Weights, measures, standards

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United States postage scale. Collections of the MSU Museum.

Walking through the MSU Museum’s general store exhibition, I am struck by the mute evidence of historic standards and standardization on almost every shelf and counter and in the display cases. From the envelope sizes in the post office boxes, the bolts of fabric housed on the nearby shelves, and the hats above, to the canned goods, medicine and liniment bottles, and casks and barrels, one may easily see a history of measurement—or, more precisely, measurements!

Back in graduate school, a professor asked (in passing) about the weight of a hogshead, and only a student in marine archaeology knew the answer. Of course she would have, because the term appears consistently on ship’s manifests. (For your information, a hogshead is a unit of volume for liquids. But it varied with its contents: 48 gallons of ale equaled a hogshead, but if it contained cider it measured 60 gallons. A hogshead of molasses equaled 100 gallons. In American usage, one hogshead equally two barrels or 63 gallons. A hogshead did not contain hogs’ heads. Luckily.)

Perhaps there is within the general store exhibition a lesson in standards and measurements that just may appeal to some school groups. (I know adults who would enjoy learning that a bolt of cotton fabric equaled 40 yards and of wool 100 yards. They would want to know why, and I don’t have that answer—yet.)

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Hand carved measure. Collections of the MSU Museum.

So we will add to our rethinking of the general store a consideration of how and why manufacturers used the measurements and weights they did, and how storekeepers and patrons learned to calculate the costs of what they needed. Given other artifacts in the store—teacups, for example—we may be able to think about how to use the historic shift from handed-down receipts to mass-produced recipes changed how Americans cooked.

Here’s a handy reference on this topic: “How Many? A Dictionary of Units of Measurements” at the University of North Carolina.

Further Reading:
Kisch, Bruno. Scales and Weights: A Historical Outline. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965.

Whitelaw, Ian. A Measure of All Things: The Story of Man and Measurement. Hove, England: Quid Publishing, 2007.

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