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Transportation and Health in the Antebellum United States, 1820–1847

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 June 2020

Ariell Zimran*
Ariell Zimran is Assistant Professor of Economics, Vanderbilt University, PMB 351819, 2301 Vanderbilt Place, Nashville, TN37235-1819 and Faculty Research Fellow, National Bureau of Economic Research. E-mail:


I study the impact of transportation on health in the rural United States, 1820–1847. Measuring health by average stature, I find that greater transportation linkage, as measured by market access, in a cohort’s county-year of birth had an adverse impact on its health. A one-standard-deviation increase in market access reduced average stature by 0.14 inches, and rising market access over the study period can explain 37 percent of the contemporaneous decline in average stature, known as the Antebellum Puzzle. I find evidence that transportation affected health by increasing population density, leading to a worse epidemiological environment.

© The Economic History Association 2020

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I am indebted to Joel Mokyr, Joseph Ferrie, and Matthew Notowidigdo for encouragement and guidance. I am also grateful to Dan Bogart (the editor), anonymous referees, Jeremy Atack, Hoyt Bleakley, Natalia Cantet, William Collins, Price Fishback, Walker Hanlon, Bernard Harris, Richard Hornbeck, Robert Margo, Yannay Spitzer, and John Wallis; to Timothy Cuff for sharing his data on Pennsylvania recruits to the Union Army; to Noelle Yetter for assistance at the National Archives; to Ashish Aggarwal and Danielle Williamson for excellent research assistance; to seminar participants at Vanderbilt University, Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Ben Gurion University of the Negev; and to participants in the 2016 Social Science History Association Conference, the 2017 NBER DAE Summer Institute, the 2018 H2D2 Research Day at the University of Michigan, the 2018 Midwest International Economic Development Conference, the 2018 Economic History Association Meetings, and the 2019 NBER DAE Spring Meeting. This project was supported by an Economic History Association Dissertation Fellowship, by the Northwestern University Center for Economic History, and by the Balzan Foundation. Work on this project was completed while the author was a W. Glenn Campbell and Rita Ricardo-Campbell National Fellow and the William C. Bark National Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University; funding from the Hoover Institution is gratefully acknowledged. This project, by virtue of its use of the Union Army Data, was supported by Award Number P01 AG10120 from the National Institute on Aging. The content is solely the responsibility of the author and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute on Aging or the National Institutes of Health. This is a revised version of chapter 3 of my dissertation. It previously circulated under the title “Transportation and Health in a Developing Country: The United States, 1820–1847.” The results described in this paper were previously part of a working paper titled “Explaining the Antebellum Puzzle: Market Access, Food Prices, and Stature in the United States, 1820–1847.”



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