Myth and Reality

Current articles in this section:

  1. Were They All Shorter Back Then?

  2. Did they Die Much Younger Back Then?

  3. No Popcorn: the Question of Popcorn at the 'First Thanksgiving'

Dead at Forty

by Carolyn Freeman Travers, Research Manager

"And as you can see from the clothes, they were all much shorter in those days, and they were old at thirty-nine, and dead at forty." - tour guide at the Museum of Costume, Bath, 1984

There are several common pieces of misinformation/mistaken beliefs about people in the past: that they were all "much shorter in those days", that they died at a much earlier age (and therefore reached old age much earlier as well), married at a very early age, had very large families, and the leading cause of death for women was childbirth. The myth that people died young is addressed below. For information about the myth that people were shorter in the 17th century, go to our Four-foot-two myth page.

A Note on Terms: The term "average" can mean one of three types. Adding up all of the figures being considered and dividing them by the number there are arrives at the mean. The median is the mid-point; half of the topic in question would be above this figure, and half below. The mode is the most frequently met with figure in the series.

 

Life Expectancy

Average life expectancy at birth for English people in the late 16th/early 17th centuries was just under 40 –39.7 years. However, this low figure was mostly due to the high rate of infant and child mortality – over 12% of all children born would die within their first year. A man or woman who reached the age of 30 could expect to live to 59. Life expectancy in New England was much higher, where the average man died in his mid-sixties and women lived on average to 62. This is still very low compared to the modern U.S., where a male child has a life expectancy of 73 and a female child, 79.

The common idea is that people reached old age much earlier age than today, generally some time in the mid-30s. This is based on a misunderstanding of the term "average life expectancy at birth." As with the mean average height, the figure was arrived at by adding up the ages at death of a reasonable sample of the population, and dividing that figure by the number of people counted.

In a society where infant and child mortality were both very high, their deaths at an early age brought down the average age considerably. Below are some figures on life expectancy and infant mortality for different places and times for comparison.

Life Tables: Historical demography is a very complicated subject, and not one to which justice can be done in this memo. For understanding life tables, it is easiest to think of them as a sliding scale. General weakness or sickness will kill many babies soon after birth. The survivors may die from any one of the many diseases they will be exposed to in the next ten to fifteen years of their lives. Once beyond the risk of childhood diseases, young adults have a much greater likelihood of living considerably beyond the 40 years predicted for them at birth.

Early Modern England (1500-1700)
Expectation of life at birth was exceptionally high in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, varying in the period between 1566 and 1621 from a high point of 41.7 years in 1581 to a low of 35.5 years in 1591, and averaging over 38 years.1

Infant mortality
"Demographic estimates show that approximately 2 per cent of babies born in the Elizabethan period died before the end of their first day of life. Death claimed a cumulative total of 5 per cent within the week, 8 or 9 per cent within a month, and 12 or 13 per cent within a year, with slightly higher rate of infant mortality in the later seventeenth century." 2

London
Life expectancy in London was lower than that of England in general, even for the wealthy. Crowding, poor sanitation and increased likelihood of disease all took their toll on the population. "Expectation of life at birth varied greatly from the wealthy to poorer parishes of London. St Peter Cornhill, 1580-1650 had an expectation of life of 34-6 years. Comparatively, the poor parish of St. Mary Somerset, 1606-1653, had a life expectancy at birth of only 21 years." 3

English life tables
It is also an error to suppose that if the period life expectation is 35 years, for example, as it was during the 1691 half-decade, someone aged thirty could expect to live for 5 years more, someone aged twenty-five, 10 years more, and so on. Such a misconception leads to much more serious confusion. In fact with an [expectation of life at birth] of 25, a woman of twenty in England before 1871 could expect to live about 36.5 years more; one of twenty-five about 33.5 years; one of thirty, 30.5; one of forty, 24.5. Even at sixty she would have over 12 years to live. 4

Life Expectancy in the Colonies
Average life expectancy was significantly higher in 17th-century New England than for either England or the Chesapeake region. Average life expectancy at 21 for colonists born in Andover was 64.2 for men and 61.6 for women. For their counterparts in Plymouth Colony, the ages were 69.2 for men and 62.4 for women. Figures were much lower for immigrants to the Chesapeake region. For people who arrived their in the 20s, average life expectancy for men was 48; for women, 39.

A NOTE ON THE STUDIES: Both Greven and Demos apparently believed that the life expectancy averages, infant mortality figures, etc. they would find would be comparable to the numbers for England. This proved not to be the case, but the assumption that it should have been so was still strong and affected their writing.


Andover [Greven]
Using data drawn from the family reconstitution forms, a total of nineteen deaths can be determined to have occurred between birth and nineteen years of age out of a group of 155 children whose ages at death can be determined with relative certainty, and a rate of 93 per thousand dying before nineteen years of age out of a total group of 204 children. This means that between 877 and 907 children out of every thousand born between 1640 and 1669 survived at least to the age of ten; these rates are astonishingly high. Even assuming that the mortality rates were double those found for these Andover families, about 754 out of every thousand children – three-quarters of those born in Andover during this period – would still have survived to the age of twenty years. Actually, though, the evidence seems to indicate that an even higher proportion of children survived to become adults. Given the fact that the deaths that were recorded during the 1650’s were only 11.6 per cent of the births recorded during that decade, and the deaths during the 1660’s were only 20.6 per cent of the births, the mortality rates computed for the settler families appear to correspond rather closely to the proportion of deaths to births recorded in the town records.

