Weights and Measures: An Investment Rich in History

By Lucia Greene Connolly for Eve Stone Antiques, Ltd.

Valued by contemporary collectors for their historical significance and esthetic appeal, antique weights and measures reflect our desire to establish order and advance a civilized society. Considering the fact that the very earliest means for measurement were based on relatively unsophisticated units–such as the seeds of the licorice plant and the carob–it’s interesting to note that these same measures form the basis for standards that continue to be used throughout the world today. By understanding how our system of weights and measures evolved, the modern collector can be better prepared to recognize authenticity and value when searching for these antique treasures.

In the millennia before Christ, seeds provided the weight standards guiding centers of trade in India and the Mediterranean. During the Middle Ages, grains of wheat were commonly used to represent a standard for weight, and wheat became the grain weight that all present systems are built upon. In the 1500s, when most weight manufacturers were located in and around London, weights were tested and stamped by London officials, and most were made of iron with small amounts of lead added for final adjustment purposes. Very few of these lead weights, which were eventually banned in 1835, survived.

Historically there were six distinct pounds, each holding a different number of wheat grains, which obviously led to a certain amount of confusion and deception. Hoping to correct this, Henry VII (1457-1509) attempted to create a uniform system of weights. After the Act of 1495 was passed establishing a single weight and measure for purposes of buying and selling, the king made standards from brass and had them distributed to the people. Copies were to be verified and sealed by the mayors, and all defective measures were to be broken or burnt. The bronze yard, originally cast in 1497, was standardized by Henry VII and later restandardized by Elizabeth I. Henry VII also created a standard for the corn bushel and the gallon, and both originals are now housed in the Science Museum of London, along with other weights and measures that set standards in that period.

During her reign (1558-1603), Elizabeth I decided the only weight suitable for weighing ordinary items would be the avoirdupois pound comprised of 7,000 grains of rice equaling 16 ounces, determining that the troy pound, at a weight of twelve ounces, should be employed for weighing precious metals and stones. The avoirdupois system, embraced by England and later the United States for weighing almost all commodities except for precious metals, precious stones, and drugs, used weights in a wide variety of shapes and sizes up until the end of the 19th century. Towards the end of the century conformity was legislated, and laws in 1878 put a stop to traders simply using any weights that suited them.

Up until 1826, bronze and brass weights used within the parameters of London were stamped with four distinct marks: the city dagger and crown, the royal cipher, the Founder’s ewer, and an “A” for avoirdupois. In 1879, a uniform number of stamps appeared, but before that, a great variety of local stamps were used, including the initials of the manufacturing city. Over marking of a verification stamp with a six pointed star meant the weight was unfit for further use in trade. These weights were supposed to be destroyed, but fortunately for antique buffs, disobedience saved some. The stamp “solid” on a brass weight indicates it is made entirely of brass rather than a shell of brass filled with lead, leaving it susceptible to tampering. Lead-filled weights were sometimes marked “cased,” and are easily detected as they emit a dull note rather than a metallic ring when taped with a small hammer. Inspectors weights, normally a boxed set of weights for use in the field, were called working standards, with their office counterparts known as local standards.

Weights were sometimes made of flat shields of lead or bronze, with a hole at the top through which to run a carrying thong. Genuine wool weights contain a shallow, circular depression on the back, drilled out for final adjustment. There are four marks common to these weights: the ewer, a Roman “A” for avoirdupois, a dagger, and a royal cipher. Identifying marks on these weight occasionally included the maker’s mark, or a town or city emblem. Sometimes monarchs stamped their weights with the royal coat of arms.

The development of measures closely parallels that of weights, but they are most interesting because of their variety. Prior to the 17th century most ordinary measures were made of wood because pewter was too expensive. Earlier measures, made of leather, did not often survive. Wooden measures often split, were therefore banned from use for liquids in the 18th century, and were thereafter used solely to measure dry goods such as peas, corn, and garden seed. Pewter, a soft metal made largely from tin, contained a good deal of lead in the 16th century, making it very heavy. As it was refined over succeeding centuries it became lighter; after 1907 was not allowed to contain more than 10 percent lead. Similar to silver, all pewter is required to bear a name or a symbol of identification; some measures bear false hallmarks, marks put on by the manufacturer to give the impression the piece is made of silver. Genuine measures will have a denomination, i.e. peck or gallon, and a royal cipher or town mark usually bearing a date.

Collectors are advised to carefully examine all weights and measures before purchasing, as recasts and reproductions are commonly produced in large numbers. Rough or sharp edges, normally smoothed down over many years of use, indicate a reproduction. Items should be smooth throughout, with no pitting or small holes to be found. In modern times, much of the faking in measures appears in items made of pewter or copper, which can be treated with acid, dented, or made to mimic other signs of aging.

One of the best things a collector can do is to handle as many genuine old pieces and view as many authenticated pieces in museums as possible in order to become familiar with their quality. For those interested in researching verification marks for weights and measures, the Internet provides a host of sites that are both interesting and informative. Assessment by weighing or measuring was just as important to early societies as it is today, making the collection of these antiques a rich investment for anyone who values history. While any collector should be forearmed with as much knowledge and experience as possible, remember Eve’s advice: “Trust an experienced antiques dealer to guide you through the collecting process, and use their expertise to help you make the best possible choice.”