The First Measured Century

An Illustrated Guide to Trends in America, 1900-2000 by Theodore Caplow

by Scott Hudson


America, Statistically Speaking

In 1869 President James Garfield, while still a congressman, stated in a speech before the U.S. House of Representatives:

“The developments of statistics are causing history to be rewritten. Till recently, the historian studied nations in the aggregate, and gave us only the story of princes, dynasties, sieges and battles… Now statistical inquiry leads him into the hovels, homes, workshops, mines, fields, prisons, hospitals, and all other places where human nature displays its weakness and its strength. In these explorations he discovers the seeds of national growth and decay, and thus becomes the prophet of his generation.”

cover art

The First Measured Century

Theodore Caplow, Louis Hicks, Ben J. Wattenberg

An Illustrated Guide to Trends in America, 1900-2000

(AEI Books)

Though he didn’t live long enough to realize the fruit of his revelation, Garfield’s prophetic proclamation has proven to have been right on the mark. Instead of viewing our nation’s history exclusively through the eyes of past events, reliable statistical information does indeed give us a second means of viewing our history.

During the course of the twentieth century — the first measured entury — Americans became the most ambitious measurers of social life ever. All one has to do is open a newspaper or turn on the radio or television to find out just how our lives are affected, if not dictated, by key trends as a result of statistics. The Gross National Product, the Consumer Price Index, the unemployment rate, the teenage pregnancy rate, and the poverty rate are just a few of our twentieth-century statistical inventions.

Authors Theodore Caplow, Louis Hicks, and Ben Wattenburg present a thoroughly compelling statistical overview of the past one hundred years in their book The First Measured Century: An Illustrated Guide to Trends in America, 1900-2000. Robert and Helen Lynd’s groundbreaking 1920s sociological survey of an average American community (Muncie, Indiana) and resulting bestseller Middletown: A Study of Cultural Change served as the impetus for the project. In 1978, a team of social scientists led by Caplow not only replicated the Lynds’ original work but also extended the scope of its subject matter as well. But it’s the inclusion of Caplow’s 1999 research “Middletown IV,” commissioned by the First Measured Century Project that gives us a true picture of American life over the past century.

The First Measured Century explores 15 areas of American life — population, work, education, family, living arrangements, religion, leisure, health, money, politics, government, crime, transportation, business, and communications — and presents the unfolding panorama in the form of key trends explained in essay form on the left hand page with corresponding graphs and colored charts on the facing page. The First Measured Century dispels commonly held beliefs while uncovering many interesting if not surprising facts. For example, contrary to what the media would lead us to believe, Americans are healthier today than at any time over the past century. In 1900, the average citizen could expect to live to the ripe old age of 48. Since then, sweeping medical advances and the eradication of many turn-of-the-century killers like influenza and tuberculosis have extended the life expectancy of the average American by 26 years. And at a time where tremendous technological advances such as cable/satellite television, the personal computer, and the internet serve up distractions around every corner, one would imagine that the time a father spends with his children would be drastically compromised, but apparently that is not the case. In 1999, 83 percent of American fathers reported spending at least an hour with their children each day, which is up from the 60 percent reported in the Lynd survey of 1924.

And then there are those statistics that really do not come as much of a surprise at all. For instance, we are all aware of the soaring divorce rate and that the number of babies born out of wedlock is at an all-time high. It also doesn’t surprise us that there are more women in the workplace than at anytime in our history, or that the average salary that a professional basketball player commands hovers around two million dollars a season. But what is fascinating are the stark contrasts of these and other well-known facts when compared to that of our contemporaries of the past century. In 1900, less than one marriage in 10 ended in divorce while half of all marriages were doomed to failure in 2000. And try signing the average NBA player today for the 1970 average salary of $43,000, a number that is almost proportional to the seasonal player per diem today.

The First Measured Century takes a comprehensive look at the everchanging cultural landscape of 20th-century America in its 308 easy-to-read pages. The book was written, as the authors explain, “for a diverse audience that includes teachers, students, and journalists, as well as managers, housewives and bureaucrats . . . and for everyone who wants a better understanding of American society.”

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