Illiteracy in 1870

I’m back to house construction, but here’s my quick post that would be incredibly socially relevant, were this the 19th century. The University of Texas at Austin’s map library houses this beautiful map of county level illiteracy in the US in 1872 from the 1870 Census, interpolation and all:

I downloaded the US Census of 1870 and, with modern computing power was able to produce this not nearly as attractive map representing the same thing, except that it took me 10 minutes as opposed to the number of days it took whoever to draw the above (and superior) map:

The 19th century censae are absolutely fascinating. I don’t think people really have an appreciation for how challenging things were at the time without seeing it. Obviously, the powers that be thought illiteracy to be enough of a problem to include it in the census and go to the trouble of making a map by hand. Not to mention the incredible challenges of conducting a census by foot, assembling data by hand and still coming up with a reliable database of information. Developing countries face these same internal troubles today in conducting large censae. Incredible.

What’s interesting about this map from 1870, is that it’s really not that different from a map of educational attainment from 2000. While overall rates of literacy and education have gone up, the distribution of educational level has not:

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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