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But not everyone has had Hacker’s resources or abilities. Ruggles, who was Hacker’s doctoral adviser at the University of Minnesota, credits Hacker with the first major revision of 19thcentury fertility estimates in nearly 40 years, the first national own-child estimates of marital fertility trends and differentials in the 19th century, and the first under-enumeration estimates for the period before 1880. Ruggles calls Hacker “the most important historical demographer of his generation.”

Hacker came to the discipline of history relatively late after earning degrees rooted in science and engineering and working in industry as an engineer for eight years. With a strong background in math and statistics, he was a natural fit for the field of demographic history, and when he chose to focus on it for his PhD, his timing couldn’t have been better.

His work would not have been possible even 10 years ago. The recent completion of a full set of microdata census samples spanning 1850 to the present is critically important to his work, he said. The only year not included in the samples, which provide searchable information on all individuals in sampled households, is 1890. A significant portion of the 1890 Federal Census was destroyed by a fire at the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C., in January 1921. The records of only 6,160 of the 62,979,766 people enumerated survived the fire.

The microdata census samples were constructed at the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota, where Hacker completed his doctoral studies. As a doctoral student there, he was involved in compilation of the first 1 percent density sample of the 1880 manuscript census and so saw early on what microdata analysis could do.

When working only with published census data, researchers were limited to making crude estimates of fertility. They did so by dividing the number of women of child-bearing age in a county by the number of children.

“What the microdata allows me to do is, rather than to look at these really aggregate county-level statistics, I look at the level of individual women, individual families, and correlate their individual child-bearing experiences with economic and social indicators,” Hacker said. “I can create a much better series of data and do a much better job of describing fertility decline.”

— Susan E. Barker


Historian J. David Hacker has uncovered the unseen demographic cost of the American Civil War, the bloodiest in U.S. history. The four-year war claimed an estimated 620,000 lives — more than the total killed in all other U.S. wars from the Revolutionary War through the Korean War combined. Working with census data, however, Hacker was able to calculate that the actual toll on the population of the United States was three times what the war’s death count alone would indicate.


Nationwide, the Civil War’s extraordinary death toll figured out to about one in nine men of “military age,” at the time defined as between 13 and 43. In the South, the cost was even higher; one in five men and boys of military age lost their lives.

“What really struck me,” Hacker said, “was that the demographic cost was actually significantly higher in missing births than it was in men killed outright.”

Based on marriage and fertility rates before, during and after the war, Hacker calculated the total of missing births — the number of children who would likely have been born if not for the war.

“The fertility deficit during the war was roughly equivalent to 1.2 million missing births,” Hacker said. Although he originally expected that such a significant population shock would have led to a long-term impact on age of marriage and marriage and fertility rates throughout the nation, Hacker was surprised to discover instead that the war’s demographic reverberations were relatively short lived.

“With the marriage patterns, we see just a short-term shock,” he said. “Men were able to marry younger, and because of the relative dearth of young men after the war, women had to delay a bit. So we see slight changes in the age of marriage and proportions that are marrying.”

Within just 10 years of the war, people were marrying at the exact same age and in the same proportions as before the war, and fertility rates returned to where they had left off in their long-term pattern, Hacker found. “Maybe I went in a little naïve,” he said. “I was expecting to see a major change in the age of marriage and in marriage fertility patterns. I guess what I learned is that it is remarkable how quickly populations can adjust to a demographic shock.”

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