Were People Shorter in the Past? Average Height 'Back Then'
Were People Shorter Back Then?
Time and time again, I'll hear the misconception that people were shorter back then. I've spent untold hours trying to convince people that just is not true. Well, not very true, at any rate.
Maybe thousands of years ago, people really were shorter. However, the average height in America today is shorter than people think, and colonial Americans also were not as short as people believe.
Average Height of American Men Today
Human heights vary greatly. However, in general, men are taller than women. There are also better records for historic male height because of military record-keeping. In modern America today, the average height for males ages 20 and up is 5'9.5". If you ask a guy who is 5'10" if he is short, he may say yes because, for some unknown reason, we have this societal expectation that guys are 6 feet tall. That just isn't true, though, since a 6 foot tall man is well above average height.
The average height for all women in America over the age of 20 is 5'4".
Average Height in 15th Century England
A fantastic article published in The Economist in December, 2010 revealed a team of archeologists' findings on human health and height in 15th century England. These archeologists examined a mass grave from a War of the Roses-era battle and determined that the average height of participants was only 4cm shorter than the average height of an Englishman today -- not much of a difference at all.
Other researchers also suggest that average height did decline during the 17th and 18th centuries, bottoming out at 65.5" (about 5'5.75") at some point in the 18th century. However, this information comes from studies done on skeletons excavated in northern Europe, not the colonies. Records indicate that the average height of an American soldier during the Revolutionary War was about 2" more than the average height of the British troops of the time.
Average Height of Colonial Americans
In 1981, Harold Gill, who was the lead historian at Colonial Williamsburg at that time, compared the average height of Revolutionary War recruits with 1950s Army recruits. The findings concluded that the Revolutionary War soldier was only 2/3 of an inch shorter than modern recruits. Again, not really much of a difference.
There were also plenty of tall people in the 18th century. Thomas Jefferson is believed to have been 6'2.5" and George Washington was 6'1.5" -- this places both men well above today's average height.
Average Height of Union Army Soldiers
The American Army loves measuring its soldiers and hanging on to this data forever. Union Army records reveal that the average Union soldier during the American Civil War was 5'8.25" and weighed 143.5 pounds.
For more data about both armies during this war, read E.B. Long's The Civil War Day by Day.
Were Beds Shorter Back Then?
"What about shorter beds?" has probably been asked as many times as the basic height question.
The long answer is that most historic beds are not actually shorter. If you see them in a historic home or museum, they probably look shorter, but, it's actually an optical illusion. Many of these beds have posters and canopies that we are not used to seeing on modern beds. Many of them also have feather mattresses and covers that are far more voluminous than what most people use today, which also adds to the bed's perceived height. Stick this taller-looking bed in a house with high ceilings, and of course it'll look short.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, all furniture was basically custom-made, and there were no standardized bed sizes. However, the same 1981 CW study measured all the foundation's antique beds and found that every one of the beds was at least 6'3". Many were even 80" long, which is the same length as a modern King-size bed.
Personal story: Once, a former co-worker of mine was giving a tour at the Governor's Palace at CW. A visitor refused to believe that the bed was over 6 feet long. So, in turn, he hopped the plexiglass barrier and laid down on the floor next to the bed to prove it to her. While I myself was too afraid of the curatorial staff to get anywhere near the antiques when I worked at CW, I have employed this tactic in other historic homes. Since I'm only about 5'2", seeing me next to a bed definitely made it clear that the bed isn't that short.
Have I convinced you that people really weren't that much shorter?
"People Were Taller Back Then . . ."
So, were people really shorter back then? A more accurate answer isn't an absolute yes, but maybe a little, but not by much. Even so, the average height of Colonial Americans and their English ancestors was greater than the average height in many of the world's nations today. For example, the average height of Filipino women today is 4'11", so you could even claim that people were taller back then -- it's all a matter of perspective.