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

74 Pages Posted: 4 Feb 2016

See all articles by Brian A'Hearn

Brian A'Hearn

Pembroke College, Oxford

John Komlos

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

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: December 2015

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. 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.

Keywords: Antebellum Puzzle, physical stature, heights, modern economic growth, anthropometric history, nutrition

Suggested Citation

A'Hearn, Brian and Komlos, John, The Decline in the Nutritional Status of the U.S. Antebellum Population at the Onset of Modern Economic Growth (December 2015). CESifo Working Paper Series No. 5691. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2727608

Brian A'Hearn

Pembroke College, Oxford ( email )

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

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

Register to save articles to
your library

Register

Paper statistics

Downloads
17
Abstract Views
334
PlumX Metrics