The initial period following the settlement of Andover thus seems to have been one of exceptional healthiness. Even with allowances made for gaps in the records and underrecording of deaths, the fact remains that in Andover during the 1650’s and 1660’s there was an unusually high proportion of survivors among the infants and children born in the wilderness community. The second generation began its life auspiciously.

Circumstances evidently combined to encourage a high birth rate and an exceptionally low death rate, a combination which produced a population that grew at a rapid pace. The numbers, of course, were still small, but the growth potential was immense. The chances of raising most of one’s children to adulthood were far greater in Andover than in many similar villages in the Old World or some of the older communities in the New.

A study of deaths in Andover also suggests that those who did survive to adulthood could anticipate long and healthy lives. The average age of twenty-nine first-generation men at the time of their deaths was 71.8 years, and the average age at death of twenty first-generation wives was 70.8 years. Twenty-two of the men who settled permanently in Andover died after reaching their sixtieth year, five of them in their seventies, six in their eighties, three in their nineties, and one, according to the town records, at the remarkable age of 106. Similarly, fifteen of their wives also lived to be at least sixty years old, with four dying in their seventies, five in their eighties, one in her nineties, and one at the age of 100 years. The lifespans of their children were also impressively high, the average age at death of 111 second-generation men who had survived at least to the age of twenty-one being 64.2 years, and the average age of 58 second-generation women being 61.6 years. 5

Plymouth Colony [Demos]
Even allowing for the obvious likelihood that errors in these figures for the number born are somewhat greater than in the figures for those who grew to maturity, the rate of infant mortality in Plymouth seems to have been relatively low. In the case of a few families for which there are unusually complete records, only about one in five children seems to have died before the age of twenty-one. Furthermore, births in the sample come for the most part at roughly two-year intervals with relatively few "gaps" which might indicate a baby who did not survive. All things considered, it appears that the rate of infant and child mortality in Plymouth was no more than 25 per cent – less than half the rate in many parts of the world today.

Table: Life expectancy in Plymouth 6

Age 21 30 40 50 60 70 80
Men 69.2 70.0 71.2 73.7 76.3 79.9 85.1
Women 62.4 64.7 69.7 73.4 76.8 80.7 86.7



Chesapeake Region
The life expectancy of a man who arrived at age twenty was only about another twenty-three years, and women may have had even shorter lives.7

The median couple immigrating to the Chesapeake in their twenties, life expectancy for the man was 48; for the woman, 39. 8

In Maryland around mid-century immigrant males who reached age twenty-two could expect to die in their early forties, and 70 per cent failed to reach their fiftieth birthday.9


Modern U. S. 1996 figures 10
for life expectancy at birth are (in years):

  All Races     White  
Total Male Female Total Male Female
76.1 73.0 79.0 76.8 73.8 79.6

Much of the improvement has happened in the 20th century.

Life expectancy figures for "All Races" for 1900 are:

Total Male Female
47.3 46.3 48.3
     


Infant Mortality per 1,000 live births for 1995 are:

  All Races     White  
Total Male Female Total Male Female
7.6 8.3 6.8 6.3 7.0 5.6

 

Bradford on Longevity
It is an interesting sidenote that by 1644, the year of William Brewster’s death, William Bradford was aware that the Plymouth colonists were living longer than expected.

"I cannot but here take occasion not only to mention but greatly to admire the marvelous providence of God! That notwithstanding the many changes and hardships that these people went through, and the many enemies they had and difficulties they met withal, that so many of them should live to a very old age! It was not only this reverend man’s condition [William Brewster] (for one swallow makes no summer as they say) but many more of them did the like, some dying about or before this time and many still living, who attained to sixty years of age, and to sixty-five, divers to seventy and above, and some near eighty as he did. It must needs be more than ordinary and above natural reason, that so it should be. For it is found in experience that change of air, famine or unwholesome food, and much drinking of water, sorrows and troubles, etc., all of them are enemies to health, causes of many diseases, consumers of natural vigour and the bodies of men, and shorteners of life."11

NOTES:

1. E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, The Population History of England 1541-1871: A Reconstruction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), p.234.

2. Cressy, Ibid, p.117.

3. Roger Finlay, Population and Metropolis: the Demography of London, 1580-1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p.108.

4. Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost Further Explored, 3rd ed (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984), p.109.

5. Philip J. Greven, Jr., Four Generations: Population, Land and Family in Colonial Andover, Massachusetts (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970), pp.25-27.

6. John Demos, "Notes on Life in Plymouth Colony," The William & Mary Quarterly 3rd Series, 22, no.2 (April, 1965): 270-1.

7. Lois Green Carr, Russell A. Menard, and Lorena S. Walsh, Robert Coles World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), p.143.

8. Thad W. Tate and David L. Ammerman, eds., The Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century (New York: W.W. Norton, 1979), p.158.

9. Ibid, p.209.

10. The following figures are taken from The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1998 (Mahwah, NJ: World Almanac Books, 1998), pp.973, 962, 964.

11. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), pp.328-9.

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