Economics 565 Topics in Economic History

Spring 2020
Monday 8am to 10:45am
Location: CAS 233

Professor James Feigenbaum
Department of Economics
270 Bay State Road, Room 307

Course Description

This masters-level course will examine a selection of the major themes in the economic development of the United States (with briefer coverage of the rest of the world for certain topics). There is no textbook; instead, we will read research papers written by economists and other scholars relevant to each topic. We begin with an overview of some of the empirical methods commonly used in modern economics and their application in economic history, as well as a discussion of new sources of historical data, the lifeblood of economic history. Then, we will study themes including slavery and emancipation; immigration and migration; the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the economics of WWII; human capital (including education, health, and crime); technology adoption; and inequality and intergenerational mobility (including race and gender gaps).

Office Hours

My office hours are Monday from 11am to 12:30pm and by appointment. Please make an appointment at If you cannot make my office hours, send me an email and we will figure out a time to talk.

Our TF is Yuheng Zhao, a PhD candidate in the Economics department. He will be holding office hours 9 to 10am in B17A on Tuesdays. Email him at

A copy of this syllabus is here


There is no textbook for this course. All readings will be available on the course website.

Exams and Grades

The grades in the course will be based on four research question assignments, weekly data visualization mini-projects, four in class presentations of papers from (or not from) the syllabus, and regular class participation.

There are no exams.

Research Question Assignments

We will have four short research question assignments. Writing a complete original research paper during a semester-long course is very hard (and in economic history, with a premium on collecting new old data, it is nearly impossible). Instead, I want to help you to start thinking about how to come up with possible questions you could ask (and answer) in a full project. Think of this as the very first step you would take before starting original research. Getting familiar with this step will deepen your understanding of the social science research process. These assignments will be maximum one page each (seriously, I will stop reading after one page). See below for more detail on the question assignments.

I will hand out detailed prompts and instructions for the questions closer to when they are assigned, but this should give you an idea of what you’ll be working on. Assignments will be graded with letter grades. Late assignments may be penalized one-third of a grade each day (i.e., an A- becomes a B+ on the first day past the due date).

All assignments should be submitted via email.

  • Maps as Data

    • A lot of great economic history data comes from old maps (we will be reading several papers with map data in this course). Find a historical map (I will give you some resources to get started but google and your imagination are your friends here).
    • First, describe what the map you selected shows, who made it and why.
    • Second, propose a research question you could answer with the map (the map could be a Y or an X).
    • DUE: February 20
  • History Rhymes: Public Policy Edition

    • Pick a policy or policy proposal in the news today.
    • Is there a historical antecedant? That is, have we tried the policy before?
    • The fit can be quite loose
      • Examples: Rent control, high top marginal tax rates, government investment in energy technology
    • Describe the policy as proposed today and the policy historically
      • Similarities, differences
      • Can we predict the future with the past?
    • DUE: March 18
  • Genealogy for Economic History

    • Find an interesting collection of data on (accessible through BU library)
    • Describe it (who, what, where, how big, why, when)
    • Pose a research question you could answer with this (to carry out the research, you will probably need other data but use this collection as a jumping off point)
    • DUE: April 8
  • New Outcome, Same Strategy

    • To paraphrase TS Eliot (maybe), good writers borrow, great writers steal. Let’s do the economic history version of that.
    • Pick a paper on the syllabus. What is a new outcome you could look at with the same X-variables of interest. Why? What is the new question you are asking?
      • If you want to use a paper not on the syllabus, please get permission from me first.
    • DUE: April 29

Data Exploration

There will be hands on data work in this course. Every week I’ll locate an example dataset (or two or three to give you options) that matches the weekly topic. Students will explore this data (solo or in teams, up to you) and make and present one new figure or table in class. You can think of this like the economic history version of #tidytuesday, if you will.

As an example, the week we talk about invention maybe you will explore and visualize something from this dataset that matched the complete US patent record to the census, generating a massive trove of data on precisely who patents. What is the age profile of inventors historically and how has it changed? Or their geographic locations? The week we talk about health, you might explore the the Philadelphia Almshouse Birthweight data from Goldin and Margo with rich micro-data on childbirth and health in the 19th century.\footnote{Variables in the dataset include age, marital status, place of birth, parity, type of birth, position of birth, day of birth, commencement of labor, hour of delivery, times of stages of labor, sex of infant, total length of infant, body length of infant, birth weight, length of gestation, and total duration of labor.}

The stakes are not high. The point will be to play with the data, not to generate research. Figures that are descriptive and interesting and creative will be the aim. And there will be an emphasis on brevity: try to stick to only one final figure.

I hope that these are fun assignments to sharpen your analytical and graphical and coding skills as well as your historical and economics chops. And don’t worry if you haven’t done much coding before (in R or stata or whatever else); part of this will be to demonstrate how far you can get and how cool of a thing you can make with just a few simple tools.

One can spend forever mucking around with data (and perfecting a figure), so try to limit yourselves to an hour on these.

Each week, everyone will present very briefly (like 3-5 minutes each) the graph or figure or whatever else they made. I’ll make one too and we can talk about what people are finding or not finding and questions or ideas the visualizations prompt.

Class Presentations and Participation

Three times during the semester, students will briefly present a paper, either from the syllabus or related to the weekly theme. These presentations will be limited to four slides, so part of the challenge is distilling a research paper down to the essential points: the question, the answer, and why we care.

To keep everyone from delaying on presentations, you’ll have to present once in each four week portion of the course (not including the first day of class).

  1. Between Feb 3 and Feb 24
  2. Between Mar 2 and Mar 30
  3. Between Apr 6 and Apr 27

Send in your choices by January 31. Papers off the syllabus require prior approval but can be great choices.

More generally, class participation means two things. First, it means coming to class on time (I know, 8am…). Second, it means participating by following lecture, taking notes, asking questions when you have them and answering questions when I ask them. To get the full participation points, I’ll expect you to attend class on time every meeting and speak up.

Calculating Grades

  • 35\% for the weekly data visualization assignments
  • 20\% for the research question assignments
  • 20\% for the paper presentations
  • 25\% for class participation

I will not review any grades before at least 24 hours have passed. Remember that grades can be adjusted down just as easily as they can be adjusted up.

Academic Integrity

I have a zero-tolerance policy for academic dishonesty. If you submit work that is fully or partially plagiarized—defined as appropriating someone else’s words or ideas without proper attribution—you will receive a failing grade. Please check with me if you are unsure of how to cite material in your written work. You can consult BU’s academic integrity policy here:

Schedule of Lectures and Reading

As you can see from the schedule below, each class has many papers listed. I will lecture on all papers (maybe more!), but the week before each class I will indicate which two papers you are expected to have read.

Introduction and a Brief Economic History of the US

January 27

Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction

February 3

Education and Human Capital

February 10

Agriculture and Innovation

February 18 (BU Monday on a Tuesday)

The Great Depression, the New Deal, and WWII

February 24

Women in the Labor Force

March 2


March 16


March 23


March 30

Marriage and Fertility

April 6


April 13

The Voting Rights Act, The Great Society, and the War on Poverty

April 22 (BU Monday on a Wednesday)

Segregation and Urban and Suburban America after WWII

April 27