Economics 764 Topics in Economic History

Boston University
Fall 2021
MW 11:00-12:15
Professor James Feigenbaum


Economics 764 is the first course of the two-semester PhD sequence in economic history. The primary goal of the economic history sequence is to train graduate students to do serious research in economic history. We will read recent and classic papers in the field, talk about new ideas and questions, hunt for new old data, and learn empirical methods used in economic history research.

New old data has made a huge impact on economic history and many of the papers we will read this semester make use of new data. The cost of data collection has fallen and the availability of big data for historical research has grown. At the individual data, the complete count federal censuses, 1850 to 1940, allow us to observe the entire population, zooming in on people or locations of interest. The names revealed in the complete count and other sources enable us to (if we are careful) record link people from one historical source to another, creating new historical longitudinal data. Other researchers are turning maps and text into data. As you start thinking about your own future research in economic history, I hope you’ll be inspired or provoked by the work we read this semester.

Martin Fiszbein takes over for the second half of the course. Bob Margo will teach EC765 in the spring (I think).

We will meet on Mondays and Wednesdays from 11 to 12:15 in SSW 315 (this is just the usual seminar room in the economic department, right down the hall from my office).


  • In class
    • During my half-semester, everyone will present papers from the syllabus (you make the slides) two times. We’ll assign classes/papers during the first meeting of the class.
    • In addition, regular attendance and class participation will be expected (but see COVID notes below).
    • 1 or 2 papers will be required reading each class (which exactly, TBD), the others are encouraged and listed for reference.
  • Meetings
    • I really like to meet with students to talk about research ideas. In the past, I have done this formally every week or every two weeks but this class is likely to be the largest phd course I’ve ever had. So, let me just say that short (15 minute) one-on-one meetings are very much encouraged.
    • Schedule them here:
    • Come ready to pitch one new research idea.
      • You should have a question (or two), an idea on the empirical strategy, and a sense of why we should care about the answer. If you have a guess as to what data would work or might exist, that’s great, but please don’t spend a lot of time on these ideas before the meeting and definitely don’t review the literature! If we workshop the idea a bit and you still like it, then go out and invest more time in the methods, the literature, the data, etc.
      • Don’t worry if these ideas are good or bad or clever or not. One key skill you can learn in grad school is how to generate and kill ideas with maximum velocity. These meetings are meant to help hone that skill.
  • Research Proposal
    • 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).
    • In EC764, you will write one research proposal. These are due at the end of the semester and they could be based on my half of the course or Martin’s or neither, so long as there is some history in there somewhere. More details to come.


  1. When your schedule allows it, attend the Economic History Lunch and Workshop at Harvard. Both are on Friday, the lunch is at noon (and includes lunch) and the seminar is at 1pm. The lunch will feature your peers, grad students from Harvard, MIT, BC, BU, and elsewhere presenting work in progress. The seminar invites economic history faculty from all over to present new work. Both are great opportunities to see early stage economic history research in action and you only have to cross the river once a week not twice to see them both. I’ll try to remember to pitch the week’s speakers during class as a reminder.

    • At the moment, Harvard COVID policy means we can only attend via Zoom…
    • And I know that this conflicts with the micro lunch at BU on Fridays…
  2. Subscribe to the NBER DAE working paper series (or the whole NBER WP weekly series). This is a great way to keep up with recent research:

  3. Sign up for the mailing list:

  4. Buy and read The Little Book of Research Writing: Research writing is hard but it isn’t impossible and the advice in this book is excellent. Let me put it this way: if I read your second year paper and you haven’t read this book, I will know.


This is not likely to be a completely normal semester for any of us, unfortunately. If you are feeling ill, even if you think you just have a mild cold, please don’t come to class. I will be glad to help you catch up on whatever you miss via Zoom.

More generally, we should all be prepared to be flexible, not knowing what is ahead. We will work together to adapt the course if public health conditions require it.

Office Hours

I’ll be holding office hours Friday morning, 9am to noon. Until further notice, these will be Zoom office hours. Make an appointment at I am always happy to chat, so please reach out if you want to talk and we can find a time outside of office hours if that works better.



September 8


September 13


September 15

Intergenerational Mobility and Census Linking

September 20


September 22


September 27

Marriage and Fertility

September 29


October 4


October 6

NB: Because Bob Margo is going to teach it in the spring, this class (and this reading list) is very light on the Great Migration

Women in the Labor Force

October 12 (this is a Tuesday)

Race and Elections in Economic History

October 13

Politicians and Economic History

October 18

Political Economy and Health in Economic History

October 20

NB: I am writing a chapter for the Handbook on Historical Political Economy on the topic of Health. So the reading for this final class will develop and expand (a lot) as that chapter gets written. If you really want to get in my good graces, I’m open to any and all suggestions of papers to cover.

  • Ager, Philipp, James Feigenbaum, Casper Worm Hansen, and Huiren Tan. 2020. “How the Other Half Died: Immigration and Mortality in US Cities” NBER WP #27480
  • Clay, Karen, Joshua Lewis, Edson Severnini, and Xiao Wang. 2020. “The Value of Health Insurance during a Crisis: Effects of Medicaid Implementation on Pandemic Influenza Mortality” NBER WP #27120