What Do The Heights Of Georgian Convicts Tell Us About The Antebellum US Economy?

Peter Coclanis, University of North Carolina,
Paul Katzenberger and John Komlos, University of Munich

Previous work has shown that beginning in the 1830s nutritional status of a broad spectrum of the population declined in the Antebellum United States. This finding is surprising, because according to conventional indicators the economy was expanding very rapidly at the time (at about 1.7% per capita annually between 1840 to 1860). Another puzzling factor is, that value added even in the agricultural sector grew at a rate of between 2.3% to 4.2% p.a. in the 1840s and 1850s.

Hence, the decline in nutritional status at a time of rising productivity is quite an enigma requireing further exploration. As a consequence, we estimate the pattern of nutritional change in the regional setting of Antebellum Georgia on the basis of the physical stature of convicts. The hypothesis to be tested is whether the experience of the civilian population of an Antebellum Southern state was comparable to the general US pattern, which up to now, has been demonstrated on essentially two Northern military data sets: (a) recruits into the Union army (Fogel, 1986) and (b) West Point Cadets1(Komlos, 1987).


Data on the stature of convicts in the Georgian penitentiary system were collected for the years 1817-1885. Age, height, county where convicted, occupation, nativity, crime, date when convict was incarcerated were recorded.2 Starting with 1866, the race of the convict was also given. The data set, consisting of 4,779 (cases of which 3,148 were born in the US and 1,455 were of unknown nativity), is not a sample. Instead, all extant records of convicts heave been analysed. The results pertain, in the first instance, to the convict population of Georgia. Foreign-born were excluded from the analysis.


Although the diminution of physical stature of the 1830s is also evident in the Georgian sample, particularly among white adults, the coefficients of the trend dummy variables are not significant until the 1850s ( Table 1 and Figure 1). Compared to the 1820s, average heights declined by 0.4 inches during the second half of the 1830s. In the 1840s the decline continued as adult convicts became another 1/4 of an inch shorter.

The trend in the height of white adolescents is more ambiguous ( Table 2). Heights do not appear to have declined in the 1830s as among adults, but began either earlier (i.e., in the 1820s) or later (i.e., in the 1840s). Because there are few observations for the period before 1830 and because there are outliers for almost every age group in the 1810s, firm conclusions can not be formulated about the onset of the decline in nutritional status among youth.3 The negative trend for the period after the 1830s with declining heights of 0.37 inches, 0.13 inches and another 0.62 inches for the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s, however, do support the experience of adult convicts.

Evidence on black convicts is limited to the very end of the period, since previous to the 1860s they were not incarcerated. The trend in height is similar to the white pattern for the birth cohorts of the 1840s and 1850s. Black adults experienced the same cumulative diminution in height between the 1830s and 1850s (- 0.48 in), as appears among white youth (- 0.50 in) and white adults (- 0.44 in) alike. In the 1860s black adults not only continued to decline in height but at twice the rate compared to the previous decades (- 0.45 in). The height of black youth declined in the 1860s by 0.59 in.

The decline in the height of white adult convicts of 0.21 in in the 1830s (Table 1) is similar to the decline among West Point Cadets, whose height decreased by 0.28 in ( Figure 1). In the same period, the soldiers in the Union army declined to an even larger extent (0.52 in). Between the 1820s and 1860 the cumulative decline among adult convicts totaled 0.84 in, while among the Union army soldiers it amounted to 1.1 in, and West Point Cadets became shorter by 0.54 in.

Therefore, a decline in heights in the Antebellum United States appears to have been a specially widespread phenomenon. The comparatively smaller cumulative decline in the physical stature of the West Point Cadets can perhaps be accounted for by their higher social status, while the somewhat smaller decline of the adult Georgian convicts compared to the Union soldiers could be attributed to the fact, that the Southern population was more rural and agrarian, and hence more capable of maintaining its nutritional status during the first phase of industrialization.

Equally significant is the fact that the downturn in the North bottomed out in the 1860s, whereas in the South the decrease continued, and at an accelerated pace: among black youth the rate of decline doubled in the 1860s, while white convict adults declined by even more than blacks (Tables 1 and 2).4 This result mirrors the well-known fact that incomes declined in the South during and after the Civil War, and therefore, its not surprising that Southerners both white and blacks, had a more difficult time meeting their nutritional requirements than the North.


