As Floud (1997: 1-2) argued, understanding ‘the condition of the people’ in past societies is probably the most fundamental challenge facing students of economic and social history. However, the measurement of ‘the condition of the people’, or ‘the standard of living’, or ‘wellbeing’, is far from straightforward. Economic and social historians have often tried to respond to this challenge by reconstructing trends in the wages of different groups of workers (after making appropriate adjustments for price changes) including, more recently, increasing numbers of female workers (Humphries and Weisdorf 2015). However, as Hammond (1930) argued when discussing the course of changing living standards during the British industrial revolution, changes in real wages can only reveal a fraction of the price which workers – and their families – paid for the improvements which higher wages might bring.
Over the last four decades, economic historians have sought to respond to this challenge in a number of different ways. One early approach involved comparing variations in real wages with variations in infant mortality rates to estimate the impact of ‘urban disamenities’ (Williamson 1981). Other writers have tried to estimate the impact of different factors on the standard of living by developing composite indicators, often incorporating measures of not only income, but also health, education and inequality (Prados de la Escosura 2019; Gallardo-Albarrán and DeJong 2021).
A growing number of economic and social historians have also used changes in the average heights of different populations to chart changes in their wellbeing. Although individual variations in stature are largely dependent on genetic factors (Visscher 2008), differences in the average heights of different groups of people have been much more strongly associated with variations in their economic, social and environmental circumstances (Eveleth and Tanner 1990: 1). Since the 1980s, anthropometric historians (and others) have shown how changes in the adequacy of people’s diets and in their exposure to infectious disease have led to major changes in the average heights of populations around the world (see also Ezzati et al. 2016). The figure below clearly shows this. For example, the average height of eighteen-year old men in the United Kingdom increased by approximately 9.4 cm between the start of the 1850s and the end of the twentieth century, whilst the average heights of Danish men increased by nearly 18 cm over a similar period (Floud et al. 2011: 69).
Are heights a good measure of living standards?
Height has also been found to correlate with a number of other indicators that people ‘have reason to value’ (Sen 1999: 14), such as variations in labour productivity, earnings potential, happiness and longevity (Floud 1985; Steckel 1992). One early study found that enslaved people who survived their initial period of registration in the United States were 1.5 cm taller than non-survivors, and that craftsmen were 1.25 cm taller than fieldhands (Friedman 1982: 488-9). In modern societies, Waaler (1984) showed that shorter people were more likely to die at younger ages, and Schultz (2002) found that taller people enjoyed higher wages. Deaton and Arora (2002) concluded that height was positively correlated with both income and education, as well as with happiness and subjective wellbeing.
However, despite these advantages, the use of height data as proxies for wellbeing also has limitations. One of the most obvious problems is that it is still the case that the vast majority of the analysed data are derived from the measurements of late-adolescent and adult males, which may not necessarily be an entirely adequate guide to changes in the wellbeing of females and older adults.
Some of the earliest studies of trends in the heights of people in both the United Kingdom and the United States showed that there was not necessarily a consistent relationship between changes in stature and changes in real wages (Fogel 1986; Floud, Wachter and Gregory 1990). However, as societies have grown more prosperous, the impact of both economic and environmental factors on variations in height may also have diminished and some of the ‘benefits’ associated with height may have changed (Alter 2004; A’Hearn 2016). For example, the association between height and occupational success in the nineteenth century may have differed from the association between height and occupational success in the twenty-first century (Costa 2015: 551), and the association between height and longevity may have also changed as the role played by different diseases in the composition of mortality changes (Gunnell et al. 1998).
Using human biology to understand social and economic processes
Despite these caveats, anthropometric history still has much to offer, both to historians and to students of human growth in contemporary societies. In recent years, historians have renewed their efforts to identify data on female heights (Koepke et al. 2018) and this has generated new questions about the extent of gender inequalities and the impact of intergenerational factors on anthropometric change (see also Osmani and Sen 2003). The analysis of historical data has also shed new light on the concept of ‘critical ages’ (i.e. the ages at which heights are most sensitive to the impact of adverse experiences) and the existence (or otherwise) of adolescent growth spurts (Gao and Schneider 2021). The pioneering auxologist, James Tanner (1990: 131), argued that ‘in many populations, the period when the child is most at risk from malnutrition, often combined with infection, is six months to three years’, but Depauw and Oxley (2019) have recently argued that the most important period, from the point of view of height, is adolescence. These studies have raised new questions about the distribution of resources within households as well as patterns of child growth. In many ways, the possibility that some of the causal relationships that link human biology to broader economic and social processes may have changed over time can only reinforce the importance of studying the past in order to better understand the present.
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