Toddlers, teenagers, and terminal heights: the importance of puberty for male adult stature, Flanders, 1800–76

Ewout Depauw, Deborah Oxley
Published Online:
23 Aug 2018
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Does adult stature capture conditions at birth or at some other stage in the growth cycle? Anthropometrics is lauded as a method for capturing net nutritional status over all the growing years. However, it is frequently assumed that conditions at birth were most influential. Was this true for historical populations? This article examines the heights of Flemish men born between 1800 and 1876 to tease apart which moments of growth were most sensitive to disruption and reflected in final heights. It exploits two proximate crises in 1846–9 and 1853–6 as shocks that permit age effects to be revealed. These are affirmed through a study of food prices and death rates. Both approaches suggest a shift of the critical moment away from the first few years of life and towards the adolescent growth spurt as the most influential on terminal stature. Furthermore, just as height is accumulated over the growing years, conditions influencing growth need to be understood cumulatively. Economic conditions at the time of birth were not explanatory, but their collective effects from ages 11 to 18 years were strongly influential. At these ages, both health and nutrition mattered, to varying degrees. Teenagers, rather than toddlers, should be our guides to the past.

© Economic History Society 2018

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