The melting of mountain glaciers and ice caps is expected to contribute significantly to sea-level rise in the twenty-first century1–3, although the magnitude of this contribution is not fully constrained. Glaciers in the Patagonian Icefields of South America are thought to have contributed about 10% of the total sea-level rise attributable to mountain glaciers in the past 50 years . However, it is unclear whether recent rates of glacier recession in Patagonia are unusual relative to the past few centuries. Here we reconstruct the recession of these glaciers using remote sensing and field determinations of trimline and terminal moraine location. We estimate that the North Patagonian Icefield has lost 103 ± 20.7 km3 of ice since its late Holocene peak extent in AD 1870 and that the South Patagonian Icefield has lost 503 ± 101.1 km3 since its peak in AD 1650. This equates to a sea-level contribution of 0.0018 ± 0.0004 mm yr−1 since 1870 from the north and 0.0034 ± 0.0007 mm yr−1 since 1650 from the south. The centennial rates of sea-level contribution we derive are one order of magnitude lower than estimates of melting over the past 50 years3, even when we account for possible thinning above the trimline. We conclude that the melt rate and sea-level contribution of the Patagonian Icefields increased markedly in the twentieth century.