The Curse of the “Medium Build” Description

Images of our ancestors bring so much life to a person previously only known through census records and cemeteries. But for many we simply don’t have the coveted photograph. Our imagination does the heavy lifting. I don’t know about you, but I tend to conjure up all farmers about the same! Sad really. You’d think that I would be pleased by the descriptions offered in some documents, most specifically the World War I Draft Registration Cards (DRC).

Example below: One of the better quality copies of the DRC. They are of such poor quality usually that I can’t even read them.  This is an example from Lynn, Massachusetts, and it is about as useful as most I’ve come across. Since it’s barely legible, I’ll translate. Line one asks for height and build – sometimes these are simply boxes to check. The options for height are Tall, Medium, or Short; build can be Slender, Medium, or Stout. Line two asks for eye color and hair color.

WWI Draft Registration Card, example of physical description
WWI Draft Registration Card, example of physical description

I confess, I find these descriptions almost more frustrating than not having a photo. They are SO vague as to be almost useless. Typically I look to see if any physical defect is listed and barely bother to read the four other descriptors.

The main problem is that the data was entered in by a staff person, not the actual registrant. Did the staffer simply eyeball the registrant and fill in what they thought or were the registrants actually giving information of how they viewed themselves? Either way, it’s highly subject. What is “medium build” anyway? About 3/4th of my male ancestors that’s what! If I see hair color other than brown or grey (no Nordic ancestors for me) it would be a miracle. So, I don’t bother much with it.

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And it’s usually right when I decide something’s worthless that I realize it might actually hold potential. We’ve gotta use what we have, because, let’s face it, there aren’t any new photos of 1880 being taken. I decided to do an experiment. What information could I glean from these DRC descriptions if 1) I have no idea what the ancestor looked like, and 2) I have photos of him. Could they be useful at all?

For me, this limits the WWI DRC comparisons to my great-grandfathers (GGFs because I can be lazy). But to expand my sample I’m using my husband’s and other family member’s my age GGFs as well.

Here are two examples of GGFs for whom no photos exist:

A) Joseph Stephen Tam

Short, Medium build, Brown eyes, Black hair, no physical defects noted.

Brown eyes, Black hair describes MANY folks on this side of the family so not surprising. Medium build darn you! Short, okay, that’s interesting to me – more so if they had entered an actual height. Maybe he was 5’9”, an average height for today’s man, but came from a family of taller men and so considered himself short. Maybe he was 5’1”, who knows.

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Joseph Stephen Tam WWI DRC
Joseph Stephen Tam WWI DRC

B) Frank Hamilton Lang

Medium height, Stout build, Dark brown hair and eyes, no physical defects.

Ohh, stout! While I’m not totally sure what the army thought stout was I think of someone maybe more muscular, stocky even. What cracks me up about this is that I said to my husband just the other day that I thought our 3 year old was “stocky”. He took offense to it, but apparently it comes from his own family connection – this was his great-grandfather. Nice that Frank Lang qualified the brown eyes and hair with “dark” too.

Frank Hamilton Lang WWI DRC
Frank Hamilton Lang WWI DRC


These GGFs have photos (sometimes many) to compare their descriptions to:

C) Thomas Aloyious Langen

Tall, Slender build, Gray eyes, Brown hair

I have a lot of photos of Thomas but most of them are head shots, few are of the full figure of the man. So knowing that he considered himself tall and slender does add to how I picture him. It’s also interesting because his great-grandson and great-great-granddaughter are also tall and slender by any standards. Neat to see the gene pool dripping down!

Thomas Aloyious Langen WWI DRC
Thomas Aloyious Langen WWI DRC

D) Floyd Allan Bash Sr.

Medium height (5’7 ½”), Medium build, Blue eyes and Black hair

Finally! Someone writes in an actual height! Although personally I might consider 5’ 7 ½” on the short side. What really catches my eye is the eye color – blue. As I said, we are brown eyed folk. With the exception of my brother; I was always jealous of his blue eyes. Now that we know where he gets it I can quit blaming the milkman. 😉 Every photo I have of my great-grandfather Bash is black and white – here he is on his wedding day. I would have had no idea his eyes were blue if not for this description.

