Migration and Economic Mobility: Wealth Accumulation
and Occupational Change Among Antebellum Migrants and Non-Migrants

Steven Herscovici
University of Chicago

This summary represents work in progress and is preliminary. Please do not cite or quote from this summary. Complete papers will be available from the author after December 1, 1994.


For the past three decades scholars interested in economic and social mobility have been influenced by Stephan Thernstrom's seminal book Poverty and Progress (1964), which studied social mobility among unskilled laborers in 19th century Newburyport, Massachusetts. The primary dimension of mobility Thernstrom analyzed was occupational change, although he also considered the extent to which these workers were able to accumulate real estate and other savings over the course of 30 years. Thernstrom arrived at three major conclusions in Poverty and Progress: first, laborers experienced little occupational mobility in 19th century Newburyport; second, those who did experience economic mobility, measured by property holdings, did so at the expense of their children's future prospects; and finally, laborers who left Newburyport must have experienced even less mobility than laborers who remained in Newburyport. The provocative findings of Poverty and Progress have stimulated many historians to extend Thernstrom's analysis and methods to a large number of other 19th century communities. These later studies have enlarged the scope of analysis by considering workers other than manual laborers as well as other dimensions of mobility, yet all have considered a select group of individuals: those who remained in the same locale for a minimum period of 10 years.

Despite the fact that these studies have found that fewer than half of the individuals in their samples remained in the community throughout a given decade, their authors have made generalizations about 19th century economic and social mobility based solely upon their observations of individuals who stayed. Thernstrom and others have speculated that those who remained in an area were more successful than the "floating proletariat" who moved from city to city, and that migration did not serve as a method of capturing greater opportunity. In fact, Thernstrom (1964: 89) states that it is "unlikely that large numbers of these workmen were more successful in their new places of residence than were their counterparts who remained in Newburyport." However, Thernstrom and others may have misjudged the importance of migration as a means for opportunity in the 19th century; the sample selection bias inherent in prior mobility studies renders their conclusions suspect, and the question of how migration is related to economic and social mobility remains largely unanswered.

As part of a larger project on 19th century American economic mobility, this paper returns to antebellum Newburyport to analyze mobility among its labor force within the context of Newburyport's economy and economic growth during the period. It studies mobility within Newburyport, as other studies have done for various 19th century communities. Unlike the other mobility studies, however, this paper also follows migrants to their new homes and also studies their economic mobility to assess the true degree of economic mobility experienced in 19th century America. In view of the considerable influence Poverty and Progress has had on the course of social and urban history, the complete lack of knowledge on the economic and social mobility experienced by migrants warrants a re- examination of Newburyport.

The data for this project have been collected from a number of sources. First, every Newburyport resident enumerated in the manuscript schedules of the 1850 federal census is included in the data set; among the information recorded in the census was each person's name, age, occupation, place of birth, wealth holdings, school attendance within the past year, and literacy. An attempt is underway to locate every male age 10 and older in 1850 wherever he may have been 10 years later, in 1860. To accomplish this, the men who remained in Newburyport - the persisters - have been located in the manuscripts of the 1860 federal population census. Next, local death registrations have been used to eliminate those who died in Newburyport during the decade. The remaining men are assumed to have emigrated from Newburyport during the 1850s. The final stage of this linkage - searching for out-migrants from Newburyport - is currently underway. It involves matching Newburyport's emigrants to index of the 1860 federal census, and then locating these individuals in the census manuscripts in their new communities in 1860. To date, this linkage has been completed for New England and a portion of the Middle Atlantic states.

Mid-19th Century Newburyport

Newburyport is a small city located about 35 miles north of Boston, at the mouth of the Merrimack River in the northeast corner of Massachusetts. After experiencing rapid population growth during the 1840s, Newburyport's population remained fairly constant throughout the 1850s and 1860s. In 1850, the population of Newburyport was just under 14,000 residents. By 1860 its population grew to only 14,845, an average growth rate of 0.6% per year; and by 1870, its population fell to 14,025. Although its overall population remained quite stable in the 1850s, the composition of Newburyport's population did change over the course of the decade. More than three-quarters of its adult population was comprised of the native born throughout the period. However, during the 1850s, Newburyport experienced an influx of Irish immigrants whose share increased sharply from 6.5% to 12% of the adult population.

Throughout the first half of the 19th century, Newburyport's economy consisted predominantly of ship building and trade associated with its port. By the middle of the century the port remained an integral part of the economy, but its relative importance diminished as Newburyport became a local manufacturing center as well. At mid century, Newburyport was a relatively poor community. In both 1850 and 1860, relatively fewer men in Newburyport owned real estate as in the United States more generally. Further, the average value of wealth holdings in Newburyport was lower than the mean for the nation at large. In 1850 the mean value of real estate in Newburyport was $727, 25% below the mean of $1001 for all men over age 20. By 1860, Newburyport's mean real estate wealth of $921 was nearly 40% below that in the United States more generally.

Compared with the nation as a whole, men in Newburyport were therefore less likely to own wealth, and on average they owned lower amounts of wealth than their counterparts elsewhere. The pattern of wealth holding within Newburyport differed markedly by nativity, however, as the native born were significantly more likely to own wealth than were immigrants. The native born also owned significantly more wealth than immigrants even after controlling for the vastly different occupations held by natives and immigrants. Thus in separate regression analysis, after controlling for the occupational structure Irish immigrants held on average one-third of the wealth of the native born. This was significantly less than immigrants in many other cities. In nearby Boston, for example, in a similar analysis Irish immigrants held just under half as much wealth as natives. Further, in Boston more than 40% of Irish immigrants owned either real or personal wealth in 1860, and the average level of wealth holdings was $250. By contrast, in 1860 the average level of wealth held by Irish immigrants in Newburyport was less than $100 as only one in 10 Irishmen in Newburyport had any recorded wealth. Additionally, immigrants in Boston appear to have accumulated wealth more quickly than immigrants in Newburyport.