The analysis of the Georgian convict sample confirms the anthropometric evidence of a decline in physical stature in the Antebellum United States for both whites and blacks.

In order to understand the general decline in nutritional status for this period one might note that while the population in the United States grew at a rapid rate of 3.0% annually in the period from 1800 to 1860, the urban population grew even faster. The average between 1800-1860 was 5% per annum, but reached as high as 6.7% during the decades prior to the Civil War. This meant, that the growth of the agricultural labor force, at rates between 2.5 and 3.0%, was slower than that of the urban population, and therefore, it is quite possible that advances in agricultural labor productivity did not suffice to maintain the nutritional status of the population. The number of persons without ties to the land and dependent on the farm population for sustenance increased enormously. Between 1800 and 1820 one agricultural worker supported about four individuals. By 1870 this ratio had increased to six, and as a consequence, an ever larger segment of the society was being separated from the source of food supply, which, in turn, resulted in higher transportation costs and a rise in the relative price of nutrients. Even though incomes were rising, a substitution away from food consumption could have taken place, i. e., the positive income elasticity of demand for food could have been less than the negative price elasticity ( Figure 2).

The utility maximizing behavior of American consumers is demonstrated theoretically by the decision of a representative household to move from F0Q0 to F1Q1 ( Figure 2). Even though at F1Q1 income of the household has increased and a higher utilty level has been reached (from U0 to U1), the consumption of food declines, because of the increase in the price ratio PF/PAOG.

Empirical evidence on agricultural output and GNP is consistent with the above theoretical considerations ( Figure 3). Between 1839-1859 the value of food output per capita, in fact, declined. The budget constraints were constructed on the basis of wholesale prices of food relative to all other goods. As a result, even with incomes and utility rising the per capita food consumption level of 1839 was not reached until 1869, and not exceeded until the 1870s.Even though food consumption declined in monetary value, it is assumed that it did not do so in terms of weight. However, in order to maintain daily food intake at a given level people would have had to substitute away from products with a high value-to-weight ratio. This allocation process is shown in Figure 4. The monetary value of food consumption declines from YF(t0) to YF(t1). However, the consumer remains on the same iso-weight line as initially. The outcome is a movement along the iso-weight line from [(G0)t=0, (QM)t=0] to [(G1)t=1, (QM)t=1] with a substitution of grain for meat (and dairy) products. Since terminal height is crucially dependent on protein intake and grain contains less protein than meat per weight, the outcome of such an allocation decision must have been to lower heights.


Engerman, Stanley L. and Robert E. Gallman: "U.S. Economic Growth, 1783-1860." in Paul Uselding (ed.): Research in Economic History. A Research Annual. (Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1982), pp. 1- 46.

Fogel, Robert W.: "Nutrition and the Decline in Mortality Since 1700: Some Preliminary Findings." in Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman (eds.): Long-Term Factors in American Economic Growth. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 439-555.

Gallman, Robert E., "Commodity output, 1839-1899", in National Bureau of Economic Research, Studies in Income and Wealth, 24: trends in the American economy in the nineteenth century (Chicago, 1960)

Georgia Board of Corrections. Inmate Administration Division. Central Register of Convicts. Record Group 21, Sub-group 3, series 27.

Komlos, John: "The Height and Weight of West Point Cadets: Dietary Change in Antebellum America." Journal of Economic History 47 (1987), pp. 897-927.

Steckel, Richard H. "A Peculiar Population: The Nutrition, Health, and Mortality of American Slaves from the Childhood to Maturity." Journal of Economic History 46 (1986), pp. 721-741.


1Though the West Point Cadets included southeners, they were insufficient in number to estimate a trend in southern nutritional status independently.

2Georgia Board of Corrections. Inmate Administration Division. Central Register of Convicts. Record Group 21, Subgroup 3, Series 27.

3For instance, the average height for the 21 year olds turns out to be 71.2 inches in the 1810s with an average for this age- group of 68.0 inches.

4The height for the regular recruits into the Union Army, did not change at all, while that of the West Point Cadets increased slightly.