Were They All Shorter Back Then? by Carolyn Freeman Travers, Research Manager

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Were They All Shorter Back Then?
by Carolyn Freeman Travers, Research Manager


"And as you can see from the clothes, they were all much shorter in those days, and they were old at thirty-nine, and dead at forty." - tour guide at the Museum of Costume, Bath, 1984
There are several common pieces of misinformation/mistaken beliefs about people in the past: that they were all "much shorter in those days", that they died at a much earlier age (and therefore reached old age much earlier as well), married at a very early age, had very large families, and the leading cause of death for women was childbirth. The myth that people were shorter in the 17th century is adressed below. For information about the myth that people died young, go to our Dead at Forty page.
A Note on Terms: The term "average" can mean one of three types. Adding up all of the figures being considered and dividing them by the number there are arrives at the mean. The median is the mid-point; half of the topic in question would be above this figure, and half below. The mode is the most frequently met with figure in the series.
Average Heights
The average height for an early 17th-century English man was approximately 5’ 6". For 17th-century English women, it was about 5’ ½". While average heights in England remained virtually unchanged in the 17th and 18th centuries, American colonists grew taller. Averages for modern Americans are just over 5’ 9" for men, and about 5’ 3 ¾" for women. The main reasons for this difference are improved nutrition, notably increased consumption of meat and milk, and antibiotics.
Modern Americans are measured, or give their height, for many documents; people in the early 17th century did not. The one exception was the military musters, where the height of a man determined what weapon he was fit to use. The "Men and Armour for Gloucestershire in 1608, " for example, divided the men both by age groups and height. The four catagories were "tallest stature fitt to make a pykeman," "middle stature fitt to make a musketyer," "lower stature fitt to serve with a Calyver" and "meanest stature either fit for a pyoner [foot soldier, laborer], or of little other use."1 This division, while interesting, is hardly precise. Descriptions of runaway slaves later in the period often included height, but the figures given may have been approximates. Lacking documentary evidence, the best source of evidence is the people themselves, at least their remains. Evidence compiled from various archaeological excavations in medieval England, 17th-century London, and colonial America provides some figures, which indicate at least the probable average height for early 17th-century English men and women.
Medieval England

Excavations of cemeteries dating back to medieval England have provided a range of heights for both men and women and a mean average for both. Across the sites, the mean average height for males was 171.26 cm. [66.79 inches or 5’ 6 ¾"]. For females, it was 157.55 cm. [61.44 inches or 5’ 1 ½"]. 2

Seventeenth-Century London

From bones examined from Farringdon Street in London as well as another study of 17th-18th century femora (thigh bones), the average height of people nearer in time and place to the early Plymouth colonists can be determined. The averages from Farringdon Street are 169.3 cm [66.02 inches or 5’ 6"] for males and 155.2 cm [60.52 inches or 5’ ½"] for females.The wider-ranging 17th & 18th centuries study gives 169 cm [65.91 inches or just under 5’ 6"] for men and 155 cm [60.45 inches or just under 5’ ½"] for women. While it is evident that the height of Londoners changed very little in the 17th and 18th centuries, the same was not true of Americans.

American Colonists

A compilation of evidence from excavations of graves dating to the American colonial period gives averages of 173.2 [67.54 inches or 5’ 7 ½"] for males and 159.8 cm [62.32 inches or slightly over 5’ 2 ¼"].3

"By the time of the American Revolution, native-born whites appear to have achieved nearly modern final heights. The analysis of a sample of recruits from the Revolutionary Army (1775-1783) indicates that the final height of native-born white males between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-five averaged 68.1 inches.The figure is not only one to four inches greater that the final height of European males reported for several nations during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but is also virtually identical with final heights in the Union Army during the Civil War and in the U.S. Army during World War II." 4
Modern World

A study published in Britain in 1988, using data compiled from 1981, determined that the average height in the modern British population was 173.8 cm. [67.78 inches or 5’ 7 ¾"] for males and 160.9 cm. [62.75 inches or 5’ 2 ¾"] for females. For modern white Americans, the average stature for males is 69.1", or just over 5’ 9", and for women, 63.7", or about 5’ 3 ¾". 5

Why the Difference?

