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The living standards of the labouring classes in Sweden, 1750-1900: Evidence from rural probate inventories

Bengtsson, Erik; Svensson, Patrick


This paper presents new estimates of the living standards among the rural labouring classes in Sweden from 1750 to 1900. Starting with a database of more than 1,000 probate inventories of rural landless and semi-landless people from the benchmark years 1750, 1800, 1850 and 1900, we study the development for crofters in particular. We measure their assets and debts in great detail, mapping the development of material living standards over time. We show that the typically used real wage approach to living standards gives only a partial impression of the development of proletarian living standards. Above all, the decline of Swedish living standards from 1750 to 1800 is overestimated because of overreliance on grain prices for the CPI. We show the advantages of using probate inventories for studying living standards, since they give a composite estimate of households’ material conditions, no matter what combinations of wage-labour, subsistence work and by-employment are used. This has relevance not only for Sweden, but for studies of historical living standards in general.

Published in

Lund papers in economic history
2020, number: 2020:213
Publisher: Department of Economic History, Lund University