Bed sizes confused me when I was young. Not my bed, but those in old museum houses; it was as if everyone remained kid-size or slept curled in a ball. An average adult—man or woman—couldn’t stretch out comfortably for a good night’s sleep in the crude furnishings. Back then I believed the staff had simply cut corners and made beds smaller than they should have been.
I’ve toured numerous historic structures since then. After seeing many short beds, I began to remove the blame from the staff and place it in the hands of the settlers. Did they make short beds to save material or was something else responsible? Still, the question remained: Why would they make a bed too short in which to properly sleep?
Rumours floated around different museums I visited that people were shorter back then. Numbers weren’t provided, so the facts remained a mystery. Were people shorter a hundred years ago than they are today?
My first hard evidence came while reviewing my grandfather’s First World War records. His attestation papers stated he was 5 feet, 5 1/2 inches tall and weighed 112 pounds (age 22 years). Compared to men these days, that’s short. During my research, I viewed hundreds of records for those enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on the Library and Archives Canada website, and it was rare to find a man more than six feet tall. The average appeared to be around 5 feet, 8 inches, leaving my grandfather looking up to many of his army mates.
Researching the average height of humans in history, I’ve learnt my grandfather was, indeed, below the average of his Scottish ancestors by three-quarters of an inch. A survey taken of troops born in the mid-nineteenth century reveal English men had an average height of 5 feet, 7 3/4 inches while the French (5 ft., 5 in.), German (5 ft., 4 1/2 in.), Scottish and Irish (both 5 ft., 6 1/4 in.) measured shorter.
Settlers and descendants from these European groups would have made the beds which occupy museums in Atlantic Canada. Seeing these figures, there’s no wonder beds were less than six feet long.
On average, people of today are much taller than people one hundred years ago. In Canada, men average a height of 5 feet, 9 1/2 inches, whereas women are 5 feet, 4 1/2 inches. People in England now measure the same as the Scots at 5 feet, 9 inches (women: 5 ft., 3 1/2 in.). Germany and Ireland now boast the taller man in this small group with an average height of 5 feet, 10 inches. The population of France has an average height of 5 feet, 8 1/2 inches for men and 5 feet, 3 1/2 inches for women.
Data for historic heights is limited. Much of it comes from military records which for obvious reasons excluded heights for women. To gain insight into heights, organisations have excavated graves from the mediaeval evil period in England. Their studies indicate the average height for women was 5 feet, 1 inch, and men measured 5 feet, 6 3/4 inches.
It’s interesting to think that if I was transported back in time to meet my Scottish ancestors in the 1600s, that I would look most of the clansmen square in the eye, and some, I’d have to look down at.