There are two basic theories as to why modern people are taller. The first is that this is the result of "crossbreeding" between different gene pools, creating a larger hybrid. The second, and much more popular, is that improved nutrition, combined with other facets of modern life such as antibiotics and central heating, have allowed people to reach their maximum height potential.

The "hybrid" theory explains the increase in body size as a result of "improved transportation, easier travel and the breaking-up of genetic isolates" and the resultant decrease in inbreeding. This argument would make the increasingly out-bred population of the United States a nation of Big Boys and Early Girls. It has supporters, but is generally the less compelling explanation. Arguments against it include the lack of much initial inbreeding in most Western populations, the lack of evidence that cross-racial progeny are larger and the trend’s reversal during wartime. 6
The improved nutrition theory actually involves two components. The first is the increase in available calories, and the second, a decrease in energy lost or expended. As Stanley Garn wrote:
"Nutritional explanations begin with the increased availability of food at a lower cost that followed the repeal of the corn laws in Britain, the increased availability of safe cow milk that began in the last century and the decreased incidence of diarrhea and more serious infections. Food has become cheaper, measured by kilocalories earned per hour of labor, nutrient densities have improved and vitamin-deficiency diseases, once common, have now become rare in the west. Birth weights are more often quadrupled by the end of the first year.
Moreover, the secular increase in body size and decrease in the age at menarche have paralleled improvements in the water supply and in the disposal of human wastes, the reduction in the incidence of childhood diseases and – more recently – the introduction of antibiotics. Where the pipe has replaced ditch water, where the latrine has replaced the outdoor squat and where childhood diseases have been reduced by immunization, size and growth rates have responded in turn.
It is impressive to compare child growth in places where there is still one episode of diarrhea per week (effectively losing one-seventh of the calories ingested) with child growth in places where diarrheas are rare. It is also impressive to see how child growth has responded to supplementation and to national attempts to improve the nutritional quality of breadstuff and noodles, for example.
Moreover, the secular trend has gone along with decreased energy expenditure, ranging from the abolition of child labor to the use of school buses to warmer winter temperatures in the home. In 1900 preteens were still working in coal mines in Britain; child labor still manned textile mills in the United States as late as 1920. Even apart from higher nutrient densities, the greater use of meat and milk and the reduction in the number and severity of childhood illnesses, limiting calories out leaves more energy for growth and development. For a 10-year-old, not working in a factory, not walking miles to and from school and not living in a frigid home in winter together free hundreds of kilocalories or kilojoules per day for the serious business of growing and growing larger. 8
Modern studies of twins have shown that a person’s height is controlled 90% by heredity and 10% by environmental causes. 9 While at first glance this seems a minor difference, it means that a person who would have been 5’ 7" under optimal conditions, in an extremely adverse situation might stop growing at 5’ 1". For people of the "middling sort," such as those who became Plymouth colonists, fluctuations in food supply and generally hard labor would have acted to limit potential growth.

J. Smith, Men and Armour in Gloucestershire in 1608 (Gloucester, 1980), p.1.

Christopher Daniell, Death and Burial in Medieval England 1066-1550, (London: Routledge, 1997), p.134.

Christopher Daniell, Death and Burial in Medieval England 1066-1550, (London: Routledge, 1997), p.134.


J. Lawrence Angel, "Colonial to Modern Skeletal Change in the U. S. A.," American Journal of Physical Anthropology 45, no.3 (November, 1976): 725.


R. W. Fogel et al, "Secular Changes in American & British Stature and Nutrition," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 14, no.2(Autumn, 1983): 462-3.


William J. White, "Skeletal Remains …." (1988) cited in Daniell, Christopher, Death and Burial in Medieval England, 1066-1550 (London: Routledge, 1997), p.135.


Vital and Health Statistics Series 11, No.238, "Anthropometric Reference Data and Prevalence of Overweight, United States 1976-80." Quoted on National Center for Health Statistics Website, 1998.


Stanley M. Garn, "The Secular Trend in Size and Maturational Timing and Its Implications for Nutritional Assessment," Journal of Nutrition 117 (1987): 819-20.


Ibid, p.820.


Daniell, Death and Burial, p.135.

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