America, Minus A Human Factor

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Did you know that whiskey that went for 23 cents a gallon just before the Civil War was fetching 70 dollars, wholesale in Richmond by April 1864? Is that a comment on Confederate dollars? Or how much you'd want to drink with the Union Army heading your way? How much do we drink, anyway? From 1900 to 1919, the amount of money spent on alcohol increased from $955 million to $2.24 billion. But then the numbers end. After 1919, reality gets sketchy. With Prohibition, the sale of alcohol becomes illegal.

Okay, so what about illegal drugs? In 1979, there were an estimated 29,869,000 pot tokers in this country, but that number dropped pretty steadily, to 18,710,000 in 1998. Cocaine users dropped dramatically, from 10,459,000 in 1982 to 3,664,000 in 1995, before going up by half a million two years later. What was that about? Crack?

Such random, mind-boggling connections are the beauty and sensational weirdness of the recently released, 28.5-pound, $825, five-volume Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial Edition.

It's called the Millennial Edition because it's the first major update of this monumental work since the Bicentennial Edition, 31 years ago.

What it is, really, is a marvelous walk through a bizarre notion -- that America, our culture and values, indeed our reality -- can be described in numbers.

Humans have thought for a very long time that the universe could be so captured. The Egyptians who designed the pyramids thought it could be done in triangles and squares. Greeks such as Pythagoras even thought that everything, including beauty, could be so described. Kant described time as if it were just numbers stretched out in a straight line; space, as if it were just numbers in three dimensions. Mathematics was real and certain, and it came before the more uncertain knowledge of the human world.

But America? This surpassingly glorious young mess? Can its essence be captured in 4,641 pages of digits?

What an outrageous idea.

That's why a stroll through the Millennial Edition is a strangely fortuitous, irregular and imagination-firing one.

Why was the number of people with unclassified dry, itching skin going up, from 16.3 per thousand in 1982 to 24.6 in 1995?

Why was the area of the state of Maryland 9,999 square miles in 1790, but only 9,941 square miles 10 years later? Where did those 37,000 acres go? To the District of Columbia? Why, in 1940, did it all of a sudden drop to 9,887? Then, from 1950 to 1960, Maryland gained 10 square miles -- 6,400 acres -- from 9,881 to 9,891. Then it started dropping precipitously, to 9,775 square miles in 1990. What happened? Were the surveyors drunk? Is the Chesapeake rising?

More to the point, one set of questions leads to another, then another.

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