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Old 12-03-2012, 06:23 PM   #100
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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 ". 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 " 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 "]. For females, it was 157.55 cm. [61.44 inches or 5 1 "]. 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 "] 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 "] 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 "] for males and 159.8 cm [62.32 inches or slightly over 5 2 "].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 "] for males and 160.9 cm. [62.75 inches or 5 2 "] 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 ". 5

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