(Disclaimer: Measurements are in centimetres, not because the British, French and Swiss have used different systems through time, but because centimetres are smaller than inches.)
Here’s a message I received in my email: “Napoleon Bonaparte might have grown taller had he eaten more… eggs!” That’s right eggs.
The NHS, referencing the BBC, reports that “an egg a day may prevent stunted growth in infants.”
Eggs are a cheap source of important nutrients. But eggs were expensive 100 years ago. Even in the United States, 6 million women were living on an average of six dollars a week, “which means that some are getting less than that.” 1 Many of these women had to support families on these wages, at a time when egg prices were soaring to 47 cents a dozen. 2 With the war and its aftermath, wages were lower and food was even more expensive elsewhere.
According to the Guardian, 101 years ago the average Frenchman was 9.6cm shorter than the average Frenchman today. So, while the average Frenchman in 1916 years ago was 155.3cm, by 2016 he was 164.9cm. (And he probably hasn’t grown that much in the past year.) That’s still shorter than the average Englishman or average Dutchman, and by some accounts, shorter than Napoleon Bonaparte.
That’s not due to immigration of tall people or emigration of short ones, this trend has occurred globally. Improvements in “nutrition, healthcare and hygiene” have helped us grow taller.
But, we don’t always get taller as time goes on. In fact, some say that men were taller in 1835 than in 1917! A study done by Edouard Mallet found that the average 21 year old male in Geneva, was 161.7cm tall from 1827 to 1835! According to the Guardian article, the average Swiss man in 1916 was only 157.5cm. That’s a loss of 4.2 cm! (about 1 2/3 inches.)
According to Ohio State University, the average European in the early middle ages was taller than many of his American descendants. For centuries we were getting shorter.
So, did quality of life decrease as people moved into cities? Perhaps, as people moved away from the farms they ate fewer eggs.
Bonaparte’s army was rationed “Soup, boiled beef, a roasted joint and some vegetables; no dessert.” That’s a contrast to Marie Antoinette’s fabled rebuff of “let them eat cake.” While meat and vegetables have adequate vitamins, the army couldn’t always find enough when marching. And, they grew up in a time of famine (food shortages helped spur on the revolution), so his soldiers probably didn’t grow up with an adequate diet.
But, what about Napoleon, did he eat his eggs? Well, Bonaparte did grow up in a relatively well-to-do household. Fans of “le petit caporal” say that he was measured in French feet and inches, which were different from English ones. “Petit” is a French term of endearment, and doesn’t always refer to height. Bonaparte appeared short in relation to his bodyguards, who had to be taller to shield him, but his bodyguards were taller than average.
Whether or not Bonaparte ate eggs as a youngster is a mystery, but as emperor his favourite food appeared to be roast chicken. So, he probably grew up knowing the taste of chicken. And, where there are chickens, there are eggs.
1. Alice Henry of the National Women’s Trade Union League, in The day book, Chicago, August 30, 1912. ↩
2. The day book, Chicago, November 22, 1913↩
Marie Antoinette says: “Is this article making you feel a bit peckish? Well then, ”