Blood and bone: Body mass, gender and health inequality in 19th century British families

Sep 2013 | 118

Authors: David Meredith, Deborah Oxley


In 2009, Horrell, Meredith and Oxley used trends in body mass to argue that poor London women in the later 19th century suffered declining access to household resources over their lifetimes.  The authors evaluated competing models of household behaviour, rejected the unitary model of equal distribution throughout the household, saw some support for a safety-first model, but on the whole concluded that resources were allocated in accordance with bargaining power linked to the economic worth of family members.  As (particularly married) women's labour-force participation fell, so too did their share of the food diminish, and with this they lost weight.  This unequal distribution was supported by a moral economy of the family: a set of shared values about obligations and entitlements which protected earners and prioritized the needs of children secured by maternal sacrifice.  The current paper explores further the role of power in the family.  The contention of a bargaining household is supported through a very different but contemporaneous case study: the modern industrial town of Paisley.  The paper juxtaposes a service economy (Wandsworth near London) with a modern manufacturing sector (Paisley near Glasgow) in order to contrast how economic form and opportunities in the market sector shaped relations and outcomes in the household sector.  Again, our measure is lifetime nutrition and our data are drawn from prisons.  We find that families bargained over the allocation of resources; that bargaining position was heavily influenced by economic value, mediated by maternal sacrifice; that this was an earner bias rather than a gender bias; and that new industrial work for women and children supported a more egalitarian distribution that improved everyone's health status via superior heights and heavier weights.  It is a tale of two cities, of blood and bone, of flesh and families.


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