Ariell Zimran
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"Be Very Particular to Distinguish Between Farmers and Farm Laborers": Complete-Count Censuses and the Composition of the Nineteenth-Century Agricultural Labor Force
with William J. Collins

The US Census of 1850 was the first to collect information on the entirety of the country's free population and the first to document men's occupations. As a result, it provides a unique perspective on a formative period of US economic history. But the picture of the agricultural labor force arising from this and the other nineteenth-century censuses is puzzling, showing a dramatic increase over time in the share of the agricultural labor force that were farm laborers instead of farmers. We resolve this puzzle by showing that data on agricultural occupations from the 1850 census must be analyzed with caution. In particular, we document a substantial change in the definition of a farmer between this census and those taken subsequently, arising primarily from a shift in how residents of farmer-headed households were classified. We suggest that researchers can use machine learning techniques to apply the enumeration practices of the 1870 census to 1850. We show that doing this resolves the apparent puzzle, and therefore has a dramatic impact on our understanding of the composition of the US agricultural labor force in the nineteenth century. The main contribution of this paper is to point out a challenge to making comparisons across historic US censuses at a time when doing so is easier and less costly than ever before.