The NBER Macrohistory Database is one of the best resources and clearinghouses on the internet for economics and economic history, but it requires a little hunting to locate information. In addition to downloadable “working” papers published on many economic issues, the website houses several large historical databases of economic indexes. Both can provide a starting place for research on a wide variety of topics.
As many as 24 NBER “Working Papers” are published weekly (and then archived in a searchable index), discussing everything from “The Size and Composition of Wealth Holdings in the United States, Italy, and the Netherlands” to “Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: Divorce Laws and Family Distress.” Some papers are narrowly focused and obviously designed for economic policymakers and others who deal with contemporary American economic issues. But many of the papers offer historical analyses of economic issues dealing with a host of different countries and time periods. A keyword search (a handy feature for browsing the thousands of working papers) on “France”, for example, turned up nearly 50 articles, published since 1983. The papers—listed by date of publication, author, and title—ranged in topic from contemporary French economic concerns to a historical analysis of France following World War I and the impact of reparations on post-Napoleonic France. This feature alone makes the website a valuable research tool.
In addition to the working papers, the site also houses several historical economic databases. Following the “Data” and then the “Public Use Data Archive” links takes the viewer to an index of databases. The “Macro History Database” allows the viewer access to a database of mid-19th-century to early 20th-century economic statistics for the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Have you ever wanted to know the average daily earnings for French coal miners from 1844 to 1959? The statistics are here.
Each database is divided into 16 major subject headings that include wages, commodities prices, transportation and public utilities figures, and key sectors of industrial output. Raw data is challenging to use, so these resources require the use of statistical software such as Stata, SPSS, or SAS, or computer languages such as Perl or C++. Users can also do basic analysis using more user-friendly software, such as Excel or Access. Instructions are provided for analyzing data with these programs.
Together, the working papers and the various NBER databases can be a goldmine for researching economic history for those with the skills and interest.