Tall Tales: Were Your Ancestors Above Average in Height?

Family History
26 September 2014

Tall Tales
[Photo credit: Shutterstock]
According to Center for Disease Control figures released in 2010, the average size of an American male is 69.3 inches (nearly 5’9-1/2”) and 195 pounds, with females at 63.8 inches (nearly 5’4”) and 166 pounds.

How do we compare to our ancestors?

Evidence suggests our average height has seen minor changes since the American Revolution. Research by Colonial Williamsburg chief historian Harold Gill in the early 1980s showed that soldiers during the Revolutionary War were only 2/3 of an inch shorter than those who served in the Army during the 1950s.

However, recruits during the 1770s were two inches taller than their European counterparts, which Gill attributed to a healthier lifestyle. His work was later supported by Munich University researcher John Komlos, who pointed to the abundance of wild game, plenty of land to clear, and sparse settlement patterns that allowed the United States to better avoid the epidemics that hit crowded European cities.

People long believed the myth that people in the 18th century were significantly shorter because of their tiny beds. The myth endured because of an optical illusion perpetuated by museums: The combination of canopies, high bed posts, and other touches make the beds appear shorter than they actually are. During the early 1980s, curators at Colonial Williamsburg measured the beds on display and discovered their lengths equalled or were longer than those found in modern furniture stores.

During the Civil War, the average soldier stood around 5’7” or 5’8” and weighed 143 pounds. Two contributing factors to their lower weight were likely their regular exercise in and out of the army — America was still primarily a rural nation — and rarely receiving their official daily ration of up to 22 ounces of bread and either 12 ounces of pork (sometimes in the form of bacon) or 20 ounces of beef.

By the time of the World War I (a conflict for which Ancestry has posted over 24 million draft registration cards that typically include height), the average American male’s height remained around 5’8”, while women stood about 5’3”. At this time, a draftee’s height averaged two inches taller than his European counterparts. Our citizens’ strong health physically, nutritionally, and economically pointed to a long future for our claim as the tallest nation in the world.

But then, as Komlos noted, “The U.S. just went flat.” From the 1950s onward, European heights have increased to the point that by 2004, the average Dutch male stood just over 6′ and counting.

“We’ve pretty well maxed out in terms of stature,” Northwestern University anthropologist William Leonard observed earlier this year. “There’s been little change in adult height over the last generation.”

He notes that modern Americans rarely suffer from diseases or developmental nutritional deficiencies to prevent them from reaching their potential genetically determined height. On the plus side, our stagnant height levels mean we have dodged problems faced elsewhere — such as ambulances that aren’t long enough to transport their tall patients.

Leonard also observed that there are areas of the American population where small increases still occur, namely in successive generations of immigrants. As far back as the 1950s, researchers noted that children of European migrants born in the United States stood taller than family members born across the Atlantic. One of the keys is proper childhood nutrition, where global improvements have allowed other countries to catch up to us.

Other factors that have affected our measurements include the overall quality of health care, personal environment, economic disparity, levels of exercise, and radical changes in food preparation.

So, as you’re researching generations of your family, look to see whether they were just Average Joes — or stuck out in the crowd.

— Jamie Bradburn

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