The Decline in the Nutritional Status of the U.S. Antebellum Population at the Onset of Modern Economic Growth

74 Pages Posted: 12 Jan 2016

See all articles by John Komlos

John Komlos

Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU) - Faculty of Economics; CESifo (Center for Economic Studies and Ifo Institute)

Brian A'Hearn

Pembroke College, Oxford

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Date Written: January 2016

Abstract

The decline in the physical stature of the American population for more than a generation beginning with the birth cohorts of the early 1830s was brought about by a diminution in nutritional intake in spite of robust growth in average incomes. This occurred at the onset of modern economic growth on account of rising inequality and an increase in food prices, which brought about dietary changes through the substitution away from edibles toward non-edibles. In a recent working paper, Bodenhorn, Guinnane, and Mroz question this consensus view, suggesting that a decline in heights in a military sample may not be representative of the population at large. They argue that increasing wages in the civilian labor market may well induce an increased proportion of shorter men to volunteer for military service thereby driving down the mean height of soldiers even if the height of the population remains unchanged. However, they neglected to examine whether labor market conditions did actually improve during the Civil War in such a way as to induce shorter men to enlist. Had they done so they would have found just the opposite: during the course of the war real compensation in the military increased by some 39% to 66% relative to civilian earnings. This should have led to an increase in military heights if the logic of their model were accurate, when in fact they declined. Both the historical evidence and an assessment of the model indicate that failing to consider patriotism as a powerful motive for enlisting was another serious error. A thorough analysis of the Union Army height data, considering recruiting periods as short as 90 days during which labor market conditions could not have changed markedly indicates that there can be no doubt at all that the decline in the height of soldiers beginning with the birth cohorts of the early 1830s is representative of the trend in the physical stature of the male population at large. The implication is that there was a widespread diminution in nutritional status of the population in the antebellum period.

Suggested Citation

Komlos, John and A'Hearn, Brian, The Decline in the Nutritional Status of the U.S. Antebellum Population at the Onset of Modern Economic Growth (January 2016). NBER Working Paper No. w21845. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2713569

John Komlos (Contact Author)

Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU) - Faculty of Economics ( email )

Ludwigstrasse 28
Munich, D-80539
Germany

CESifo (Center for Economic Studies and Ifo Institute)

Poschinger Str. 5
Munich, DE-81679
Germany

Brian A'Hearn

Pembroke College, Oxford ( email )

Department of Economics
Manor Road
Oxford, OX1 3UQ
United Kingdom

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