This study attempts to address the issue of relative living standards in Portuguese medieval and early 20th century periods. Since the growth of children provides a good measure of environmental quality for the overall population, the skeletal growth profiles of medieval Leiria and early 20th century Lisbon were compared. Results show that growth in femur length of medieval children did not differ significantly from that of early 20th century children, but after puberty medieval adolescents seem to have recovered, as they have significantly longer femora as adults. This is suggestive of greater potential for catch-up growth in medieval adolescents. We suggest that this results from distinct child labor practices, which impact differentially on the growth of Leiria and Lisbon adolescents. Work for medieval children and adolescents were related to family activities, and care and attention were provided by family members. Conversely, in early 20th century Lisbon children were more often sent to factories at around 12 years of age as an extra source of family income, where they were exploited for their labor. Since medieval and early 20th century children were stunted at an early age, greater potential for catch-up growth in medieval adolescents results from exhausting work being added to modern adolescent's burdens of disease and poor diet, when they entered the labor market. Although early 20th century Lisbon did not differ in overall unfavorable living conditions from medieval Leiria, after puberty different child labor practices may have placed modern adolescents at greater risk of undernutrition and poor growth. Am J Phys Anthropol 2009. © 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.