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May 01, 2004

How much taller?

Jason recently posted an extract (Tall Tale) from a New Yorker article on trends in the height of different populations. Europeans are still growing taller while Americans have stopped. The Dutch are said to be now the tallest people in Europe, with an average adult male height of over 6 feet, while (according to the New Yorker) in the 19th century they were ‘the shortest people in Europe’.

I don’t doubt that the Dutch are tall, but I am surprised at the claim that they were previously the shortest in Europe. I can’t think of any reason, either genetic or environmental, why they would have been shorter than similar populations in northern Germany or Denmark. So I thought I would check it out...

My first source was Adolphe Quetelet’s ‘Physique Sociale’ (1869) and ‘Anthropometrie’ (1871). Unfortunately, on a quick skim I couldn’t find anything on the Dutch. Quetelet does give figures for France (military conscripts aged 20) with average height of 1.642 m (5ft 4½in) and Belgium (conscripts aged 18-20) with average height of 1.643 m. The dates of the samples are not given, but presumably around mid-19th century.

I then tried A. de Quatrefages’ ‘The Human Species’ (2nd edn., 1879), with more success. This gives a table of average heights from around the world, including the Dutch. Some relevant figures (in meters, then in feet and inches to the nearest half-inch) are:

Dutch......................1.789........5 10½
England...................1.687........5 6½
Belgium...................1.686........5 6½
Germany.................1.680........5 6
France (northern).....1.665........5 5½
France (southern).....1.630........5 4.

If these figures are reliable, then in the 19th century the Dutch were already among the tallest people in the world, and certainly in Europe. Unfortunately the origin and nature of the samples is not indicated. The main source is given as a book by A. Weisbach. I have not been able to consult this, but I found another work by the same authority: A. Weisbach, ‘Korpermessung verschiedener menschenrassen’, in Zeitschrift fur Ethnologie, Band 9, Supplement, 1878. This gives average heights for almost every people except the Dutch! Some relevant figures (in meters) are:

Norway..............1.727
Scotland.............1.708
Sweden..............1.700
England..............1.690
Denmark............1.685
Germany............1.680
Italy...................1.668
France................1.667

It will be seen that none of these are as tall as the Dutch according to Quatrefages. In fact, Quatrefages’ figure for the Dutch is about 2½ inches taller than the nearest rivals (the Norwegians), which makes me suspect that there is something wrong with the figures. But certainly there is nothing here to suggest that the Dutch were ‘short’ - quite the contrary. I know that GNXP has some Dutch readers, so maybe they can track down a good historical source for Dutch heights?

Before leaving the subject, I would point out that all statistics for adult height in the 19th century (or even later) should be treated with caution. The fundamental problem is the difficulty of getting a representative sample. You cannot just grab a random sample of individuals off the streets. Figures are therefore either rough estimates (based e.g. on people walking past an object of known height), or measurements taken from non-random samples. The nearest thing to a random sample comes from military inspections in countries with universal conscription. But even here there are two problems. One is that conscription is seldom truly universal: some categories, e.g. priests and chronic invalids, are often exempted without examination. The other is that conscripts come from a narrow age group, usually from 18 to 21. In recent times this would not be a major problem, because most men have stopped growing by the age of 18, or 20 at the latest. But in the 19th century this was not the case. Puberty and the adolescent growth spurt started on average several years later than now. Many men were still growing at age 18 and even after 20. Quetelet (Anthropometrie) gives the following data for Belgium (in meters):

age 18...............1.630
age 19...............1.658
age 20...............1.670
age 25...............1.682
age 30...............1.686.

The average growth between age 18 and age 30 is over 2 inches. To get a figure for mature adult height from military conscript data, it is therefore necessary to add at least an inch, and possibly two, depending on the age range of the conscripts. If this is not done, 19th century adult heights may be seriously underestimated.

Posted by David B at 03:57 AM