Virginia Postrel offers a good review and some interesting details:
Did you know that the oldest records of chemical pest control date back 4,500 years, to Sumerian farmers who used sulfur compounds to kill insects and mites?
Or that a century ago, railroad companies accounted for half the securities listed on the New York Stock Exchange? (Before the railroads, with their huge demand for capital, securities markets traded almost entirely in government debt.)
Or that in 1850, shoemaking employed more workers in the United States than any other manufacturing business?
The past doesn’t look quite like we tend to picture it: many of the people who got rich from the Industrial Revolution were not industrialists, but landowners who held urban real estate or property with access to water power or mines. From 1880 to 1914, unions went on strike at least 50 times to stop American employers from hiring black workers. Above all, Professor Mokyr says, “in the Middle Ages and in classical antiquity, the destitute were the vast majority of the population.”
And what is the bottom line to economic history?
Professor Mokyr says: “There are certain unifying themes that you see everywhere. People have to make a living. People would rather have more than to have less. On the whole, they don’t behave stupidly. They do as well as they can under the circumstances. The variation is in the circumstances, in the richness and diversity of human economic institutions that have emerged over time.”
That is not all:
“Economic history,” Professor Mokyr writes in the preface, “covers nothing less than the entire material existence of the human past.” The encyclopedia gives theoretical economists a way to check their ideas against the realities of the past. “You guys can’t write these big, fancy models without looking at the details,” Professor Mokyr says.
I have not yet seen the volumes but most likely the set will not be surpassed anytime soon.