Social inequality and the biological standard of living: An anthropometric analysis of Swiss conscription data, 1875–1950

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Abstract

We analyze the first representative series of individual measurements of the height of Swiss conscripts for the years 1875–1950. We find that average height followed a general upward time trend, but the economic downturn in the 1880s slowed down the increase in rural average-heights while the economic crisis subsequent to World War I had only a minor effect. Moreover, social-class affiliation was the most important determinant of differences in the biological standard of living, with class and regional disparities remaining constant, for the most part, during the observation period. Lower-class individuals’ ability to overcome economic stress was limited, with the result that their biological standard of living, as reflected in the cyclicality of deviations from average height, was likely to be affected by cycles in economic activity.

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