Floyd Allan Bash Sr. WWI DRC
Floyd Allan Bash Sr. WWI DRC

I’ve saved my favorite for last:

E) Ludwig Harburger

This is from my husband’s great-grandfather’s passport application (he was from Germany as if you couldn’t tell by the name.) I’m amazed at the parts of the face they expected people to describe. Was he given a list to choose from or did he just come up with these adjectives on his own? Square chin, broad forehead, Roman nose (my personal favorite). He sounds handsome until you get to “ordinary face.” I don’t have any photos of Ludwig, but I do have many of his son Philip. This could have described Philip perfectly as well, who was indeed handsome.

Ludwig Harburger Passport application
Ludwig Harburger Passport application

Of course, we don’t have the luxury of descriptions for many of the women in our past. Maybe a passport application. Are there other sources you use to create a mental image of a female ancestor? I hold out hope that someone somewhere has photos of these relatives that I might come across someday to really fill in the details. That is what drives me to write Unclaimed Ancestors.

In short, I’ve learned my lesson. I won’t pass over these seemingly vague descriptions anymore. Just take them with a grain of salt!

9 thoughts on “The Curse of the “Medium Build” Description”

  1. Thanks for the entertaining article that reflects my own frustration with these vague, if not contrary, descriptions. I’m trying to narrow down which cousin (or neighbor) is standing next to my great-grand uncle in a photo from about 1911. There appears to be a 2” difference in height between the two. Since the uncle died in 1936 I have to go with his WWI registration card. Of course, it states “medium” for height. My research indicates that the average height for American men is 5’ 9 1/2”. (It’s a little shorter for Hispanic males but I’m dealing with 1917 South Dakota) But what’s the cutoff point for “short” and “tall”? To help narrow down potential candidates in my search I finally decided to go with a 4” span for “medium”: 5’ 7” – 5’ 11”. I’m not totally satisfied but I’ve got to move on. For the cousins that were the about the same age as the uncle, and we’re still alive for the WWII registration, I was able to use more exact heights. My search goes on. Thanks again.

  2. Karen, that is crazy. My 3 year old has the exact shape of her dad’s head too. I used to think she had a bump on the side of her head all the time until I took a closer look at her dad!

  3. Hi Jodie, Loved the article. I was recently looking at a newpaper clipping about my 3rd great grandfather and his family, which is posted on public trees of The picture, taken in the late 1800’s had his 2nd wife and all of his children from both marriages. (1st wife died. I am descended from her.) Anyway, I was struck by the shape of his head. My father’s head – exactly the same. I immediately emailed my sister with the link to the photo. She emailed back and agreed. So my father inheirted his head shape from his 2nd great grandfather. Unreal. I am still blown away by the similarity.

  4. $65 for a death cert! That is thievery! What a challenging (to put it mildly) search you have in front of you. But when one brick falls, watch out for rubble!

  5. Wow Alison, good to know. Well my mother-in-law informed me that Frank Lang was actually quite slender rather than “stout”. Makes you wonder how seriously to take any of it really. Thus both the challenge and the fun of it.

  6. Don’t take the physical disability blank too seriously. My father had a bone infection as a child. one leg was considerably shorter than the other and that hip didn’t bend. He wore a built up shoe. He could not have walked across the room without it being noticeable but the examiner wrote “no”. He served as a “four minute” man giving four minute talks at public gatherings.

  7. I cracked up over ‘ordinary face’ – brilliantiy unhelpful!
    I thought I’d never see a photo of my gt-gt-grandad, until one was unearthed by a third cousin in Minnesota last year, with his name on the back. And then I discovered my own father was a dead ringer for him. That was a great moment.

  8. Hi Jodi, Good post but I have a real hair puller fer ya !! I was born on 2/9/1948. my birth cert. read Mother Cecile Costello. Ayear &1/2 later my sister came along. Her birth cert was siged by a Delpreori !!! What??? Good luck trying to figure this one out, I’ve been banging my head for 5 years and have not moved 1inch The only ans I can come up with is we were born out of wedlock . What a family they left nothing behind to trace them. I just received my Fathers Death Cert. From the FIne State of NewJresey.forPaltrey sum of 65.00 dollars Don’t ya just love legal Thivery !! that’s all SEE ya

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