How tall was grandma?
August 20, 2011 1:23 PM   Subscribe

I would like to know how tall my dad's uncles and mom were, and ideally go up the family tree to chart the outliers to identify the tall and short adults. Where might I find height data for ancestors who lived in the US?

One of Dad's siblings was a US Citizen serving in the Canadian military in Europe in WWII.

My great-grandfather may have been in the Union Cavalry in the US Civil War. I assume I can get their heights from the induction records for their military service. Tips for where to look for these appreciated.

What about the women and non-military men though? Did they ask for heights on the US Censuses for adults? Did employers and colleges collect this info, and might it still be available? What about death certificates?

Grandmom was a public school principal from 1940 - 1950.

Grandmom and granddad went to Cornell University around 1900 - 1910.

The people in question were all: a) US citizens, b) born in 1930 or earlier, c) died in the US. The grandparents died in 1959 or earlier.
posted by zippy to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Census records did not, and do not, ask for heights. And I have never seen a US death record that recorded the deceased's height, even on the old record forms that gave cause of death information.

Immigration records, especially those people who went through Ellis Island, did record people's heights. Some naturalization records gave heights too, depending on the locale and the time period. But you say your folks were born in the US, and some were in the US since before the Civil War, so that avenue won't help.

The World War I draft cards, which are online at and (which just changed its name, stupidly, to recorded men's heights, but only as a checkbox for short/medium/tall, not the actual measurements. I do not know if they standardized what those three adjectives meant, or if it was left up to the discretion of the local draft board. Note that there are two sets of WWI draft cards, one for men of military age, and one called "the old man's draft" for men that were born in the late 1800's, mostly in their 40's at the time of the war, to be used as a potential back-up if more soldiers were needed later.

World War II draft (induction) information is available on, but it does not include height information. However, you may be able to request copies of your ancestors' military records, and that may have height information in them on the intake forms. For a Civil War vet, that could also include a Civil War Pension File. You can get the forms to request this stuff from NARA at, and they now offer some kinds of record copies through an online check-out system, which works great. But note that a lot of US military documentation was unfortunately destroyed in a fire at the St. Louis archives location in the early 1970's.

Some, but not all, of the early 20th Century requests to obtain US passports have been digitized and put online, and they might have height information in them. Some of those files have photos of the applicants, too. But very few Americans had passports before the 1940's.

Finally, if you had any relatives committed to state mental hospitals, many of those records are available on microfilm at state historical archives, but not online. I would think that medical records of any kind would include height information, but state mental institutions are the only ones I know that did not routinely destroy their data after a certain number of years had passed.
posted by Asparagirl at 1:41 PM on August 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh, and while I lurrrrrve the SS-5 (the original application for Social Security) for its wealth of genealogical data, including the person's mother's maiden name, it too does not record the person's height. *sad trombone noise*
posted by Asparagirl at 1:46 PM on August 20, 2011

Response by poster: What about marriage records?
posted by zippy at 1:49 PM on August 20, 2011

Best answer: this is a difficult assignment. when I was doing genealogy research the only docs I saw with height (or any phys char) were draft/army doc. that would be men only of course...
posted by supermedusa at 1:57 PM on August 20, 2011

or, like, what asparagirl sed
posted by supermedusa at 1:58 PM on August 20, 2011

Driver's licenses first started being required in the early 20th century, although I don't know at what point the listing of heights became standard. Still, it's a slim possibility that these records exist.
posted by elizardbits at 2:02 PM on August 20, 2011

Best answer: Seconding the draft cards: even if the individual wasn't what you'd normally consider "draft age". Civil War, Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII, Korean: as Asparagirl says about the 'old man's draft', lots more people than you'd think were required to fill one out.

I doubt if the early driving licenses will have much; I've seen a few from the '50s, and they barely had name & address, not even a photo or description, sorry.
posted by easily confused at 2:04 PM on August 20, 2011

Oh, and marriage records aren't gonna tell you much more that the couple's names and maybe the celebrant's name & church.
posted by easily confused at 2:07 PM on August 20, 2011

Best answer: Do you have any family photos of them standing up next to objects or people whose height was known? Like a doorway, or the outside of a building, or a car, or a specific piece of furniture, or a person whose height you already know? Wouldn't be perfect, but it might be better than nothing.
posted by Asparagirl at 2:18 PM on August 20, 2011

Best answer: Yeah this is going to be difficult. Also keep in mind that for old military records, like Asparagirl describes, the terms Short/Medium/Tall, probably had different meanings than what we think of today. I'd guess that in WWI for instance, a man who was 5'8 would have had the Tall box checked. Now that would be Medium, maybe even short for a man. Height is not merely a function of genetics but also of nutrition. Many people are taller today because they are better nourished and have genes predisposing them to be tall.

You might be able to get pretty far though if you have an older relative with a sharp memory. Start by asking them how tall their oldest relatives were, and go from there.
posted by katyggls at 2:45 PM on August 20, 2011

Best answer: For anyone reading this thread who did have ancestors come to the US through Ellis Island, which did tend to record heights in their later passenger manifests, this flexible search engine for the Ellis Island passenger database is much easier to use than the official one on the Ellis Island website. When in doubt, leave fields empty and/or checkboxes unchecked on that page to get the biggest range of possible matches. Also, make sure to use phonetic searches to cover all the various and creative Old Timey surname spelling variations.
posted by Asparagirl at 3:11 PM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

A quirky option- if you can find records for ordering clothing that would require a height- not sure if this would ever be made public in the future, but something that I had to submit my height for ordering my graduation gown- maybe your college completing ancestors might have this data floating around somewhere? (Of course this could be an artefact of the internet age, as they might have just handed out the appropriate gown at the time.)
posted by titanium_geek at 9:23 PM on August 21, 2011

Response by poster: A quirky option- if you can find records for ordering clothing that would require a height- not sure if this would ever be made public in the future, but something that I had to submit my height for ordering my graduation gown

Didn't some colleges back in the 1950s and earlier require "posture photos" of incoming female students? I seem to remember some post about women having to be measured and photographed when starting school.
posted by zippy at 12:29 PM on August 22, 2011

Yes, and male students too! And often they were butt nekkid! But I think most of the photos were destroyed after being rediscovered in the past decade or two.
posted by Asparagirl at 3:26 PM on August 22, 2011

Best answer: Just popping back in here to say that I found a WWI Draft card today from Connecticut that listed the man's exact height, even though the instructions had said to write short, medium, or tall.
posted by Asparagirl at 3:31 PM on August 22, 2011

Response by poster: A recent Metafilter post has an example of a vocational school report card that which listed the student's height and weight. Manhattan Trade School for Girls report card circa 1900.
posted by zippy at 12:25 PM on September 20, 2011

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