Economic growth in the nineteenth century U.S. was not without its costs. The deleterious impact of economic growth on nineteenth-century U.S. living standards can be seen in what has come to be known as “the antebellum paradox”: though economic growth was strong and per capita incomes were rising before the Civil War, two indicators of living standards—average height and life expectation at age 10 (e10 )—were declining (Fogel, 1986). Several studies have examined the factors that influenced physical stature at the individual level in cross-section, in order to understand how changes over time in urbanization, industrialization, and nutrition could explain the change in stature. But falling life expectation has received considerably less attention at the micro level.
This study introduces new evidence on the correlates of individual-level mortality, particularly socioeconomic status measured by occupation and household wealth, created by linking the mortality and population schedules of the 1850 and 1860 federal population censuses. The linkage makes it possible to calculate mortality rates by occupation, by household wealth, and by cause of death, and thereby uncover in two cross sections some of the factors underlying the changes in life expectancy observed over the decades before the U.S. Civil War.
Research on the link between status and mortality in the late twentieth century U.S. has uncovered a substantial gap between high and low-status individuals, a gap that is apparent in other health outcomes as well (Williams, 1998; Lantz et al., 1998). Though a great deal of attention has now been devoted to explaining why those lower in status have worse outcomes and the possibility that there is some reverse causation involved (with poor health leading to low status), such investigations lack a historical perspective (Smith, 1999).
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