Does size matter? Body height and later-life outcomes in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Netherlands

Kristina Marie Thompson

Research output: PhD ThesisPhD-Thesis - Research and graduation internal

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For the past seventy-five years, the Dutch have claimed the title of tallest nation in the world. How have they reached such heights? Much of this relationship can likely be explained by increasingly beneficial environmental conditions in early-life. As conditions - such as the nutrition and disease environment - improved over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, average Dutch heights increased at a rapid pace. But it is also possible that other factors contributed to the Dutch secular growth trend. Existing research has indicated that height and later-life outcomes may be related, with taller men experiencing greater economic, marital and health benefits in adulthood. Perhaps height and later-life outcomes formed a ‘virtuous circle’, with taller men having taller, healthier children. This virtuous circle may have contributed to the Dutch growing at an even faster rate. To understand whether a virtuous circle was present, we would first need to know if height and later-life outcomes were related during the Dutch secular growth trend. This doctoral dissertation aimed to shed light on whether this was the case. Over six empirical chapters, I examined height’s relationships to four main outcomes: labor market outcomes, including wages (Chapter 2) and occupational status (Chapter 3); marriage (Chapter 4); fertility (Chapter 5); and mortality (Chapters 6 and 7). Chapter 8 explored the relationship between education level and the odds of being overweight/obese. In this dissertation, I exploited several datasets and used quantitative methods. In particular, the Historical Sample of the Netherlands, in combination with conscription records, gave rich life-course information on men and their heights at ages 19 or 20. In some instances, information on research persons’ male kin, including heights and later-life outcomes, complemented these data. Other sources included findings from a systematic literature review, and penal colony registers containing women’s heights and demographic information. Results showed that height was strongly, significantly related to socio-economic outcomes, namely occupation, marriage and fertility success (having a certain number of children). Even though height was consistently related to socio-economic outcomes, the shape of these relationships differed based on the outcome. In Chapter 3, a linear relationship between height and occupation was found, in which tallness was associated with greater occupational success. However, only a shortness penalty was identified when examining height’s relationship to marital outcomes in Chapter 4. In Chapter 5, being below-average height was associated with the highest probabilities of having five or more children. Findings for health-related outcomes differed even more markedly. In Chapter 5, there was an insignificant relationship between paternal height and the number of children surviving infancy. More surprisingly, when examining height’s relationship to the timing of death in Chapter 6, taller women had a higher probability of death. Similarly, in Chapter 7, men who grew the fastest and were the tallest had the highest probabilities of death. What could explain these divergent findings? Height may have been related to socio-economic outcomes because height was associated with, or was a signal of, another beneficial characteristic that was valued on labor and marriage markets (e.g. intelligence or strength). In terms of health-related outcomes, taller bodies may have been greater liabilities in times of nutritional stress, as was frequently the case in the nineteenth and early twentieth century Netherlands. Taller individuals may have been more prone to malnutrition, and consequently, to disease and death. This mortality penalty may also help to explain why tallness was not rewarded with marital or fertility success: taller men may have been considered less attractive by potential partners, because they were less healthy than their shorter peers.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
  • Koolman, Xander, Supervisor
  • Lindeboom, Maarten, Supervisor
  • Portrait, FRM, Co-supervisor
Award date1 Feb 2022
Place of PublicationAmsterdam
Print ISBNs9789464236248
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2022


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