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Immigration, wealth and the ‘mortality plateau’ in emergent industrial cities of nineteenth-century Massachusetts


The mortality transition in Western Europe and the United States encompassed a much more complex set of conditions and experiences than earlier thought. Our research addresses the complex set of relationships among growing urban communities, family wealth, immigration and mortality in New England by examining individual-level, sociodemographic mortality correlates during the nineteenth-century mortality plateau and its early twentieth-century decline. In contrast to earlier theories that proposed a more uniform mortality transition, we offer an alternative hypothesis that focuses on the impact of family wealth and immigration on individual-level mortality during the early stages of the mortality transition in Northampton and Holyoke, Massachusetts.

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1 Haines, Michael R., ‘The urban mortality transition in the United States, 1800–1940’, Annales de Démographie Historique 1 (2001), 3364; Michael R. Haines and Richard H. Steckel eds., A population history of North America (New York, 2001); Anderton, Douglas L. and Leonard, Susan Hautaniemi, ‘Grammars of death: an analysis of nineteenth-century literal causes of death from the age of miasmas to germ theory’, Social Science History 28, 1 (2004), 111–43; Beemer, Jeffrey K., Anderton, Douglas L. and Leonard, Susan Hautaniemi, ‘Sewers in the city: a case study of individual-level mortality and public health initiatives in Northampton, Massachusetts at the turn of the century’, Journal of the History of Medicine and the Allied Sciences 60, 1 (2005), 4272; Hautaniemi, Susan I., Swedlund, Alan C. and Anderton, Douglas L., ‘Mill town mortality: consequences of industrial growth in two nineteenth-century New England towns’, Social Science History 23, 1 (1999), 139.

2 Tommy Bengtsson, Cameron Campbell and James Lee, Life under pressure: mortality and living standards in Europe and Asia, 1700–1900 (Cambridge, MA, 2004); Carlo Corsini and Pier Paolo Viazzo eds., The decline of infant and child mortality: the European experience, 1750–1990 (The Hague, 1997); Fetter, Bruce, Coelho, Philip R. P., Rogers, John and Nelson, Marie C., ‘Forum: the epidemiologic transition’, Health Transition Review 7, 2 (1997), 235–55; Beemer, Anderton and Leonard, ‘Sewers’.

3 For example, Dora L. Costa and Richard H. Steckel, ‘Long-term trends in health, welfare and economic growth in the United States’, in R. H. Steckel and R. Floud eds., Health and welfare during industrialization (Chicago, 1997), 47–89; Joseph Ferrie, ‘The rich and the dead: socioeconomic status and mortality in the U.S., 1850–1860’, in Dora L. Costa ed., Health and labor force participation over the life cycle (Chicago, 2003), 11–50; Alan C. Swedlund, ‘Infant mortality in Massachusetts and the United States in the nineteenth century’, in A. C. Swedlund and G. J. Armelagos eds., Disease in populations in transition (New York, 1990), 161–82; Hautaniemi, Swedlund and Anderton, ‘Mill town mortality’.

4 United States Bureau of the Census, Historical statistics of the United States, colonial times to 1957 (Washington, DC, 1960).

5 Anderton and Leonard, ‘Grammars of death’.

6 For example, Haines, ‘Urban mortality’; Werner Troesken, Water, race and disease (Cambridge, MA, 2004); Gretchen A. Condran, ‘Spatial, ethnic, and socioeconomic dimensions of nineteenth-century mortality: Philadelphia, 1880’, paper presented at the Population Association (New York, 2007), abstract available at [last accessed August 2012]; Condran, Gretchen A. and Crimmins-Gardner, Eileen, ‘Public health measures and mortality in U.S. cities in the late nineteenth century’, Human Ecology 6, 1 (1978), 2754; Melosi, Martin V., The sanitary city: urban infrastructure in America from colonial times to the present (creating the North American landscape) (Baltimore, 2000); Cutler, David M. and Miller, Grant, ‘The role of public health improvements in health advances: the twentieth-century United States’, Demography 42, 1 (2005), 122; Beemer, Anderton and Leonard, ‘Sewers’.

7 People entering an environment with disease pathogens that they have not previously been exposed to may be more likely to become mortally ill than those who were exposed earlier in life, even if they are generally better nourished or advantaged in other ways (see, for example, Daniel Scott Smith, ‘Seasoning, disease environment, and conditions of exposure: New York Union Army regiments and soldiers’, in Costa, Health and labor force).

