Famine in Switzerland during 1816 and 1817

The aftermath of the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora caused widespread famine during 1816 and 1817. Studies often look at rising mortality rates and declining birth rates to measure famine. While it is an indirect indicator, it does convey a sense of the intensity of the hardship[1]. Switzerland has been the subject of several studies on the subject.
A decreasing number of baptisms in Switzerland showed the severity of the crisis. During famines, a scissor-like demographic change could be observed in the rising mortality rate and decreasing number of baptisms. Over a long-term perspective, annual birth rates do not fluctuate as strongly as annual mortality rates, and researchers therefore regard birth rates as the more reliable indicator. A cohort census from the year of 1860 enabled the reconstruction of the development of the cohort at a district level in the entire nation.

Vulnerability in the famine years proved to be dynamic rather than static: in the first year of the crisis, the climate-sensitive wine-growing regions by the large lakes of the Swiss Plateau, the cities, and the canton of Bern were particularly vulnerable. In the second year, the crisis moved to eastern Switzerland and the valleys of the Jura, where the jewelry and watchmaking industry had expanded. Statistically seen, while only sufficient food was lacking in western Switzerland, a true famine prevailed in eastern Switzerland.

Single communities lost around one ninth of their population, not even counting emigration. It was very likely “the worst demographic crisis since the pest of 1629”[2].
The famine also affected the development of the average body height. The body is very sensitive to crises during its growth phase, since the uptake of nutrients was still very dependent on the economic conditions during the beginning of the 19th century. The average body height of persons born between 1800 and 1809 decreased significantly in parts of Switzerland. They suffered from both the previous Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) as well as the famine (1816-1817).

Surprisingly, the average body height of the middle class decreased more than that of the lower class. It is possible that they were less likely to request help in overcoming the crisis than members of the lower classes, due to a fear of social stigmas. A similar scenario occurred in Swiss cities a good hundred years later during the First World War[3].

The crisis of 1817 had considerable demographic effects. On the one hand, the mortality rate increased, on the other hand the birth rate decreased. Some communities lost up to one ninth of their population.

[1] Krämer: Menschen grasten nun mit dem Vieh: Die letzte grosse Hungerkrise der Schweiz 1816/17 – 2015
[2] Schürmann: Bevölkerung, Wirtschaft, und Gesellschaft in Appenzell Innerrhoden im 18. und frühen 19. Jahrhundert. Appenzell – 1974
[3] Staub: Der vermessene menschliche Körper als Spiegel der Ernährungs- und Gesundheitsverhältnisse am Ende des Ersten Weltkrieges - 2016

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