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Stature and Living Standards in the United States

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  • Richard H. Steckel

Abstract

This paper briefly reviews the literature on the evolution of approaches to living standards and then applies the methodology discussed for stature to the United States from the late 18th through the early 20th centuries. Part I of the paper emphasizes two major strands of the subject: national-income accounting and related measures, developed by economists and government policy makers, and anthropometric measures (particularly stature), developed by human biologists, anthropologists, and the medical profession. I compare and contrast these alternative approaches to measuring living standards and place anthropometric measures within the context of the ongoing debate over the system of national accounts. Part II examines the relationship of stature to living standards beginning with a discussion of sources of evidence and the growth process. A statistical analysis explores the relationship of stature to per capita income and the distribution of income using 20th century data. Part III presents evidence on time-trends, regional patterns, and class differences in height. The major phenomena discovered to date are the early achievement of near-modern stature, the downward cycle in stature for cohorts born around 1830 to near the end of the century, the height advantages of the West and the South, and the remarkably small stature of slave children. The secular decline in height is puzzling for economic historians because it clashes with firm beliefs that the mid-nineteenth century was an era of economic prosperity. I establish a framework for reconciling these conflicting views on the course of living standards and discuss possible explanations for the height patterns noted in the paper.

Suggested Citation

  • Richard H. Steckel, 1991. "Stature and Living Standards in the United States," NBER Historical Working Papers 0024, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberhi:0024
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    2. Jonathan F. Fox & Price V. Fishback & Paul W. Rhode, 2011. "The Effects of Weather Shocks on Crop Prices in Unfettered Markets: The United States Prior to the Farm Programs, 1895-1932," NBER Chapters, in: The Economics of Climate Change: Adaptations Past and Present, pages 99-130, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. N. F. R. Crafts, 1997. "Some Dimensions of the ‘Quality of Life’ During the British Industrial Revolution," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 50(4), pages 617-639, November.
    4. Scott A. Carson, 2007. "Health during Industrialization: Evidence from the 19th Century Pennsylvania State Prison System," CESifo Working Paper Series 1975, CESifo.
    5. Susan Averett & Sanders Korenman, 1996. "The Economic Reality of the Beauty Myth," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 31(2), pages 304-330.
    6. Scott A. Carson, 2007. "African-American and White Inequality in the American South: Evidence from the 19th Century Missouri State Prison," CESifo Working Paper Series 1954, CESifo.
    7. Haines, Michael R. & Craig, Lee A. & Weiss, Thomas, 2011. "Did African Americans experience the [`]Antebellum Puzzle'? Evidence from the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 9(1), pages 45-55, January.
    8. Komlos, John, 2012. "A Three-Decade “Kuhnian” History of the Antebellum Puzzle: Explaining the shrinking of the US population at the onset of modern economic growth," Discussion Papers in Economics 12758, University of Munich, Department of Economics.
    9. Price V. Fishback & Werner Troesken & Trevor Kollmann & Michael Haines & Paul W. Rhode & Melissa Thomasson, 2011. "Information and the Impact of Climate and Weather on Mortality Rates During the Great Depression," NBER Chapters, in: The Economics of Climate Change: Adaptations Past and Present, pages 131-167, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    10. Henderson, R. Max, 2005. "The bigger the healthier: Are the limits of BMI risk changing over time?," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 3(3), pages 339-366, December.
    11. Michael R. Haines & Lee A. Craig & Thomas Weiss, 2000. "Development, Health, Nutrition, and Mortality: The Case of the 'Antebellum Puzzle' in the United States," NBER Historical Working Papers 0130, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    12. Haines, Michael R., 2019. "Inequality among industrial workers in the late 19th century United States," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 34(C), pages 125-137.
    13. Tatarek, Nancy E., 2006. "Geographical height variation among Ohio Caucasian male convicts born 1780-1849," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 4(2), pages 222-236, June.
    14. Liczbińska, Grażyna & Czapla, Zbigniew & Piontek, Janusz & Malina, Robert M., 2018. "Age at menarche in Polish University students born before, during and after World War II: Economic effects," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 28(C), pages 23-28.
    15. Bodenhorn, Howard, 2010. "Height, weight and body mass index values of mid-19th century New York legislative officers," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 8(2), pages 291-293, July.
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