8 See Meckel, Richard A., ‘Immigration, mortality, and population growth in Boston, 1840–1880’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History XV, 3 (1985), 393417; Higgs, Robert, ‘Cycles and trends of mortality in 18 large American cities, 1871–1900’, Explorations in Economic History 16, 4 (1979), 381408; Humphreys, Margaret, ‘No safe place: disease and panic in American history’, American Literary History 14, 4 (2002), 845–57; Kraut, Alan M., Silent travelers: germs, genes and the “immigrant menace” (New York, 1994); Constance McLaughlin Green, Holyoke, Massachusetts: a case history of the industrial revolution in America (New Haven, 1939).

9 See Alice Reid, ‘Locality or class? Spatial and social differentials in infant and child mortality in England and Wales, 1895–1911’, in Corsini and Viazzo, Decline, 129–54; Preston, Samuel H. and Haines, Michael R., ‘New estimates of child mortality in the United States in 1900’, Journal of the American Statistical Association 79, 396 (1984), 272–81; Samuel H. Preston and Michael R. Haines, Fatal years: child mortality in late nineteenth-century America (Princeton, NJ, 1991); Gaspari, K. Celeste and Woolf, Arthur G., ‘Income, public works, and mortality in early twentieth-century American cities’, Journal of Economic History 45, 2 (1985), 355–61; Kitagawa, Evelyn M. and Hauser, Philip M., Differential mortality in the United States: a study in socio-economic epidemiology (Cambridge, MA, 1973).

10 See Susan I. Hautaniemi, ‘Demography and death in emergent industrial cities of New England’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2002); Jeffrey K. Beemer, ‘Social meanings of mortality: the language of death and disease in 19th century Massachusetts’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2011).

11 See Beemer, ‘Social meanings of mortality’; Hautaniemi, ‘Demography and death’.

12 Preston and Haines, Fatal years, see Table 2.

13 Cities over 10,000 in population in 1860.

14 Vinovskis, Maris A., ‘Mortality rates and trends in Massachusetts before 1860’, Journal of Economic History 32, 1 (1972), 184213.

15 Preston and Haines, Fatal years. Similar patterns characterise Quebec, Montreal and nearby towns; see Pelletier, François, Légaré, Jacques and Bourbeau, Robert, ‘Mortality in Quebec during the nineteenth century: from the state to the cities’, Population Studies 51, 1 (1997), 93103.

16 See Crimmins, Eileen M. and Condran, Gretchen A., ‘Mortality variations in U.S. cities in 1900’, Social Science History 7, 1 (1983), 3159; Higgs, ‘Cycles’; Higgs, Robert and Booth, David, ‘Mortality differentials within large American cities in 1890’, Human Ecology 7, 4 (1979), 353–70; Preston and Haines, Fatal years; Haines, Michael R. and Preston, Samuel H., ‘The use of the census to estimate childhood mortality’, Historical Methods 30, 2 (1997), 7896; Hautaniemi, ‘Demography and death’.

17 See Elman, Cheryl and Myers, George, ‘Age and sex differentials in morbidity at the start of an epidemiological transition: returns from the 1880 U.S. census’, Social Science and Medicine 45, 6 (1997), 943–56; Waldron, Ingrid, ‘Recent trends in sex mortality ratios for adults in developed countries’, Social Science and Medicine 36, 4 (1993), 451–62; Preston, Samuel H., Mortality patterns in national populations (New York, 1976); Retherford, Robert D., The changing sex differentials in mortality (Westport, CT, 1975).

18 See Haines and Steckel, A population history; Meckel, Richard A., Save the babies: American public health reform and the prevention of infant mortality, 1850–1929 (Baltimore, MD, 1990); Preston and Haines, Fatal years.

19 Anderson, Michael, British population history: from the Black Death to the present day (Cambridge, 1996); Bengtsson, Campbell and Lee, Life under pressure; Corsini and Viazzo, Decline; Ferrie, ‘The rich’; Fogel, Robert W. and Costa, Dora L., ‘A theory of technophysio evolution, with some implications for forecasting population, health care costs, and pension costs’, Demography 34, 1 (1997), 4966; Meckel, Save the babies; Preston and Haines, Fatal years; Susan Scott and Christopher J. Duncan, Human demography and disease (Cambridge, 1998); R. Schofield, D. Reher and A. Bideau eds., The decline of mortality in Europe (Oxford, 1991); Steckel and Floud, Health and welfare; Woods, Robert and Williams, Naomi, ‘Must the gap widen before it can be narrowed? Long-term trends in social class mortality differentials’, Continuity and Change 10, 1 (1995), 105–37.

