Mortality Census Visualizations

The fledgling ‘statists’ who designed and tabulated the 1850 mortality census would have killed for our capacity to visualize their data, but we should remember that they were themselves living through what has been called “the golden age of statistical graphics.” The pie chart, bar chart, and line graph were more or less invented at the same time by the same man, William Playfair, at the turn of the nineteenth century. The first chloropleth map appeared in 1826. The 1850 mortality census—effectively the first-ever national public health survey—was a part of this revolution, and if the results were bad data, they were also big data driving a data industry that bigger, better, fast. The 1890 Mortality Census would be tabulated by the American Tabulating Machine Company, later consolidated as IBM. By 1946, we had the CDC. By 1980, we had conquered smallpox. In 100 years, the ‘statists’ had helped to double human life expectancy across the globe. Between 1850 and 1950 revolutions in datafication itself—nosology (disease classification), diagnostics, data collection, form-design, tabulating machines, and the rise of vital statistics—all helped to create the foundation for the increasing sophistication and effectiveness of public health systems worldwide.

Today we are living through a second “golden age of statistical graphics” as computing technologies make it effortless to create data visualizations and expose them to millions of people via social media. In the recent debates over the Confederate memorial landscape, one of the most successful historical interventions has been a simple graphic making the point that the raising of Confederate monuments spiked immediately after Plessy and Brown v. Board. The 1850 Mortality Census at a Glance provides a broad overview of the data. You can also browse the data by race, sex, and age.

NEXT: 1850 Mortality Census Data at a Glance

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