Friday, August 10, 2012

Growing Though the Ages

Let's face it. Everybody knows that everyone who lived before us was shorter than the current generation. People get a little torn on if you ask them if we-the-living-right-now have maxed out on that height, or if the next generation to come is going to be even taller than we are, but pretty much everyone agrees that people who lived 100 years ago would be dwarfed by our current towering stature. 

We'll just have to use the late He Pingping (left) and the still-with-us Sultan Kosen (right) for an example of what it would look like if an average man today were to meet his great-great-great-great grandfather's grandfather. 

But it's obvious people before were shorter. Just look at their short little beds and low ceilings in their houses!

Sadly, such things lie. 

The reason most old beds from 100 + years ago look so short is because they mess with our modern experiences on how a bed is proportioned. They've got massive headboards and foot boards, and they've often got these long,tthick poles and curtains. They've got these massively thick mattresses. It's all an optical illusion though, as most of the beds are quite comfortably sized for one or two people, just like our beds now. Several beds that look quite short, when measured, are as long as a modern king sized bed.[*]

The low ceilings thing probably only makes sense if you're from the northern latitudes. Southern latitudes are all about the tall ceilings, which would lead with this logic to mean that people who lived a long time ago were giants. Why? Because the low ceilings were to keep the heat in -- the risk of occasionally banging your head against a low beam was totally worth it when one considers the amount of labor needed to chop enough wood to heat a house for the winter. Or to quote Eric Nelson who helps run the Kearney House tavern, a period-recreation in the original bulding:

Now that we’re the ones splitting the firewood and hauling it inside, it makes blatant, obvious sense. We run fires only one or two days a week. But it’s that much easier for us to imagine what it must have been like to keep those fires going for months at a time, through all the long winter (and without the benefit of a chainsaw to get the wood to the proper length to split!). The low ceilings make perfect sense, even if someone in the family might have had to get used to ducking his or her head.[**]
If you'd prefer hard numbers, those are easily given. The average height for people was just a little shorter than the average height today.  And by "a little" I mean, "just around an inch shorter." The average height for an American man in the 1700s was 5 feet, 7.5 inches, and the average height of an American woman was 5 feet, 3 inches.  Compare that to today, where the average American man is 5 feet, 9 inches, and the average American woman is 5 feet, 4 inches.[***

Sadly, I couldn't find good height charts for Native Americans, African Americans, or any other non-white ethnic group pre-1960s, but white Americans at the time seem to have been ahead in the tall game, since people in England were a smidge shorter than their American cousins (though not enough that anyone would automatically assume a short person was English). 

But, one could argue, that was only 200 years ago, and they were shorter by an inch. Maybe people have been steadily been getting bigger at a rate of half an inch every century!

Nope. in fact, during the end of the Renascence though the beginning of the Industrial age, the average height of Europeans actually shrank. Skeletons from 1000 years ago are only slightly shorter than the heights of people now. The average European man in the year 1000 was just over 5 foot 6 inches. [****]

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