20 For example, Antonovsky, Aaron, ‘Social class, life expectancy, and overall mortality’, Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly 45, 2 (1967), 3173; Condran and Crimmins-Gardner, ‘Public health’; Robert W. Fogel, ‘Nutrition and the decline in mortality since 1700: some preliminary findings’, in S. Engerman and R. Galloway eds., Long-term factors in American economic growth (Chicago, 1986), 439–556; Higgs, Robert, ‘Mortality in rural America, 1870–1920: estimates and conjectures’, Explorations in Economic History 10, 2 (1973), 177–95; Higgs and Booth, ‘Mortality differentials’; Haines, Michael R., ‘Mortality in nineteenth century America: estimates from New York and Pennsylvania census data, 1865 and 1900’, Demography 14, 3 (1977), 311–31; McKeown, Thomas H., The modern rise of population (New York, 1976); Meeker, Edward, ‘The improving health of the United States, 1800–1915’, Explorations in Economic History 9, 4 (1972), 353–73; McKinlay, John B. and McKinlay, Sonja M., ‘The questionable contribution of medical measures to the decline of mortality in the United States in the twentieth century’, Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly. Health and Society 55, 3 (1977), 405–28; Samuel H. Preston, ‘Resources, knowledge, and child mortality: a comparison of the U.S. in the late nineteenth century and developing countries today’, in International Population Conference, Florence, 5–12 June 1985, vol. 4 (Liège, 1985), 373–86; Preston and Haines, ‘New estimates’; Daniel Smith, Scott, ‘Differential mortality in the United States before 1900’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 13, 4 (1983), 735–59; Vinovskis, ‘Mortality rates’.

21 For example, the work of the Philadelphia Social History Project: Condran, Gretchen A. and Cheney, Rose A., ‘Mortality trends in Philadelphia: age- and cause-specific death rates 1870–1930’, Demography 19, 1 (1982), 97123; Condran, Gretchen A., Williams, Henry and Cheney, Rose A., ‘The decline in mortality in Philadelphia from 1870–1930: the role of municipal services’, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 108, April (1984), 153–77.

22 For example, Haines, Michael R., ‘Inequality and childhood mortality: a comparison of England and Wales, 1911 and the United States, 1900’, Journal of Economic History 65, 4 (1985), 874913; Preston, Samuel H. and van de Walle, Etienne, ‘Urban French mortality in the nineteenth century’, Population Studies 32, 2 (1978), 275–97; Szreter, Simon, ‘The importance of social intervention in Britain's mortality decline, c. 1850–1914: a re-interpretation of the role of public health’, Social History of Medicine 1, 1 (1988), 138; Szreter, Simon and Mooney, Graham, ‘Urbanization, mortality, and the standard of living debate: new estimates of the expectation of life at birth in nineteenth-century British cities’, Economic History Review 51, 1 (1998), 84112; Thomas McKeown and R. Record, G., ‘Reasons for the decline of mortality in England and Wales during the nineteenth century’, Population Studies 16, 2 (1962), 94122; Mercier, Michael E. and Boone, Christopher G., ‘Infant mortality in Ottawa, Canada, 1901: assessing cultural, economic and environmental factors’, Journal of Historical Geography 28, 4 (2002), 486507; Thornton, Patricia and Olson, Sherry, ‘A deadly discrimination among Montreal infants, 1860–1900’, Continuity and Change 16, 1 (2001), 95135; Thornton, Patricia and Olson, Sherry, ‘Mortality in late nineteenth-century Montreal: geographic pathways of contagion’, Population Studies 65, 2 (2011), 157–81.

23 Preston and Haines, Fatal years.

24 For example, Condran, Gretchen A., ‘What “Fatal Years” tells us that we did not already know’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 68, 1 (1994), 95104; Alan Swedlund and Helen Ball, ‘Nature, nurture, and the determinants of infant mortality: a case study from Massachusetts, 1830–1920’, in A. H. Goodman and T. L. Leatherman eds., Building a new biocultural synthesis: political–economic perspectives on human biology (Ann Arbor, 1999), 191–228; R. M. Woodbury, Infant mortality and its causes (Baltimore, 1926); Hautaniemi, Swedlund and Anderton, ‘Mill town mortality’.

