Economic historians have long asked how the early stages of the historical industrialisation process affected welfare.
Although industrialisation in Europe and North America raised GDP per capita dramatically, it also generated some ‘bads’, including unhealthy cities and hard work under unpleasant conditions.
The US experience, where mean height apparently declined by about 5cm (about two inches) from 1830 to 1880, is an example of the industrialisation puzzle.
This result supports an extremely pessimistic understanding of how industrialisation affects human welfare.
A central problem for studying living standards in the past is familiar to all historical inquiry –limited empirical sources.
Economic historians have constructed real wages to study purchasing power, and demographic historians study mortality and morbidity to better understand how industrialisation and urbanisation affected health.
This column argues that one of Fogel’s early claims turns out to have, at best, a weak foundation.
The measured decline of mean height during industrialisation reflects in large part the nature of the data sources, not necessarily changes in the height of the underlying populations.
Most focus on the quality and availability of food supplies, the intensity of work effort, and the undeniably unhealthy living conditions of early industrial workers in both the US and Europe.
The possibility that people could be worse off (as measured by their height) while real wages were increasing led Komlos to posit that the ‘biological’ and the economic standards of living might diverge during industrial revolutions.