Earlier this week on twitter Peter Bent mentioned Richard Yeselson’s review of Steve Fraser’s Age of Acquiescence: the Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power in Dissent. One of the claims made by Fraser, and repeated by Yeselson, is that, although life expectancy increased during the Gilded Age, “it is also the fact that the life expectancy of white males born during or after the Civil War was ten years less than it had been a century earlier” (Fraser, 2015: 39). He provides a citation to Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics. That is the entire citation. It is not clear whether it refers to a publication, a website, or personal correspondence. I checked the website for the Center. They do have statistics on life expectancy, but I only saw ones that went back to 1900. Historical Statistics of the United States has estimates of life expectancy, but they only go back to 1850. They show that life expectancy at birth increased from about 38 in 1850 to 40 in 1860 and 50 by 1900. If these estimates are reasonable and Fraser is correct, life expectancy at birth would have been between 50 and 60 years in the late 1700s.
There is one estimate that I know of life expectancy in the 1700 that is this large: Fogel, using family histories, estimated that life expectancy was greater than 55 years in the mid-1700s.(Robert William Fogel, "Nutrition and the Decline in Mortality since 1700: Some Preliminary Findings," in Engerman and Gallman Long Term Factors in American Economic Growth.
Fogel’s graph appears to indicate that life expectancy did not return to its mid 1700s level until the middle of the twentieth century. Personally, I’m skeptical of the accuracy of these estimates. They are much higher than other estimates. In the late 1700s, Wigglesworth estimated life expectancy in the mid 30s in Massachusetts in the late 1700s. Recently, Becker estimated life expectancy in the 1700s to be around 40, using data on people who attended Yale. In addition, Fogel notes that members of the British peerage had a life expectancy of only about 40 years in the late 1700s. It should also be noted that Fogel’s estimates of large decreases in life expectancy are consistent with estimates of large decreases average height, but there are good reasons to question the validity of that conclusion as well. If there were no large decreases in welfare reflected in average height, does it make sense that there would have been large decreases in life expectancy. In short, much of the available evidence seems hard to reconcile with very high life expectancy in 1700s America.
I do find it plausible that there may have been a number of factors in the early nineteenth century that could have adversely affected health. Increased urbanization almost certainly increased the spread of disease. In addition, there were new diseases to spread, like cholera.
With some luck and a lot of work we will probably have more confidence in our knowledge of health and welfare in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the meantime, I am inclined to believe Becker’s estimates for the 1700s. That would mean that life expectancy increased very slowly during the nineteenth century, and then more rapidly after about 1900 as cities began to invest in sewage removal and water purification. Chapter 3 of Higgs Transformation of the American Economy (still my favorite book on American economic history and now free from the Mises Institute) describes the impact of these improvements.
What is the point of all this rambling on about what we don’t know? The point is precisely that, we don’t know. I know it’s a lot to ask, but historians should take a critical approach to the evidence. Let people know when something is still up in the air. There is really nothing resembling a fact regarding mean life expectancy in the 1700s in America. There are a number of widely varying estimates. Don’t tell people we have “facts” that we don’t have. There are more, and more important, puzzles in history than what happened to the Roanoke Colony. Perhaps I’m getting old and cranky, but it seems to me that I have seen a lot of historians lately playing fast and loose with the evidence in order to make their point. And many of their reviewers do the same: they evaluate the book on how well it conforms to their preconceptions.