|Photo Credit: Tom George Davison Photography|
One of the most pernicious and hard to eradicate myths about the eighteenth-century is that people were quite short, roughly 3/4ths the size of Americans today. Visitors to historic sites and reenactments frequently offer it as an example of their knowledge of the period, or inquiry regarding soldiers' height.
In response to statement from a historic site employee: "soldiers often slept 4-6 men to a tent," or "in barracks, men slept 2-3 to a bunk," there is often a liturgical response of: "yes, but people were short back then...". How true, if at all, is this rumor? Or, put another way, what was the average height of soldiers in the eighteenth century?
|They might have been small, or they might have slept like this:|
An artists' impression of French soldiers in a tent circa 1760
Once again, I am standing on the shoulders of scholarly giants as I write this post. The painstaking work of John Komlos, Willfred Fann, Kenneth L. Sokoloff, Georgia E. Villaflor, and to a lesser extent, Matthew Spring, has allowed us to obtain a rather large sample size with which to arrive at an average. When taken together, this data includes measured heights from over 13,000 soldiers between 1754 and 1783. These soldiers came from the American (Continental and Provincial), British, and Prussian armies during this era. Without further adieu: how tall was the average eighteenth-century soldier?
|This individual, Jean Antoine Cüva, stood 5' 11" when he was painted in 1738.|
When averaged, the height for these 13,000 men comes to 67.9 inches (roughly 5 feet 8 inches), or 172.6 cm. The average height for Americans today is 5 feet 9 inches, so while soldiers might have been slightly shorter, they were not exponentially shorter. Let us examine the data by army and continent:
British Regulars in the American War of Independence (sample size 1462): 65.77 inches
It should be noted that a large part of this sample (roughly 2/3rds) comes from the Royal Marines, which did not prioritize enlistment based on height to the same degree that the British army did. Therefore, this sample should not be taken as a definitive measurement of British soldiers' heights. The average for only army soldiers is 68 inches.
American Provincials in the French and Indian War (sample size 3057): 67.55 inches
Sample contains mostly men from New York.
American Continentals in the American War of Independence (sample size 5092): 68.1 inches
Sample contains mostly men from Virginia and Massachusetts.
Prussian Infantry in 1783 (sample size 3749): 69 inches
|This grenadier, Samuel Meissmer von Alstaedt, was 5 feet 9.5 inches in 1738|
Soldiers from North American Armies (sample size: 8149): 67.89 inches
Soldiers from European Armies (sample size 5211): 68.09 inches
Despite the relative similarity in heights of fighting men, individuals in North America possessed greater height when looking at the population as a whole, thanks to the better nutrition (read protein consumption) available there.
|A Lange Kerl, painted in 1737|
|Would these veritable giants have stood out in the 18th century? Let's be real, they might have.|
In the British service, on average, the largest men went to the grenadiers, while the smallest and youngest men were placed in the light infantry. Former officer John Williamson complained about this method, saying it was impracticable for "real service." Thus, when sailing for America in 1774, the 4th Regiment of Foot's tallest grenadier measured 6 feet 2 inches, while the tallest light infantrymen measured 5 feet 8.5 inches.
So, the next time you are at a historic site, reenactment, or museum, and someone invariably points to an object and says, "wow, look at that, were people shorter back then", you now have the equipment to firmly say: "No. they might have been an inch or two shorter, but they were not tiny people."
You could even refer them to my blog, if you like.
Thanks for Reading,
 Komlos, "On the Biological Standard of Living of Eighteenth-Century Americans," Fann, "Foreigners in the Prussian Army 1713-1783," Sokoloff and Villaflor, "The Early Achievement of Modern Stature in America," and Spring, With Zeal and With Bayonets Only, 60.
 Komlos, "On the Biological Standard of Living of Eighteenth-Century Americans."
 Williamson, Elements of Military Discipline, 5-6, note on page 6.
 Spring, With Zeal and With Bayonets Only, 60.
 Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 5.