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The diminution of the physical stature of the English male population in the eighteenth century

Abstract

We re-estimate the height of Englishmen using the sample originally collected by Roderick Floud. We merge the samples from the army and the Royal Marines by weighting the observations in order to reflect the proportions of servicemen in the two branches of the military. In addition to truncated regression, we use cubic spline functions in order to estimate the trend in the physical stature of Englishmen. The results indicate that a very rapid decline in height of c. 1.6 cm per decade accompanied the onset of the industrial and demographic revolutions, implying that the nutritional status of the population deteriorated considerably as it throughout the European Continent.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The reference here is to research based on written archival records. Research based on archeological evidence has pushed the frontiers of knowledge back to the ancient world (Koepke and Baten 2008; Steckel 2003, 2005).

  2. 2.

    The rate of population growth in Europe accelerated from 0.15% per annum between 1600 and 1750 to 0.63% during the subsequent century (Livi-Bacci 2001, p. 58).

  3. 3.

    Their main error was that they combined their raw samples from the royal marines and army infantry even though their convenience sample did not reflect the actual shares of these two units in the military. Insofar as they did not have a random sample from the two branches of the military, the number of observations in the two branches varied substantially over time. It should be obvious that the sum of two truncated normal distributions with different minimum height requirements will be greatly distorted and the shape of their sum depends heavily on the sample sizes in the two distinct distributions. Yet, Floud et al. chose not to use the information on sample sizes when merging the two distributions. This is crucial because the share of the royal marines in the total sample by birth cohorts varied from 80% in the 1740s to 40% in the 1770s to 50% in 1820s. Because the royal marines were shorter than that of the infantry in as much as they had lower minimum height requirements and tall recruits were also excluded from this unit, the large number of observations in the early period from the marines biased substantially the estimated mean height in the beginning of the period in a downwardly direction. Such an ad hoc procedure explains the unreasonable fluctuations in their estimates. Nonetheless, Floud et al. did actually find that heights declined between 1760 and 1795—part of the classical phase of the Industrial Revolution, but disregard this crucial finding and instead connected the point estimates for 1745 and 1805 from which they obtained an upwardly sloping trend. But the 1745 estimate is downwardly biased because it is based almost entirely on the Royal Marines part of the sample.

  4. 4.

    “Importantly, they differ on the outcome for the early industrial period, for which Floud-Wachter reported increases but Cinnirella found declines explained by Gregory Clark’s evidence on rising food prices and declining real wages. Now that deteriorating conditions in the early-mid nineteenth century are clearer, it would be prudent to invest in additional data collection for the eighteenth century” (Steckel 2009, p. 13).

  5. 5.

    The price of potatoes remained practically unchanged implying that they became relatively less expensive compared to other food products. Hence, there must have been some substitution from more expensive to less expensive and less nutritious food products.

  6. 6.

    In the Southwest the change in the index numbers between the 1730s and 1770s was from 137 to 100, in the North from 113 to 100, in the Midlands from 121 to 100, and in the Southwest from 109 to 100.

  7. 7.

    The only exception is Harris et al. (2010) who are rather optimistic about the trend in food consumption during the Industrial Revolution. However, their estimate is at half century intervals (1700, 1750, 1800), which implies that they miss both the peak (1730s) and trough (1770s) of food production in England. Moreover, they make a number of ad hoc assumptions so that in the end their estimate fails to convince. For instance, their estimate of per capita calories obtained from meat and lard increases by an implausible 200 calories per capita per day or by 65% between 1700 and 1750 but some of the evidence for their calculation comes from the US of the 1870s: “We do not have direct information about the consumption of lard, but have estimated this using figures showing the consumption of bacon, lard and pork in the United States at the end of the 1870s” (p. 13). They do not have statistics on the quantities for dairy products produced in 1700 so they use the 1750 figure as the basis of their estimate for the beginning of the period. Furthermore, they assert that “the figures for fish, garden vegetables, fruit and nuts are derived from the Royal Society’s investigation into the food supply of the United Kingdom before the First World War, and we have assumed—in the absence of any other information—that these figures remained constant over the whole of the period.” These are all dubious assumptions as food consumption varies considerably across time and space. Yet, when considering the distribution of calories they become more pessimistic: “a significant proportion of the British population may not have had access to the number of calories which they needed to undertake physically-demanding work on a regular basis at the start of the nineteenth century.” The proportion may have been as high as 50% and even small shifts in the mean calorie intake would have brought about a large shift in the number of people who were malnourished. So a large proportion of the population did not have enough food to sustain work full time.

  8. 8.

    The annual army weights were calculated by dividing the number of soldiers in the standing army by the number of soldiers from the army in the sample and similarly for the marines. These numbers are given in Floud et al. (1990).

  9. 9.

    This is acceptable as long as the MHR used in the estimating procedure is greater than or equal to the larger of the two MRHs (Komlos 2004).

  10. 10.

    The intuition behind this is that if the MHR is above the mean of the population’s distribution, the modal value of the sample is mistaken for the mean of the sample, which is equal in a full normal distribution. The standard deviation of 2.7 inches seems to be a historical constant even though height shifts by as much as 20 cm (8 inches). A’Hearn showed that accuracy improves if the constrained standard deviation is within 0.5 cm of the “true” one.

  11. 11.

    The difference was that mainly at the end points where there were no adults in the sample. Moreover, the uptick of 1765 was no longer evident.

  12. 12.

    These numbers are for adult heights. Cinnirella’s trend in his Figure 5 is for 18 year olds born in London. Hence, we add 2.2 cm to his constant in order to obtain adult heights and another 1.4 cm in order to obtain a spatial average for the country using the values reported in his Table 2 (2008a).

  13. 13.

    The decline in height during the course of the century is 1.8 cm greater with the army alone data set than with the combined data set with MHR = 66 in and with sigma constrained estimates.

  14. 14.

    The estimated SD was 6.17 cm (2.43 in) with the unconstrained estimates. The SD’s were usually unreasonably small in the unconstrained models.

  15. 15.

    We base the average decline 1745–1790 on the estimate with a MHR of 65 inches as well as the one in which we use different MHR’s for the army and the marines.

  16. 16.

    We first obtained a rough estimate of the trend by running a truncated OLS regression controlling for age, place of birth within England, urban/rural, place of recruitment outside of England, and occupation. This method does not estimate the levels in height but it does estimate trends correctly (Komlos 2004).

  17. 17.

    He also controlled for numeracy but that had minimal effect on the trend. His constrained and unconstrained estimates were also very close to one another as is the case in this study.

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Komlos, J., Küchenhoff, H. The diminution of the physical stature of the English male population in the eighteenth century. Cliometrica 6, 45–62 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11698-011-0070-7

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Keywords

  • Living Standards
  • Biological Standard of Living
  • Height
  • Physical Stature
  • England
  • Industrial Revolution
  • Welfare
  • Splines

JEL

  • N00
  • N13