It’s A History Thing: The Long and Short of It — Were We Shorter?

How often did you hear in school, a museums, or read in a book that these dresses/suits/beds were smaller because people were shorter in the past? Usually the reason given is that our nutrition today is better than it was in then.

This always took humanity as a whole, or as far as the “whole” went “then.”  Truth is, it depends on context, location, nutrition, and some say, technology (although I cannot figure out why).

If you are an evolutionary biologist, the difference of an inch or two may hold greater significance than a minor height difference would if we’re trying to look at historical significance and why, indeed,  beds are shorter (if they were).  And, historically, Europe in the middle ages showed men, at least, were about as tall as they were today due to climate fluctuations that brought longer growing seasons. Even if it proves there is a slight variation, the difference I was told about had me thinking most people in history were more the stature of pygmies than just an inch shorter.

Some measurements have suggested that people of European heritage,  born in the Americas in the  18th and 19th centuries were taller than their European counterparts because of less crowding.  Whereas measurements of  soldiers from the American Revolution and  American Civil War have shown little fluctuation among males of the same age from today.

But, what I was taught in school was that we know people were shorter because surviving beds and clothes are.

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1. There were no standard bed sizes until the later 19th centuries. Until then they were all custom made.  When beds in historic houses are measured they are often the same length as contemporary beds, and some are longer. It is thought that post height and high ceilings may create an optical illusion.  I was at an historic house over the holidays and the bed did not look any shorter to me.  I think the presence of a footboard on older beds may increase the illusion.

2. It’s been suggested that people slept almost sitting up, but the bed length thing denies that, although in some cases it may have been true.

3. Surviving clothes are often small which shows that people were shorter.
A historian friend pointed out to me once that clothes were expensive and generally worn until they wore out. Therefore surviving dresses might have belonged to people who were small and generally their clothes were not wearable by anyone else if they died. Since smaller women might be more likely to die in childbirth, it may often have their dresses surviving.
Women may have also been smaller due to wearing stays which creates an unnaturally small waist.

I can see a few holes in my friend’s hypothesis, but, not being soldiers women’s heights were not recorded. Regardless of the quality of available nutrition, women may have not grown as much simply because they began bearing children younger and that uses a lot of resources.

I make these guesses based on what I learned as a docent and docent trainer. But, I have no proof it is the case.

4. Age may be a factor in looking at the records of heights.  While the findings were based on averages, very young men may have falsified their ages to enter the military. I was looking at pictures of Civil War soldiers and am reminded that until recently, boys went to war quite young and may have been short of the height they would achieve as adults.

In  Stuff and Nonsense, Myths That Should by Now Be History by Mary Miley Theobald in the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Winter 2008, she says:

Heights varied in the eighteenth century, as they do today. But overall, eighteenth-century people were not dramatically shorter than the twenty-first’s. When Colonial Williamsburg historian Harold Gill compared the average heights of white male soldiers during the Revolutionary War in the 1770s with those serving in the United States Army in the 1950s, the difference was about two-thirds of an inch. Similar studies show similar results: little or no difference. The average height of American males does seem to have been significantly greater—up to two inches—than the average height of European males of the same time, a result ascribed to better nutrition and healthier living conditions in the New World than in the Old.

The Long and the Short of it is that while people may have been slightly shorter, it is unlikely to have been the beds serving as proof, nor do the clothes. Individuals make  assumptions and suppositions, propose them as hypotheses, which are seen as reasonable, and therefore are passed around as probable and likely. After a time, “probable and likely” become “fact.”