Historical Echoes: Off the Charts! -Liberty Street Economics
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August 09, 2013

Historical Echoes: Off the Charts!

Kathleen McKiernan

The visual representation of information, knowledge, or data has been around since the time of the caveman. But it wasn’t until 1786, when William Playfair, a Scottish engineer, published The Commercial and Political Atlas, illustrating for the first time how economic data could be represented by charts. Playfair’s work preceded that of Florence Nightingale—broadly acknowledged as the founder of modern nursing—who used information graphics in the 1850s to convince Queen Victoria that reform was needed in the British military health service. Nightingale developed the Coxcomb chart—a combination of stacked pie and bar charts—to assess mortality among soldiers during the Crimean War.

     Excerpted below from a report by the Committee for Economic Development, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit think-tank, this 1943 chart presents a long-range record of booms and depressions (the chart is available through the Federal Reserve Archival System for Economic Research, or FRASER). It offers a picture of the more important events that have tended to shape our economic and fiscal curves since 1775. Business activity, price inflation, federal debt, national income, and stock and bond yields are traced in a single spread. The study of “postwar periods” is spotlighted in this edition. (A 1947 release features a special section, “How Much Is One Billion Dollars?”)


     Evidently, the charts weren’t marketed directly to the consumer; rather, they were sold to banks, manufacturers, and companies like Tension Envelope Corp. to promote goodwill among customers. The ad below, from the January 1944 issue of Industrial Marketing (p. 156), illustrates the publisher’s outreach efforts.

Plan your UPSWING IN GOODWILL with this Long Range Business Chart

“Get the new 1944 edition of “Business Booms & Depressions .. since 1775”—a timely long range Business Chart that ties in with your customers’ thinking today about post war tomorrow! This goodwill builder won’t find its way into waste baskets—instead it will be kept, preserved and referred to for the next year and beyond! Especially now—with the European War in its final stage—this Chart’s value will be appreciated by all who receive it. It is used exclusively as a high-class dignified medium of goodwill advertising. It has never been offered for sale through any retail channel. Ideal for manufacturers, banks, investment houses, publishers, other businesses. Write or wire for sample and prices.”

The Century Press
West Toledo Station 61
Toledo 12, Ohio

     Modern technology allows for very complex data to be represented quite compactly. For examples, view the interactive charts that accompany the Liberty Street Economics post Is Job Polarization Holding Back the Labor Market?

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.

Mckiernan_kathleen Kathleen McKiernan is research library director in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Research and Statistics Group.
Posted by Blog Author at 07:00:00 AM in Historical Echoes

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