25 For example, Crimmins and Condran, ‘Mortality variations’; Preston and Haines, Fatal years.

26 For example, Ferrie, ‘The rich’; Higgs, ‘Cycles’.

27 For example, in Boston, see Meckel, ‘Immigration’; in Philadelphia, see Condran, Williams and Cheney, ‘Decline’, and Condran and Cheney, ‘Mortality trends’; and in Northampton, see Beemer, Anderton and Leonard, ‘Sewers’.

28 For example, Preston, Samuel H., ‘Population studies of mortality’, Population Studies 50, 3 (1996), 525–36.

29 For example, George Alter and Riley, James C., ‘Frailty, sickness, and death: models of morbidity and mortality in historical populations’, Population Studies 43, 1 (1989), 2545; Elman and Myers, ‘Age and sex’; Clayne L. Pope, ‘Adult mortality in America before 1900: a view from family histories’, in C. Goldin and H. Rockoff eds., Strategic factors in nineteenth century American economic history (Chicago, 1992), 267–96; Preston, Mortality patterns; Retherford, Changing sex differentials; Riley, James C., ‘Disease without death: new sources for a history of sickness’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 17, 3 (1987), 537–63; Verbrugge, Lois M., ‘The twain meet: empirical explanations of sex differences in health and mortality’, Journal of Health and Social Behavior 30, 3 (1989), 282304;Waldron, ‘Recent trends’; Robert Woods, ‘On the historical relationship between infant and adult mortality’, Population Studies 47, 2 (1993), 195219.

30 For example, Elman and Myers, ‘Age and sex’.

31 Crimmins and Condran, ‘Mortality variations’.

32 Condran, Williams and Cheney, ‘Decline’.

33 Ferrie, ‘The rich’.

34 Pope, ‘Adult mortality’.

35 For example, Steckel and Floud, Health and welfare; Reid, ‘Locality’; Lee, Chulhee, ‘Socioeconomic background, disease, and mortality among Union Army recruits: implications for economic and demographic history’, Explorations in Economic History 34, 1 (1997), 2755.

36 For example, Reid, ‘Locality’.

37 For example, Lee, ‘Socioeconomic background’.

38 Jeffrey G. Williamson and Paul H. Lindert, American inequality: a macroeconomic history (New York, 1980), 47.

39 Henry F. Bedford, Their lives and numbers: the condition of the working people in Massachusetts 1870–1900 (Ithaca, NY, 1995).

40 David Wagner, Ordinary people: in and out of poverty in the Gilded Age (Boulder, CO, 2007).

41 In Massachusetts, the minor civil division ‘town’ includes any population centre as well as surrounding suburban and rural areas (analogous to ‘township’ in other states). Attendant on population size, Holyoke was incorporated as a city in 1873 and Northampton in 1884. The boundaries of the cities were the same as when they were towns, and continued to encompass rural, suburban and urban areas.

42 Hautaniemi, ‘Demography and death’, 43; Beemer, Jeffrey K., ‘Diagnostic prescriptions: shifting boundaries in nineteenth-century disease and cause-of-death classification’, Social Science History 33, 3 (2009), 307–40.

43 Frank Hamilton Hankins, ‘Economic transition: 1817–1860’, in Tercentenary Committee eds., The Northampton book: chapters from 300 years in the life of a New England town, 1654–1954 (Northampton, MA, 1954), 77–84.

44 Lucy Wilson Benson, ‘Floods and disasters’, in Tercentenary Committee, The Northampton book, 355–63; Edward C. Jacob, One morning in May: the Mill River disaster of 1874 (Haydenville, MA, 1999); Green, Holyoke.

45 Hautaniemi, ‘Demography and death’, 54; Beemer, ‘Diagnostic prescriptions’, 310–12.

46 Hautaniemi, Swedlund and Anderton, ‘Mill town mortality’; Beemer, Anderton and Leonard, ‘Sewers’. We constructed areal samples centred on the population centres of Holyoke and Northampton. Because the sample for each decade includes roughly the same number of people, the sample geography become smaller over the decades of the study, and more tightly concentrated around the urban cores as they developed.

