The biological standard of living and the "Antebellum Puzzle"

An apparent contradiction: Stunting in a booming economy?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. Rising GDP per capita – decreasing heights

3. Alteration in the epidemiological environment
3.1 Immigration wave

4. Population growth and food production
4.1 Price explosion
4.2 Substitution of food
4.3 Income as a factor determining height
4.4 Urbanization and transportation

5. Conclusion

6. Work cited

7. Plagiarism

1. Introduction

Imagine someone came up to you and asked you: “name three aspects that in your opinion are of great significance to a high standard of living”, what would you say? What determines your perspective towards the standard of living? Do you give priority to income and wealth? To personal freedom? Or to health? With regard to our today’s society, where most products are being invented in order to make our lives more comfortable, it is interesting how the standard of living can be measured best.

The most widely adopted measurement of the material standard of living is GDP per capita adjusted for changes in the price level, called inflation or deflation. Usually, one might guess that through a higher GDP per capita, the income and the personal wealth rises and therefore the standard of living also increases. This nevertheless does not reflect the distribution of income, or the environment that affects health and safety. Moreover, crime, pollution, and congestion – which are for many people negatively correlated with their quality of life – are neither considered.[1] GDP per capita therefore just measures the material standard of living, but a lot of other factors are being ignored. That is the reason why the biological rather than the material standard of living should be contemplated in terms of “measuring” the quality of life.

A second possibility to measure the standard of living is the HDI (Human Development Index). It consists of 1/3 GDP per capita, 1/3 life expectancy index, plus 1/3 education index. Here, the standard of living does not solely depend on material assets, but also on life expectancy which contains health and the environment and education. However, important factors for the wellbeing like the political system in the country or human rights are missing.

For the first time in the 1970s, height was used as a measurement for the standard of living. At first this might seem strange, because one thinks that height depends above all on genes. This is certainly right, but we are not taking a look at the height of individuals but of whole populations.[2]

Height is probably the best indicator for the standard of living. First of all, the data is not only plentiful, but also objective. It is proven that the better the nutritional status is both during infancy and adolescence, the better will be the chance for the grownup to become tall. According to Steckel (2002), “average height is a good proxy for the nutritional status of a population because height at a particular age reflects an individual’s history of net nutrition”.[3] Net nutrition is the diet one consumes minus claims on the diet made by physical activity and disease. Therefore, if children or teenagers do not consume enough calories to be able to grow properly, either because of diseases, hard work or simply malnutrition, a reduction in adult height is very likely. “Prolonged and severe deprivation results in stunting”.[4]

Therefore, measuring the average adult height of a population is the best indicator for the standard of living because height includes income, disease environment, public health, technology, hygiene, diet, work intensity and many other factors. (Insert figure 1)

2. Rising GDP per capita – decreasing heights

“The biological standard of living was hardly expected to decline at a time when per capita output rose by some 50 percent between 1830 and 1860”.[5] The Antebellum years (1830-60) in the United States are characterized by a booming economy which can mainly be explained by industrialization. Nevertheless, the average height as the best indicator for the biological standard of living was decreasing at that time. The decrease of height from averagely 173.5cm for an adult male born in 1830, to 170.6cm for one born in 1860, implies the shrinkage of almost 3cm in 30 years.[6] This development is quite unexpected since one would imagine that rising income and wealth leads to a better nutritional standard and therefore to growth. This phenomenon is called the “Antebellum Puzzle” and is going to be the topic of this paper. In the next chapters it is going to be discussed, which reasons might have led to the “Antebellum Puzzle” and which of them are most likely to have occurred.

Scholars, who have dealt with this topic in more detail, agree on one thesis: the “Antebellum Puzzle” is the result of several different impacts, which are caused or intensified by the dietary change that occurred in the 19thcentury in the United States. The weighting that each scholar gives to the different aspects often differs.

3. Alteration in the epidemiological environment

Studies in contemporary developing nations show that “terminal adult heights are largely influenced by disease and nutritional conditions early in life”.[7] On this account, one might guess that diseases were also responsible for the stunting during the antebellum period in the United States. In times of sickness, the body requires more calories which are then missing in the growth process. This argument seems to be convincing. Nevertheless, there are several counter-arguments against this hypothesis.

First of all, the disease environment is not likely to have changed across the whole country so quickly, but shrinking can be observed in all parts of the United States.[8] To explain the stunting across such a large area in such a short time, the diseases would have had to spread in an impossible pace. Moreover, epidemics were episodic, “cholera struck, for instance, in 1832, 1849, and 1866”.[9] Plus one can notice the rising stature of men during the 18thcentury America, where it is obvious that the sanitary conditions and the disease environment were much worse than in the 19thcentury.[10] Last but not least, the epidemics struck all across the nation but data show that members of the upper-middle class did not shrink. Even if richer people can protect themselves better against diseases than poor ones, it is not possible to not being affected by them at all.[11]


[1] Steckel (2002), p. 1

[2] Steckel (1995), p. 1903

[3] Steckel (2002), p. 5

[4] Steckel (1995), p. 1910

[5] Komlos (1998), p. 779

[6] Steckel (2002), p. 6

[7] Haines, Craig and Weiss (2003), p. 398

[8] Komlos (1987), p. 906

[9] Komlos (1987), p. 907

[10] Komlos (1987), p. 907

[11] Komlos (1998), p. 792

Excerpt out of 13 pages


The biological standard of living and the "Antebellum Puzzle"
An apparent contradiction: Stunting in a booming economy?
LMU Munich  (VWL Lehrstuhl)
Strategic Factors in the Economic Development of the United States
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
481 KB
Antebellum, Puzzle, Strategic, Factorsin, Economic, Development, United, States
Quote paper
M.A. Susanne Schalch (Author), 2007, The biological standard of living and the "Antebellum Puzzle", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Look inside the ebook
Title: The biological standard of living and the "Antebellum Puzzle"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free