"Development, Health, Nutrition, and Mortality: The Case of the 'Antebellum Puzzle' in the United States"

Michael R. Haines, Lee A. Craig, Thomas Weiss

NBER Historical Working Paper No. 130
Issued in October 2000
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy

The Antebellum Puzzle' describes the situation of declining stature and rising mortality in the three decades prior to the American Civil War (1861-65). It is labeled a puzzle, since this period was one of rapid economic growth and development in the United States. Much of the debate regarding this puzzle has centered on whether the American diet, both in terms of protein and caloric intake in the mid-nineteenth century. But the mortality environment also appears to have worsened (or at least failed to improve), a situation associated with rapid urbanization, commercialization, transport improvement, and increased geographic mobility. The disease environment was being nationalized and internationalized. This paper analyzes the relationship between local agricultural surpluses, nutritional status, mortality conditions, and adult heights. Employing a sample of the muster records of Union Army recruits (1861-65) as well as data from the published population and agricultural censuses of 1840 and mortality data from the 1850 census of population, it tests the hypothesis that adult height is positively correlated with local production of nutrients in early childhood and negatively correlated with local mortality conditions, urbanization, proximity to transport, and population mobility. Results indicate that, although the United States was experiencing robust Smithian' economic growth induced by transport improvements and widening markets nation was also suffering from serious negative externalities which affected the health and longevity of the population.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/h0130

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