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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Physique Of American Women

Title:     The Physique Of American Women
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

I was talking the other day with a New York physician, long retired from practice, who after an absence of a dozen years in Europe has returned within a year to this country. He volunteered the remark, that nothing had so impressed him since his return as the improved health of Americans. He said that his wife had been equally struck with it; and that they had noticed it especially among the inhabitants of cities, among the more cultivated classes, and in particular among women.

It so happened, that within twenty-four hours almost precisely the same remark was made to me by another gentleman of unusually cosmopolitan experience, and past middle age. He further fortified himself by a similar assertion made him by Charles Dickens, in comparing his second visit to this country with his first. In answer to an inquiry as to what points of difference had most impressed him, Dickens said, "Your people, especially the women, look better fed than formerly."

It is possible that in all these cases the witnesses may have been led to exaggerate the original evil, while absent from the country, and so may have felt some undue reaction on their arrival. One of my informants went so far as to express confidence that among his circle of friends in Boston and in London a dinner party of half a dozen Americans would outweigh an English party of the same number. Granting this to be too bold a statement, and granting the unscientific nature of all these assertions, they still indicate a probability of their own truth until refuted by facts on the other side. They are further corroborated by the surprise expressed by Huxley and some other recent Englishmen at finding us a race more substantial than they had supposed.

The truth seems to be, that Nature is endeavoring to take a new departure in the American, and to produce a race more finely organized, more sensitive, more pliable, and of more nervous energy, than the races of Northern Europe; that this change of type involves some risk to health in the process, but promises greater results whenever the new type shall be established. I am confident that there has been within the last half-century a great improvement in the physical habits of the more cultivated classes, at least, in this country,--better food, better air, better habits as to bathing and exercise. The great increase of athletic games; the greatly increased proportion of seaside and mountain life in summer; the thicker shoes and boots of women and little girls, permitting them to go out more freely in all weathers,--these are among the permanent gains. The increased habit of dining late, and of taking only a lunch at noon, is of itself an enormous gain to the professional and mercantile classes, because it secures time for eating and for digestion. Even the furnaces in houses, which seemed at first so destructive to the very breath of life, turn out to have given a new lease to it; and open fires are being rapidly reintroduced as a provision for enjoyment and health, when the main body of the house has been tempered by the furnace. There has been, furthermore, a decided improvement in the bread of the community, and a very general introduction of other farinaceous food. All this has happened within my own memory, and gives _a priori_ probability to the alleged improvement in physical condition within twenty years.

And, if these reasonings are still insufficient on the one side, it must be remembered that the facts of the census are almost equally inadequate when quoted on the other. If, for instance, all the young people of a New Hampshire village take a fancy to remove to Wisconsin, it does not show that the race is dying out because their children swell the birth-rate of Wisconsin instead of New Hampshire. If in a given city the births among the foreign-born population are twice as many in proportion as among the American, we have not the whole story until we learn whether the deaths are not twice as many also. If so, the inference is that the same recklessness brought the children into the world and sent them out of it; and no physiological inference whatever can be drawn. It was clearly established by the medical commission of the Boston Board of Health, a few years ago, that "the general mortality of the foreign element is much greater than that of the native element of our population." "This is found to be the case," they add, "throughout the United States as well as in Boston."

So far as I can judge, all our physiological tendencies are favorable rather than otherwise: and the transplantation of the English race seems now likely to end in no deterioration, but in a type more finely organized, and more comprehensive and cosmopolitan; and this without loss of health, of longevity, or of physical size and weight. And, if this is to hold true, it must be true not only of men, but of women.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: The Physique Of American Women