From the earliest days of American settlement, Europeans typically imagined the colonists of North America as strapping specimens: tall, strong, and bold (even arrogant). And there was truth in that image: white Americans around, say, 1800 were taller, healthier, and longer-lived than their European cousins. But no more.
It is not that Americans grew shorter – or less healthy – since then. Over the last two centuries, western people in general grew taller, healthier, and longer-lived. But the western Europeans passed us by.
“Bio-historians” have tracked Americans’ health over time by looking at changes in average heights in populations. Height is an excellent indicator, especially of a person’s health when he or she was growing up. By bringing together many assorted samples of heights measured in past centuries – samples of students, soldiers, and prisoners, in particular – these researchers could carefully reconstruct long-term trends. (I list a few sources at the bottom of the post.)
Thanks to the fertility of the land, Americans before the twentieth century were considerably healthier than Europeans. And because they lived dispersed over the countryside, more of them avoided the regular epidemics that stunted and killed people in the old country they left behind. They were strapping specimens, at least by the world standards of that time (though short by the standards of today).
One striking discovery bio-historians made is that the progress to greater health and height was not uniform. Americans’ heights and lifespans shrank between roughly 1820 and 1870. (This reversal is labeled the “antebellum puzzle,” because the economic wealth of the nation grew smartly in those very same decades.) What happened is uncertain. The shrinking may have had something to do with more people living in larger towns and with faster travel, both of which spread epidemics more easily. Changes in diet probably also contributed. One analysis, for example, is that farmers increasingly sold off their dairy products for cash on the expanding commercial market, shortchanging their own children. The stunting was surely connected to the widening economic inequality of the period, with children of concentrated poor losing the most.
In the later decades of the 19th century, the average height of Americans surged upward again – in great measure because of new infrastructure that vastly improved children’s health: water filtration plants, sewer systems, and milk inspection, for example.
But the Europeans also made improvements. These days, Americans do not stand out. We are roughly as tall, on average, as people in most western European nations and shorter than residents of some, such as the Dutch and Finns. (Lest one imagine that America lost its edge because we have racial minorities, this statement is also true of white Americans only.) And Americans tend to live shorter lives than people in western Europe. (Again, this is true of white Americans only, as well.)
Why Did We Fall Short?
The brief answer is that America failed to do what most western European nations did: keep improving the health of low-income children. As I pointed out in an earlier post, public health measures of about a century ago greatly invigorated the health and extended the life expectancies of children. But we haven’t kept up the pace with western Europeans in infant care, nutrition, public health, and so forth.
Differences in national averages of height and healthiness are largely determined by differences between the economically disadvantaged segments of the populations. (The well-to-do everywhere can take care of themselves and their children.) That is where the United States – the most economically unequal nation in the West – has really fallen short.
Komlos and Lauderdale, “Underperformance in Affluence: The Remarkable Relative Decline in U.S. Heights in the Second Half of the 20th Century.” Social Science Quarterly (June, 2007).
Komlos, The Biological Standard of Living in Europe and America, 1700–1900. 1995.
Steckel, “Stature and the Standard of Living.” Journal of Economic Literature 33 (December, 1995).
Steckel and Floud, eds. Health and Welfare During Industrialization. 1997.
And a New Yorker article.