Standards of Living during the Industrial Revolution

The debate about living standards in the Industrial Revolution has recently focused on anthropometric measures, such as height and mortality, and linked these to the ability to work more intensively. Describe how these factors may be related. Discuss what the anthropometric evidence reveals about living standards in this period.

Anthropometric measures add a new light on the debate and show whether people were healthier as a result of the industrial revolution. If they were then they would have been able to work more intensively because they would need fewer days off work due to fatigue or illness. Schultz believes that there is a positive relationship between height and productivity because height is a measure of nutritional status and better fed, healthier people could work harder.

Height is determined by net calories consumed and changes in stature can reveal changes in food availability, content of diet, temperature, the nature of work and the prevalence of disease. Mortality is the number of deaths which occur, an increase could mean that there is more disease, people are dying from hunger, or living conditions are worse because of dangerous work or poor sanitation.

If height falls then we could infer that either food consumption has fallen – which may lead to higher mortality as people starve to death – or that more energy is expended on fighting disease which is likely to lead to an increase in mortality. Many diseases which were common at the time were sensitive to nutrition, such as diarrhoea and tuberculosis. If nutrition was low then mortality would rise as people died from such diseases.  This is evidenced in Milibank prison when the diets of prisoners were cut from 3,500 calories a day to 2,644 leading to scurvy and dysentery.

The fall in height could be attributed to the body spending more energy keeping warm, suggesting that people didn’t have enough clothes or heating, and thus some would succumb to the cold. Allen believes that consumers substituted food for clothing so they could keep themselves warm and reduce their calorific expenditure potentially reducing mortality.

The Barker hypothesis proposes that poor nutrition during pregnancy leads to poor long term health conditions and an increased chance of chronic diseases later in life. Shorter women are likely to receive inadequate calories which, if the hypothesis were true, would then result in a higher mortality rate in future generations. Meredith and Oxley find that infant mortality hit a low between 1800-10 despite there being high population growth and a lack of food. They suggest that the mortality rate fell because these children’s mothers would have been born 20-40 years ago when calorie intake was at its peak, perhaps providing some evidence for this hypothesis.

Floud’s military height data shows that height was rising between 1780-1820 and then declined between 1820-50 until improving after 1860. This would imply that standards of living were broadly improving, or at the very least not worsening, except in the thirty years between 1820-50. However, revised data by Komlos shows a fall over the entire period 1760-1850, average height began at 171.1cm in 1760 but by 1850 was down to 164.7cm. This is more likely to be accurate because Komlos takes into account the fact that the military was selective about height and so there is an inherent bias in the data. Humphries concurs with her convict prisoner data. A large reason for this fall in height was due to more expensive food and changing diets which were less nutritious.

Oxley and Horrell find that in 1815 those born in London and the surrounding areas tended to be much shorter than other Englishmen, suggesting that the poor urban conditions in London resulted in stunting and poor nutrition. This may be the case because food was expensive in inner cities as it had to be transported large distances and there was higher demand due to the large concentration of people and lack of farmland in the immediate vicinity. Furthermore a lot of the food was adulterated, which led to an increase in the spread of diseases (e.g. cholera found in watered down milk), and a deficiency of nutrition exacerbated the lack of food. Seeing as the availability and quality of food was deteriorated this must have a negative influence on standards of living as a whole.

Height and weight data shows that men received the most food in the household which meant they had more calories and thus had a relatively better BMI than women, whose BMI fell upon marriage (Meredith). Eden, a contemporary of the time who explored people’s diets concluded that “bread and water are almost the only diet of labourers’ wives and children”. Demonstrating that living standards of women and children were deteriorating as they received a lower quantity of food which would have affected their height and health and would have likely contributed to higher mortality and susceptibility to disease.

Humphries finds that when children or women were contributing to the income they received a better diet. Either women or children starved to death, or they had to work in terrible conditions to earn a few more calories. Even this was difficult as Horrell and Humphries find that there were declining employment opportunities for females. Additionally, Humphries found that child employment in industries was high, and left many stunted and in poor health conditions. As late as 1851 the census shows that 36% of 10-14 year olds were working – this shows that standards of living can’t have risen for this group as working left them disabled, stunted and often without an education.

The Anthropometric Committee of 1883 found that 14yr old boys from industrial schools were nearly 7” shorter and 25lbs lighter than those from public schools, thereby implying high inequality where the rich were able to afford more and better food and endured less toil but the working class had less food and/or had to work harder and fight off more disease. This height difference reflecting class distinction was also apparent in Meredith’s findings that the upper class Royal Society averaged 70”, whereas working class Hertfordshire criminals were 65.5”.

Despite the height data implying a fall in living standards, there was an increase in average life expectancy at birth between 1760 and 1850, with Szreter and Mooney finding that this rise also happened in urban cities due to improving conditions. The average life expectancy in provincial cities rose from 35 in 1820 to 42 in the 1890; in England and Wales as a whole it was higher starting at 40 in 1800 and rising to 46 by 1890. This trend is corroborated by data from Wrigley and Schofield, painting a different picture to height data, implying that conditions were improving over the period 1760-1850 as people could live longer lives. This rise in life expectancy at birth in the urban areas was due to the enlargement of the suburbs which had better living conditions and were less crowded, thus resulting in fewer deaths and hence a longer life on average suggesting improvements in standards of living.

The death rate fell due to improvements in healthcare and the discovery of vaccinations to prevent disease like smallpox. Between 1783-1807 19% of pre-ten year old Glaswegians who died did so as a result of smallpox. The vaccination reduced this rate to 4% by 1807-12 (Szreter and Mooney), demonstrating that there were some improvements in certain fields during the industrial revolution which must have increased the standards of living.

Mortality was higher in the cities than in rural areas due to overcrowding, poor sanitation and high geographical mobility enabling the spread of disease. It could be taken that standards of living in urban areas were rising, but only from a poor start, and that people who had migrated from rural areas would likely have seen a fall in their quality of living through poorer food conditions, more disease, a higher death rate and the disamenities associated with urban life. Therefore whilst it could be argued that standards of living rose during the industrial revolution, as evidenced by people living longer lives on average, it could also be argued that the prolonging of life was at the expense of a poorer quality of life, with children working in dangerous jobs at young ages, forgoing an education, food was scarce and people had to live amongst the squalor and disease of the growing urban conurbation. Furthermore, even though life expectancy rose, mortality didn’t decrease dramatically – “not until the 1870s and 1880s did urban mortality truly recede and children’s heights revive” (Szreter and Mooney). In fact Wrigley and Schofield believe that mortality rose between 1820-50 before falling. Again this would back up the belief that standards of living didn’t rise during the first half of the nineteenth century and may even have fallen.

In short, the anthropometric data consistently show that standards of living deteriorated during the period 1780-1850 as demonstrated by falling stature. This resulted from a lack of food and poor nutrients as well as harder toil by adult men and children. Mortality confirms this view, as it rose during the beginning of the nineteenth century, whilst life expectancy rose but this was from a low base and was only an average. If conditions on the whole are good but there is a short period of deterioration then teenagers will have a growth spurt and end up at or near to full potential height (Oxley). The fact that there was an increase in the numbers stunted over the period shows that this wasn’t the result of brief periods of decline but persistent hardships resulting in a deterioration of standards of living. There was also increased inequality in the standards of living depending on where someone lived (urban vs rural), what part of the country they lived in, if they were a man, woman or child and their class. Thus it is fair to conclude, on current data, that living standards for the greater part of the population were poorer as a result of the Industrial Revolution up to at least 1850.

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