Monday, November 9, 2009

Methodology Monday: What The Mug Books Miss

If all you read are the late-19th-century county histories, then you're getting a distorted picture of historical reality. Nostalgia and its corporate manifestation, Disney, have already inclined us to think of quiet, stable small towns. It warn't necessarily so. Check out Robert C. Nesbit in The History of Wisconsin, Volume III: Urbanization and Industrialization, 1873-1893 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1985), pp. 214-215:

A detailed study of five...villages in Grant County found that 56 per cent of the people listed in the 1880 federal census did not appear on the rolls of the 1885 state census. Between 1880 and 1895, fully 78 per cent dropped from view. The author suggests that m ost of those who left were 'wage earners rather than petty entrepreneurs,' but this is at variance with the findings of a better-known study of Trempealeau County that small businessmen were equally mobile.
Nesbit cites Merle Curti, The Making of an American Commmunity, and Peter J. Coleman, "Restless Grant County: Americans on the Move," Wisconsin Magazine of History, Autumn 1962. Later on (pp. 282-3) he acknowledges that their mobility numbers are probably too high. (I suspect that historians aren't as good as genealogists at spotting misspelled names of people who stayed behind but got their names differently misspelled.) I'd love to hear of more recent references on this topic.

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