<br/>groups, particularily lower agrarian workers, declined whilst the number of industrial<br/>workers, such as paper milll workers and glass work labourers, rose sharply. It is likely that<br/>the rapid overflow of low paid rural workers to better paid industrial jobs contributed to close<br/>the economic gap between different social groups. It I obvious that the changes in the social<br/>structure within in the landless population groups, particularly the share of low rural workers,<br/>was highly decisive for the fluctuations in inequality.<br/>The results from this study highlights the importance of regional and local studies for<br/>revealing important mechanisms affecting the development of standard of living and<br/>economic inequality in a historical perspective<br/>},
  author       = {Willner, Sam},
  language     = {eng},
  note         = {Working Paper},
  number       = {2021:219},
  series       = {Lund Papers in Economic History},
  title        = {Rural Living Standards and Inequality: A Case Study from Southern Sweden 1780-1919},
  url          = {https://lup.lub.lu.se/search/ws/files/94382459/LUPEH_219.pdf},
  year         = {2021},
}