The Economic History Review

American colonial incomes, 1650–1774

Volume 69 Issue 1
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Pages: 54-77Authors: Jeffrey G. Williamson, Peter H. Lindert
Published online: March 23, 2015DOI: 10.1111/ehr.12106

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New data now allow conjectures on the levels of real and nominal incomes in the 13 American colonies. New England was the poorest region, and the South was the richest. Colonial per capita incomes rose only very slowly if at all, for five reasons: productivity growth was slow; population in the low-income (but subsistence-plus) frontier grew much faster than that in the high-income coastal settlements; child dependency rates were high and probably even rising; the terms of trade were extremely volatile, presumably suppressing investment in export sectors; and the terms of trade rose very slowly, if at all, in the North, although faster in the South. All of this checked the growth of colony-wide per capita income after a seventeenth-century boom. The American colonies led Great Britain in purchasing power per capita from 1700, and possibly from 1650, until 1774, even counting slaves in the population. That is, average purchasing power in America led Britain early, when Americans were British. The common view that American per capita income did not overtake that of Britain until the start of the twentieth century appears to be off the mark by two centuries or more.