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The Hidden Cost of Economic Development: The Biological Standard of Living in Antebellum Pennsylvania

Author(s):Cuff, Timothy
Reviewer(s):Craig, Lee A.

Published by EH.NET (November 2005)

Timothy Cuff, The Hidden Cost of Economic Development: The Biological Standard of Living in Antebellum Pennsylvania. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2005. xvii + 277 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-7546-4119-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lee A. Craig, Department of Economics, North Carolina State University.

A long time ago, on college campuses far, far away, a great battle raged over the effects of industrialization. The “optimists” viewed modern economic growth and its boon companion, industrialization, as unambiguously good — led as they were by good things like the market. There might have been some collateral damage, but living standards, defined by economic indicators — e.g. wages and your favorite column in the national income and product accounts — increased steadily. And, hey, that’s the point, right? Not necessarily, answered the “pessimists,” who chanted: “Enclosure, the Workhouse, and Satanic Mills!”

While it’s a judgement a call, a good case can be made that, at least on the Cliometric side of things, the optimists got the best of the debate. But before they could secure final victory, there emerged a research agenda that yielded a new set of weapons — new to the cliometricians anyway. Rather than GDP per capita, the Hectors of this war hurled biological indicators like mortality rates, stature, and body-mass indices. Of these, stature became the standard weapon, and in several countries, including the antebellum United States, the trends in stature diverged from the trends in the standard economic indicators. This divergence characterized the so-called “antebellum puzzle,” and in turn breathed new life into the pessimists’ case.

Timothy Cuff’s The Hidden Cost of Economic Development can best be seen against this intellectual backdrop. The title gives away the punch line. Cuff, professor of Religion, History, Philosophy, and Classics at Westminster College, is a New Age pessimist. Though he focuses on the state of Pennsylvania from c.1800 through c.1860 — the antebellum era that produced the antebellum puzzle — he clearly wants to extrapolate the Keystone State’s experiences. In Cuff’s view, the problem in Pennsylvania, and more generally, was that while the nexus of industrialization, urbanization, and trade led to an obvious increase in productivity and economic output, there were less obvious biological costs, the primary manifestation of which was that people got shorter. There’s more to it than that, of course. As Cuff notes, “it is not the population’s ‘shortness’ that mattered. Rather what mattered was that they likely were less healthy adults and probably lived shorter lives as a consequence” (p. 215). Cuff’s findings are consistent with the so-called “insult accumulation model,” which suggests that illness and nutritional deficiencies weaken the individual and ultimately result in higher mortality.[1]

Cuff begins by making the argument that Pennsylvania is a good case study for industrialization’s impact on the biological standard of living. As one who is guilty of dismissing too quickly region-specific studies, on the grounds that “I don’t care about (say) antebellum Pennsylvania,” I hope potential readers take a look at this chapter. Cuff convinces the reader that one should care about Pennsylvania, because as a rapidly industrializing, yet economically and geographically diverse, region it is in fact a very good case study for the period in question.

In Chapter 2 Cuff offers the reader an outstanding summary of both the history and current state of anthropometrics, which, following Noel Cameron, Cuff defines formally as “the technique of expressing quantitatively the form of the body” (p. 10).[2] Using concise, yet descriptive, prose Cuff gives a lesson in the history of the science, and social science, of anthropometrics. The chapter contains an especially thoughtful and thorough summary of recent work and the current state of the field. If you don’t have time to read the complete works of John Komlos, and you want something more recent than Rick Steckel’s fine review in the Journal of Economic Literature [3] a decade ago, then this chapter might be the place to start. I have already recommended the chapter to a few economics graduate students and colleagues who asked for a primer on “the heights stuff.”

Having persuaded the reader of his mastery of the art of anthropometry, in Chapter 3 Cuff turns to the theory of economic exchange, which might seem a curious topic for an anthropometric historian, but here Cuff is laying the groundwork for his exploration of the divergence between stature and output per capita. The causal chain is laid out: Industrialization, urbanization, trade, disease, nutritional deficits, shorter statures and the aforementioned less-healthy, shorter lives. Cuff’s summary of market integration, trade theory, and trade’s role in economic growth is as good as his summary of the literature on anthropometrics. His ability to master vast literatures on topics as diverse as human biology and comparative advantage and make them accessible to the reader in a relatively small number of pages is truly remarkable. Economists have a hard time explaining gains from trade without equations and diagrams. Cuff does not. I have already recommended this chapter to several undergraduates and non-economists.

In Chapter 4, we learn about the economic history of antebellum Pennsylvania, perhaps a bit more than the casual reader might fully appreciate. As I approached the end of the chapter, I was hoping to run into a colleague or student who would stop me and ask if I knew of a good concise history of antebellum Pennsylvania. Alas, even with the passage of some time, I still have not.

Chapters 5 and 6 contain the empirical evidence and Cuff’s conclusions concerning economic factors and human stature. Employing data on the heights of Civil War veterans, Cuff pushes them about as hard as they can be pushed. In Pennsylvania, during at least some portion of the first half of the nineteenth century, Cuff finds that just about every identifiable group got shorter. Some groups did better than others. Rural dwellers did better than urban and town dwellers; farmers fared better than wage workers; and farmers in less developed regions fared better than those in regions experiencing industrialization. If you’re looking for variables that are strongly and positively correlated with human stature, then look for hogs, home manufactures, and nutritional surpluses. As for those that are negatively correlated, they include living on a navigable waterway and market garden activity. The key is net nutrition. Moving to town and selling one’s labor to a capitalist might have increased one’s income, but simultaneously some combination of work, disease, and diet tended to erode the biological standard of living.

Overall this volume must be considered a strong scholarly effort. Well-written, tightly reasoned, and carefully crafted, it represents a valuable contribution to both the anthropometric literature and the historiography of the antebellum United States. While supporting the case for a pessimistic “Malthusian squeeze” [4], Cuff does not destroy the optimists’ most basic arguments. After all, many of us have and will voluntarily endure some hardships for a job at the mill, some overtime, or a consulting check, and once cashed the monies will be spent eagerly on cheeseburgers and milk shakes or, perhaps, foie gras and H?agen Dazs. The optimists understand homo economicus all too well. A few high-fat utils beat an increase in bad cholesterol. Still, Cuff’s research suggests that in the future a bit of skepticism will aid the digestion of the optimists’ case.


1. James C. Riley, Sickness, Recovery, and Death: A History of Forecast of Ill Health. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989.

2. Noel Cameron, “The Methods of Auxological Anthropometry.” In Human Growth: A Comprehensive Treatise, second edition, Vol. 3, edited by F. Falkner and J.M. Tanner. New York: Plenum, 1986, pp. 263-81.

3. Richard Steckel, “Stature and the Standard of Living,” Journal of Economic Literature 33, no. 4 (1995), pp. 1903-40.

4. Michael Haines, Lee A. Craig and Thomas Weiss, “The Short and the Dead: Nutrition, Mortality, and the ‘Antebellum Puzzle’ in the United States,” Journal of Economic History 63, no. 2 (2003), pp. 385-416.

Lee A. Craig is Alumni Distinguished Professor of Economics at North Carolina State University. His most recent research is, with Matthew Holt, “Nonlinear Dynamics and Structural Change in the U.S. Hog-Corn Relationship,” American Journal of Agricultural Economics, forthcoming. His most recent book, with Robert Clark and Jack Wilson, is A History of Public Sector Pensions in the United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003). He is currently writing a biography of Josephus Daniels.

Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century