The Economic History Review

Adopting a new technology: potatoes and population growth in the periphery

Volume 72 Issue 3
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Pages: 869-896Authors: Thor Berger
Published online: August 3, 2018DOI: 10.1111/ehr.12743

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Abstract Sweden’s population doubled in size between 1750 and 1850 despite a century of stagnating per capita incomes and real wages, which has led many historians to attribute the population explosion to the introduction of the potato. This article provides the first systematic evidence on the potato’s contribution to Swedish living standards and population growth. Potatoes at least doubled output per acre, and welfare ratios that account for potato consumption imply that they raised living standards significantly for labourers. Estimates that exploit regional differences in the suitability of land for cultivating potatoes further show that cities, counties, and rural parishes with more land suitable for potato cultivation experienced a sharp relative acceleration in population growth as the potato spread in the early nineteenth century. An expansion of the population was mainly driven by relative increases in fertility and, consistent with Malthusian predictions, there was no long-run impact on per capita incomes. According to these estimates, the introduction and spread of the potato can account for one-tenth of population growth between 1800 and 1850, thus suggesting that it was an important catalyst for the Swedish population explosion.