From Rags to Riches: The Distribution of Wealth and Income in Industrializing America

Printable Version

Digital History ID 3840

Economic Growth and Stratification of Wealth
Year Population in millions Nonfarm Labor Force Per Capita Wealth Wealth Owned By Top l0 Percent
1800 5.3 21.0 64.4 4 percent
1820 17.4 17.1 67.7 50 percent
1840 9.6 36.6 100.0 55 percent
1860 31.4 46.8 137.0 60 percent

Distribution of Wealth
City Year Proportion of wealth owned by:
Richest 1 Percent Richest 3 Percent
Boston 1848 42 percent 64 percent
Brooklyn 1841 37 --
New York 1845 40 66 percent

Per Capita Wealth: 1840 = 100.0

Concentration of Wealth in Farming Areas, 1860


Proportion of Property Held by Richest 10 Percent of Farmowners
Southern black belt counties 64
Trempealeau County, Wisconsin 39
11 Vermont counties 38

Concentration of Wealth in a northeastern and a western town, 1860


Proportion of adult males

Proportion of real property
Jacksonville, Illinois 69 80
Northampton, Massachusetts 68 72
With no real estate held by richest 10 percent

Questions To Think About

1. Did the distribution of income and wealth grow more or less equal during the decades before the Civil War?

2. A famous Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville said that the defining characteristic of pre-Civil War America was "equality of condition." Others have called this era the "age of the common man." Do statistics on the distribution of wealth support or contradict these views? In what sense, if any, might these observers have been correct?

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