47 Hautaniemi, Susan I., Anderton, Douglas L. and Swedlund, Alan C., ‘Methods and validity of a panel study using record linkage: matching death records to a geographic census sample in two Massachusetts towns, 1850–1912’, Historical Methods 33, 1 (2000), 129.

48 Hautaniemi, Swedlund and Anderton, ‘Mill town mortality’.

49 United States Bureau of the Census, 200 Years of U.S. Census Taking: Population and Housing Questions, 1790–1990 (Washington, DC, 1989).

50 Steckel, Richard H. and Moehling, Carolyn M., ‘Rising inequality: trends in the distribution of wealth in industrializing New England’, Journal of Economic History 61, 1 (2001), 160–83, here 162.

51 See Steckel, Richard H., ‘Census manuscript schedules matched with property tax lists’, Historical Methods 27, 2 (1994), 7185.

52 Bouchard, Gérard, Brard, Patrick and Lavoie, Yolande, ‘FONEM: un code de transcription phonétique pour la reconstitution automatique des familles Saguenayennes’, Population 36, 6 (1981), 1085–103; Bouchard, Gérard, Roy, Raymond and Gasgrain, Bernard, ‘De la micro à la macro-reconstitution des familles le système SOREP’, Genus 42, 3–4 (1986), 3354.

53 Harvey, Charles, Green, Edmund M. and Corfield, Penelope J., ‘Record linkage theory and practice: an experiment in the application of multiple pass linkage algorithms’, History and Computing 8, 2 (1996), 7889; Harvey, Charles and Green, Edmund M., ‘Record linkage algorithms: efficiency, selection and relative confidence’, History and Computing 6, 3 (1994), 143–52.

54 Winchester, Ian, ‘What every historical needs to know about record linkage for the microcomputer era’, Historical Methods 25, 2 (1992), 149–65.

55 Not all census records are linkable to tax records (e.g. children). Not all tax records are linkable to census records (e.g. businesses and non-residents). In addition, the database is a geographic subsample of the census records, while tax (and death) records cover the entire area of the towns. These factors affect both the numerators and denominators for calculating linkage rates.

56 Individual wealth was recorded on the US census only in 1850, 1860 and 1870.

57 Steckel, ‘Census manuscript schedules’.

58 Steckel and Moehling, ‘Rising inequality’.

59 Hautaniemi, Anderton and Swedlund, ‘Methods and validity’.

60 Comparing 1860 with 1880 affords high linkage rates for wealth data and few confounding effects, i.e. by avoiding major intervening epidemic years confounded by ethnic-specific variation in inoculation practices described in Green, Holyoke.

61 This can be understood in counter-factual terms, i.e. if the age distributions for each town had been the same as 1870 in the period from 1860 to 1880, what would the death rate look like relative to their unadjusted (non-standardised) rates?

62 It is likely that infants under one year of age are significantly under-represented in our data because of the highly mobile and newly settled population. In all analyses we compared results including and excluding infants and decided to present complete data given the substantive and statistical equivalence of results. We have also stratified analysis by age when appropriate to ensure that conclusions are not contaminated by varying representation of infants and children.

63 Ethnicity was derived from birthplace, recorded on all censuses, usually to a sub-country level in the United States and Canada, as well as for some of Europe, as well as ‘mother tongue’ recorded in the 1900 and 1910 censuses.

64 Mercier and Boone, ‘Infant mortality’; Thornton and Olson, ‘Deadly discrimination’; Woodbury, Infant mortality; Gretchen A. Condran and Samuel H. Preston, ‘Child mortality differences, personal health care practices, and medical technology: the United States 1900–1939’, in Lincoln C. Chen, Arthur Kleinman and Norma C. Ware eds., Health and social change in international perspective (Cambridge, MA, 1994), 171–224.

65 Hautaniemi, ‘Demography and death’, 47.

66 Claude Bélanger, ‘French Canadian emigration to the United States 1840–1930’, Readings in Quebec history, Marianopolis College, [updated 23 August 2000].

67 See Beemer, ‘Social meanings of mortality’, 75; Green, Holyoke, 69; and Hautaniemi, ‘Demography and death’, 47.

68 Joseph Ferrie, Yankeys now: immigrants in the antebellum United States, 1840–1860 (Oxford, 1999).

69 Ferrie, ‘The rich’, 17.

70 Reid, ‘Locality’; Lee, ‘Socioeconomic background’.

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