Together these data suggest that Newburyport's economy was relatively stagnant. In particular, Newburyport appeared to hold little economic opportunity for immigrants. The lack of economic growth in the local economy casts doubt on the claim that workers who remained in Newburyport were likely to have experienced more economic mobility than those who left. The next section analyzes the experiences of both persisters and migrants in an attempt to understand the relationship between migration and economic and social mobility.

Population Turnover and Economic Mobility, 1850-1860

In order to study mobility properly, it is necessary to study the actual experiences of people through time, and to relate individual occupational change or individual wealth accumulation to the life cycle. Previous mobility studies have considered occupational mobility among individuals who persisted in the same community for a period of at least 10 years. This paper follows migrants to their new locations to study occupational change as well as wealth accumulation among both persisters and migrants to understand more fully the extent of economic as well as social mobility in 19th century America.

Almost every persistence study has found that only a minority of men living in a community at one point in time still reside there 10 years later. Of the 4835 males over age 10 enumerated in the 1850 census of Newburyport, 2170 were positively identified in the 1860 census as still living in Newburyport. This persistence rate of 45% is similar to those found for various other American cities in the 19th century. An additional 442 men (9.1%) died in Newburyport during the 1850s, leaving an implied migration rate of 46%.

Men who migrated from Newburyport were significantly younger and held significantly less wealth than those who persisted. The migration rate among immigrants exceeded that of the native born; two-thirds or more of each immigrant group migrated from Newburyport compared with less than half of all natives. Further, unskilled laborers were more likely to leave Newburyport than were men in other occupations. After controlling for wealth, however, high white-collar workers were no more likely to remain in Newburyport than were unskilled laborers.

Occupational Change

The primary dimension of social mobility which Thernstrom and most subsequent social mobility studies have considered is occupational change. These studies have typically found that relatively few workers who remained in the same community for an extended period experienced occupational mobility. Lacking information on those who moved, Thernstrom speculated that laborers who moved away from Newburyport were no more successful at climbing the occupational ladder into skilled blue-collar or white-collar callings than those who remained.

A look at the actual experiences of those who left Newburyport suggests that migrants indeed did experience more occupational mobility than persisters. Migrants from Newburyport were significantly more likely to move up the occupational ladder than their counterparts who persisted. Table 1 shows that more than half of all laborers in 1850 who persisted were still laborers in 1860, while fewer than 20% of the laborers who migrated remained laborers. By contrast, 43% of persisting laborers moved into skilled or white-collar jobs, whereas more than 80% of the laborers who left Newburyport experienced upward occupational mobility. The same pattern appears among blue-collar workers more generally; 15% of all blue-collar workers in 1850 who persisted held white-collar jobs in 1860, whereas more than 25% of the blue-collar workers who moved were in white-collar jobs at the end of the decade. A large fraction of migrants who experienced occupational mobility did so by becoming farmers in their new communities. Half of the laborers and two-thirds of all blue-collar workers who migrated and improved their occupational status reported being farmers in 1860.

Younger men who had no recorded occupation in 1850 and left Newburyport were also more likely to enter white collar jobs in their new locations than their counterparts who remained in Newburyport. More than 90% of all persisters and migrants who had no recorded occupation in 1850 were younger than 20. Among these men, migrants were nearly twice as likely to hold a white-collar occupation in 1860 than were young men who remained in Newburyport.

The above analysis suggests that migrants were nearly twice as likely to climb up the occupational ladder as were persisters. Migrating is a risky endeavor, and those who moved could have been more likely to experience downward occupational mobility as well. The evidence suggests that this was not the case: migrants and persisters were equally likely to report downward mobility over the decade. About the same proportion of non-laborers in 1850 - 9% of migrants and 12% of persisters - were laborers 10 years later. Similarly, about 18% of all white-collar workers were found in blue-collar callings 10 years later.

Wealth Accumulation

Historians who have studied social mobility have concentrated largely on occupational mobility. However, occupation is only one measure of economic status and an individual need not change occupations in order to improve his economic status. An individual may experience economic mobility without changing occupations if, for example, his wage increases or he accumulates wealth. Indeed, Thernstrom (1964) found that between 60 and 80% of all unskilled laborers who remained in Newburyport for 20 years owned some form of property and concluded "[t]hat an ordinary workman in Newburyport might in time accumulate a property stake was not merely a possibility; it was a strong probability" (p 118). Both the 1850 and 1860 censuses recorded the value of each individual's real estate holdings, so wealth accumulation among persisters and migrants over this 10 year period can also be analyzed to understand the effects of migration.

Table 2 presents wealth-holding statistics among migrants and persisters. Panel A shows that in 1860 more than 40% of all persisters owned real estate, compared with only one-third of migrants. This finding does not imply that migrants were less successful than persisters, however; migrants were much less likely to have owned property in 1850 than were persisters. In particular, only 15% of the migrants reported owning real estate in 1850 compared with one-third of all men who would persist until 1860. Considering only those men who were propertyless in 1850, nearly a quarter of the persisters and 30% of the migrants acquired real estate by 1860.

Since historians interested in social mobility have been particularly concerned with the experiences of the working classes, it is useful separately to consider wealth accumulation among blue-collar workers over the course of the 1850s. Blue-collar migrants were significantly more likely to have acquired property and they accumulated wealth more quickly than their counterparts who remained in Newburyport. Panel B of Directory