Just How Tall Were People?
One of the things I get asked about all the time, or that I see misrepresented all over the place, is the issue of just how tall were people in the past. People see a few gowns obviously made for short women and up and decide that ALL women of the era were that small . . . did it ever occur to them that the gowns that survive might have done so specifically because they were made for EXCEPTIONALLY small women, and so couldn’t be readily made over for someone else?
I was recently at Kent State to view their The Age of Nudity exhibit. On one side of the room was a group of truly Lilliputian ladies in gowns c. 1810-1815. At 5’10” I towered over the dummies. On the other side of the room stood a group of Georgian ladies c. 1780-1800. At least three of the gowns would have fit me. If you’d mixed the dummies together the Regency ladies would have looked like the Georgian ladies’ prepubescent daughters. I highly doubt that in one generation the women of England shrunk so significantly. A more likely answer is simply that the gowns of tall women were more likely to be cut down and made over than those of short women, as there was more fabric involved to accommodate the change in style or owner.
There are all kinds of studies out there about height. Some are archeological, taking the measurements from bones (usually femurs which allow for a good approximation of height). Some work off army records for recruits, others off the records of slaves and indentured servants. Only one that I’ve been able to find takes specific account of the social status of the people being measured (which is vital, as you'll see when we get there).
Let’s get our bearings by looking at the average heights of modern American non-Hispanic Whites. Per the US government Body Mass Index study of 2003 were looking at roughly 5’10” for men and 5’5” for women. Let’s add the data from the Health Survey of England, 2004 into the mix: men 5’9” (6’1” in Scotland), women 5’4” (5’6” in Scotland).
Per Professor Richard Steckel the Georgians were an average 2.5” shorter than their Medieval counterparts. He states that Medieval men were, on average, about 5’8”. This declines to about 5’ 5 ¾” in the 18th century.
But Carolyn Freeman Travers, the Research Manager for Plimoth Plantation, tells us something a little bit different . . . She gives an average height for Medieval England (again based on excavations) of 5’ 6 ¾" for men and 5’ 1 ½” for women. She go on to give the average heights of 17th and 18th century Londoners as 5’6” for men and 5’ ½” for women. A MUCH smaller change than the one reported by Steckel.
Another study of note is the Height and Social Status in 18th Century Germany. It found a 6” average difference between the poor and the middle class and then another 3” on top of that for the upper class. Which makes sense as studies have shown that nutrition and stress play a large roll in height (A modern studies of twins, quoted by Travers, showed that a person’s height is controlled 90% by heredity and 10% by environmental causes. 10% might sound small, but this means that 'a person who would have been 5’ 7" under optimal conditions, in an extremely adverse situation might stop growing at 5’ 1.”').
So, when I make my hero a strapping man, well over six-foot in his stocking feet, am I living in a fairy tale? Not if he’s part of the top ten-thousand, or even one of the wealthy middle class. Let’s take our “average height” of 5' 6"and add the 3” aristocratic bump. Our average male aristo is now 5’9”. Hmmm, that number seems awfully familiar . . . and it should, as it’s the average height of a modern English male!
So, were people really smaller in the past? It doesn’t seem so, or if they were, not by much. Heck, my own family is a case in point: My dad is 6’, mom is 5’4”, my sister is 5’1”, my brother is 6’2” and I’m 5’10”. While the boys and I would be noticeably tall were we to magically appear on a Georgian street, my mom and sister wouldn’t stand out at all. In fact, my sister would be on the dainty side even then!