17th-Century Swedes Were Only Inches Tall

Surprising facts from Stockholm’s Vasa Museum

Jim Nolan
3 min readOct 29, 2023

While I considered myself at least somewhat educated about European history, my ignorance was revealed during a visit to the Vasa Museum. Frankly, I had no idea how tiny people were as recently as the 17th century. Unless I’m mistaken, they measured half-a-foot high, tops.

Vasa was meant to be the pride of the Swedish fleet, designed with no expense spared, from ornately decorated carvings to 64 massive cannons. Fatally top heavy, it sank minutes into its maiden voyage, in front of thousands of Stockholmers who watched from the shore. Down it went, 105 feet to the bottom of the harbor, where it lay undisturbed for centuries, until it was raised in 1961.

It has been painstakingly restored ever since, and is housed in a beautiful museum on Djurgården. Let’s take a look at it.

Vasa, restored to pristine condition. Note size compared to modern-day people beside it.

It looks as good as new, doesn’t it? Bravo, Swedish marine archeologists. The cannons, while appearing like something hobbyists use to fire caps today, must have been fearsome-looking indeed. Remember, the vessels they were meant to engage would have been just as small back then.

Side view of the restored ship. Preserved by anaerobic conditions under the sea, it almost looks like it could have been made today. Note the seamen on the deck. They are, presumably, actual size.

I know what you are thinking. What’s that ugly thing behind Vasa? I didn’t pay close attention—we were in a hurry to get to the ABBA Museum down the street—but I’m guessing it is the Swedes attempt to show us what the size of the ship would be like today, given how much taller we’ve become, thanks to inventions like protein shakes and Lunchables.

Large-scale model of Vasa — this is how big Vasa would look today, given modern human size. If you ask me, the workmanship is a little sloppy.
It almost looks like the large-scale model spent 300 years under the sea!
A view of the large-scale model’s rear, or “keel.”

It seems like they’ve run out of money to finish the big model, despite charging ticket prices of $15 and up.

After visiting, I began to question whether I had gotten it wrong. Was it possible the smaller ship was the model? And that the larger one was the actual Vasa? Reassuringly, in Denmark and Germany I found further proof that people of long ago were much smaller in stature.

Hamlet’s Castle in Helsingør, Denmark. Smart to make it out of metal, given all the fighting back then.
Medieval Lübeck, Germany. Talk about narrow streets!
An actual town gate of Lübeck, preserved for all to see. Today, we’d most certainly hit our heads on that passageway—if we could fit into it at all.

I still recommend you pop in to see Vasa (on your way to celebrate Sweden’s more successful export ABBA) despite the museum’s misguided attempt to show us how big the ill-fated warship would be in today’s modern world.

It was nice to discover just how small folks were, in the not-so-distant past. Like they say, travel is broadening.



Jim Nolan

Jim’s humor writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Funny Times, HumorOutcasts.com, McSweeneys Internet Tendency, and on WBFO public radio.