Nearly four years ago I wrote a posting about the "myth" of the average lifespan of our ancestors. Since then it's been one of the most popular postings on my blog so I thought I would update it a little; most of what I originally wrote is still here...
OK, let's get rid of this misnomer that "the average lifespan of humans in 1860 was 45 years old," or "...in 1900 the average lifespan was 50 years old," or whatever other fallacy the e-mails or statisticians say. I mean, it sounds like if you were 39 in the 1860's you had one foot in the grave, for Pete's sake!
Well, let's clear this mess up once and for all:
In general, folks in the 18th and 19th centuries lived nearly as long as we do today. Yes, it's true. If one would take the time to read journals of the period, census records, or death records of long ago they would find a good majority of adults living to a ripe old age.
Just for our own information, let's look at the age of death from some of our Founding generation:
was 83 when he died
John Adams was 90
George Washington was a young 67 - but he died due to
blood loss from the then popular medical procedure bloodletting
George Wythe was 80
Paul Revere was 83
and Ben Franklin was
As you can see, even in America's colonial period it wasn't unusual to see people living to a ripe old age. In fact, many Revolutionary War vets lived long enough to have a photograph taken....Revolutionary War vets! (click HERE). These guys were in their 80s and 90s!
As a genealogist I have found that most of my 1st, 2nd, and even 3rd great grandparents lived well into their 60's, 70's, and 80's. Even my direct line dating back beyond the 3rd greats tended to have a long lifespan...well, at least of those I could find. And, yes, I have a couple that did die rather young - in their 40's and 50's. They were women and they died during childbirth.
So why is this false average lifespan information being passed around as fact? Because, technically, it is true - the average life span in 1860 actually was around 45 years of age. The average lifespan. Now, take into account that, up until the mid 20th century, the infant mortality rate was pretty high. Er...I mean, very high. Death was extremely common, unfortunately, for infants before their first birthday. So common, in fact, that many parents would not even name the infant until it reached 1 or 2 years of age. My great great grandmother, Linnie Robertshaw, practiced this custom in the later part of the 19th century.
From one year old to five years the chances of death dropped for children. From five to 10 it continued to drop. And then it continued to drop further the older the child became. In fact, a life expectancy graph that I recently came across noted that "the greatest change in the overall life expectancy of American men since 1850 resulted in an increasing likelihood that they would reach the age of 5."
Hmmm...I've been saying that for years!
When I compared the graph of American women of the same period there was little difference with their male counterparts accept that women have always seemed to have a tendency to outlive men by a few years.
Of course, death for women during childbirth was quite high, but we in our modern day have lowered that quite dramatically.
And, yes, people did die of heart attacks, consumption (TB), cancer, pneumonia, and measles. People today die of cancer, heart attacks, and pneumonia as well. But, where 100 years ago they had consumption, we have aids. We also have a higher murder rate per capita here in the 21st century in comparison.
By studying the graph and comparing men, women, and both genders together one can see that in the 19th century the older people got the more the likely hood that they would see life into their 60's or 70's or even 80's - just like today - and not become old and decrepit by the age of 40, as seems to be insinuated by the silly Facebook memes (which too many take as fact without researching) being passed around.
Please understand that I am in no way slighting the high death rate of children or of women of any era. That is and never has been my intention in writing this post. The losses of infants, children, and young mothers, just like now, was/is achingly heart wrenching.
It's only my hope to put these so-called historical facts into perspective so when anyone ever receives any of these average lifespan statistics coming through Facebook or through e-mail, that they will understand the intent is more for "shock" value rather than informational.
One more myth to challenge:
Let's dispel the myth that "people were shorter back then."
No they weren't.
Well, maybe slightly...like about an inch or so. But the myth that the
average height of a colonist was 5'4" or whatever is just that - a myth.
"But the ceilings were so low and the beds were so small!"
The ceilings (and doorways) were lower to retain the heat from
fireplaces in the cold months - this is a proven fact. I needn't go
further on this.
As for the beds being smaller, I finally found a very sound answer in an
article by Tess Rosch in an issue of Early American Life magazine:
"According to measurements taken of Revolutionary War soldiers compared
with recruits from the 1950's, the modern soldier is actually only about
2/3 of an inch taller. Our current soldiers could blend in quite easily
with George Washington's recruits."
Rosch also pointed out research done on antique bedding owned by Colonial Williamsburg:
"Since there were no standardized beds until the Industrial Revolution,
that should prove revealing. No bed was shorter than 6'3" and many were
6'8" long, the same length as today's 'king'!"
But why do the beds look so short?
"Optical illusion!" writes Rosch.
With all of the posts, testers, drapery, canopies, etc., that surrounded
the bed vertically, it made them look smaller horizontally.
This research also refutes the myth that colonials had a tendency to sleep sitting up as many museums have stated. Taking the above into account, I have to agree that our
colonial ancestors truly slept in the same horizontal position that we do
(As a follow up to this post, if you are interested in the mourning practices of those who lived in the 19th century, please click here)