Richard Sutch and Susan Carter: A Book for People Who Love Numbers

Historians in the News

Richard Sutch and Susan Carter don't expect anybody to take their new book to the beach.

For starters, it weighs 29 pounds. It has five volumes. And it's densely packed with more than a million numbers that measure America in mind-boggling detail, from the average annual precipitation in Sweet Springs, Mo., to the wholesale price of rice in Charleston S.C., in 1707.

"You'd have to be a certain kind of personality type," Professor Sutch said.

"Let's suppose you're a novelist, writing about that period, and you might want to familiarize yourself with it for verisimilitude," he added. "It might be important to a historian — why was there a lot of out-migration from this particular area of the county at that time?"

"You want to know the average so you can spot deviations," Professor Carter interjected. "Were Dust Bowl conditions really as bad as novelists were saying? The answer is, yes."

Professors Sutch and Carter, who are married and both teach at the University of California at Riverside, are editors in chief of Historical Statistics of the United States, an ambitious expansion of previous compilations that were published by the United States Census Bureau in 1949, 1960 and 1975. This "Millennial Edition" is a privatized version, authorized by the Census Bureau but published by Cambridge University Press.

Since the last edition, the editors write, they have tried to rationalize the "phenomenal growth of the American quantitative record," which is why Historical Statistics has proliferated to more than 5,000 pages, from 1,235 in the last version, and includes new chapters on slavery, poverty, American Indians, the Confederacy and the nation's territories overseas.

"As time goes on, the statisticians and the bureaucrats who produce a lot of these numbers for the government keep producing new data," Professor Sutch said. "The other thing is that scholars have really jumped into the field. They are going back and trying to reconsider all sorts of issues with new perspectives, and one of those perspectives is a quantitative one."

The new edition, which sells for $825 and is also available in an online version, is a gold mine for scholars, students and assorted nerds and numbers crunchers, although, as with a gold mine, exposing the veins and nuggets can be challenging. Some tables are not comparable, many do not include percentages, and some contemporary tables are current only to 1990.

"The whole project was designed to present data in raw form rather than highly manipulated," Professor Sutch said. "That makes it more difficult. You have to do a little work to use this."

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